The Empty Boat

Floating across the river in your boat, you are carefully avoiding hidden obstacles, other boats, and too shallow water when, BAM! another boat rams you. Your anger flashes; your heart pumps faster.  You jump up and yell, “You stupid blankity-blank so-and-so!” You shake your fist and stamp your foot. You call out for the other boatman to show himself so you can tell him a thing or two. But, no one emerges. There is no other boatman; the boat is empty. It has slipped its mooring and floats without control. There is no one to be angry with; no one to curse. Realizing this, your fist unclenches and drops to your side. Still muttering under your breath, though, because you believe it would have been so much better if there had been someone there to be angry with, you go on your way.

This is my reading of the Empty Boat story from the Taoist tradition. If it peaks your interest you can read it and others in the book, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New Directions books, 1997) compiled by Thomas Merton in the 20th century. Most likely written around 250 B.C., it is a powerful and timeless teaching that we can apply to our own experience.

“Well, what’s the point of the story?” You ask. John Welwood in his book, Perfect Love, Imperfect Realtionships (Trumpeter Books, 2006), has a helpful explanation that resonates for us. He says, ” The point of the story is that the parents who didn’t see [us], the kids who teased [us] as a child, the driver who aggressively tailgated [us] yesterday–are in fact all empty, rudderless boats. They were compulsively driven to act as they did by their own unexamined wounds; therefore they did not know what they were doing and had little control over it.” [page 89, Kindle edition]

You may think, “So what. What’s that got to do with me?”

These parents, siblings, friends, bosses, and strangers, among others, these empty boats ramming into us with their unkindnesses, their neglect, and their hurtful actions are driven not out of need to hurt us but out of their own unconscious pain–all the hurt, the woundings, they, themselves, have received along the way. When we react with anger, or jealousy, vindictiveness, or defensive stonewalling we do so because of our own grievances, our own pasts, our own experience with people who have hurt and neglected us.

You may say, “Well, of course. I can’t let someone hurt me. I have to stand up for myself. I have to protect myself. I have to survive.”

In answer, Wellwood responds that until we realize that these are just empty boats we remain tied to our own grievance and pain and suffering and this binding keeps us “from opening up to the more powerful currents of life and love that are always flowing through the present moment.”

So what can we do?

We can not take it personally. After all, the hurt, the unkindness was not meant for us even though it has rammed into us. Not taking it personally is compassionate: we have recognized suffering (the suffering of the person who has rammed into us), we have felt for a moment the pain of that suffering (that we too suffer, but have not let that acknowledgement cause us to suffer more), and we have acted to relieve the suffering (in the other person and in ourselves by not retaliating or reacting angrily, or jealously or whatever.)

We have given everyone space. We can relax and breathe fully. Psychologically, this relief quiets our minds. Physiologically, we can protect ourselves from the incessant turning on of the stress-response in our bodies that over times wrecks havoc with our health leading us to suffer all sorts of maladies and disease.

The next time, someone, anyone, hurts us, neglects us, lashes out at us, or acts unkindly, we can say, “Ah,  just an empty boat” as we take a few slow deep breaths letting the exhale last longer than the inhale so our parasympathetic nervous systems have time to turn on a sense of calm within us.

One thought on “The Empty Boat

  1. Mary,
    This was a great read for me today. I need to keep in mind the empty boats in my life. Thanks for this wonderful message. It came at a perfect time. We´ll talk soon, Laurel

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