Monday, June 4, 2007

The Empty Boat

In his book Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh tells this story:
A man was rowing his boat upstream on a very misty morning. Suddenly, he saw another boat coming downstream, not trying to avoid him. It was coming straight at him. He shouted, "Be careful! Be careful!" but the boat came right into him, and his boat was almost sunk. The man became very angry, and began to shout at the other person, to give him a piece of his mind. But when he looked closely, he saw that there was no one in the other boat. It turned out that the boat just got loose and went downstream. All his anger vanished, and he laughed and he laughed.

I love this story, and I have taken it to heart. It always makes me think about the resilience of little children, who will get all banged up and dirty on the playground, who knock each other down and bounce right back up again without getting angry or holding grudges. When my brother was little, he broke both his arms in one summer--one after the other--and looking back we always laugh about how that first cast didn't stop him from climbing that second tree. I think that people are, for the most part, much tougher and more resilient than they believe themselves to be. When they feel surrounded by loved ones, people who support them and care about them, they can take their lumps and come out still standing, maybe even smiling.

Anger and Control

On the other hand, there's always that strange thing that happens sometimes, when people expect to be cared for or supported, to be protected or rewarded, and they aren't. I call it "getting angry at an empty boat." When a person expects life to conform to their own goals and wishes, and life disappoints, often anger and frustration are natural reactions. The man in TNH's story expects someone to be behind the wheel, to be looking out for him--and when that imagined person fails to behave properly, the man begins to vent his anger at that imagined person. This is a metaphor for what we do when our ego-selves run into obstacles and, in our anger, we assume that some other ego-self is responsible for thwarting our plans. (I am reminded of the quote from C.S. Lewis, "I was at that time living like many atheists; in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing.")

TNH's story ends pleasantly, with the man realizing his mistake and laughing at himself for his foolishness. This reaction already takes a certain level of humility and self-awareness. In some way (maybe only on a "subconscious" level), the man recognizes a certain aspect of himself and his circumstances in the loose and unmanned boat. He comes to see the empty boat not as something "out there" under someone else's control, but a part of his own life and his own self. In a flash, he understands that no one could have prevented the boats from colliding except himself, and that he himself wasn't entirely in control. He comes to realize that his own ego-self is not really the whole story, that his life and the world in general are much bigger than the desires and aims of the ego. The reaction to such a realization is, I think quite naturally, joy.

But I often wonder what would have happened if there had been witnesses. How would the man have reacted then? Would he have laughed as openly? Or would he have been embarrassed by his unwarranted anger, revealed to others? Perhaps, suddenly gifted with a moment of self-awareness and subsequent embarrassment, he would have clung to his anger and tried to justify it... "The boat's owner should have tied it up more securely! Weren't they thinking about the damage their recklessness and negligence could cause?! And you--witnesses--you should have helped! You should have been able to prevent the accident! You should have warned me!" It would be so easy to stay angry, to cling to that anger and seek other ego-selves to blame, to continue to insist on a world that is entirely within our control.

Sometimes I think there is nothing more infuriating than when the person you're angry with remains calm and collected while your temper rages and worsens. Pulling another person into a fight can feel satisfying--it confirms our ego-selves in our understanding of how the world is supposed to work (we can agree that someone is to blame, now we're just fighting over who). On the other hand, feeling our anger grow out of control while someone else remains seemingly unaffected can make us feel impotent and helpless--not part of a larger world that extends beyond our ego, but trapped in an ego that seems weak and ineffectual against other, bigger egos with more control.

The Benefit of Doubt

People often talk about giving others "the benefit of the doubt." What we most often mean by this phrase is that when there is a question about a person's motive or intention, we should accept the possibility that the person "meant well" and had good reasons. When there is a doubt, in other words, we give someone the benefit, we favor the more positive assumptions and explanations. But I think it's also important to give people "the benefit of doubt." The ego-self is quick to dismiss doubt. The ego has no doubt about its own aims and its ability to act competently on those aims; thus, it has no doubt about the ability of others to act on aims of their own, and so it judges others by the fruits of their actions.

But giving a person "the benefit of doubt" means that we accept chance and circumstance as part of how life works. We are not so quick to assume that another person is in complete control, we are not so quick to blame others when things go wrong, and we begin to find forgiveness a little easier. When we give others the benefit of doubt, we can appreciate their efforts and intentions, even if they don't succeed; and we also begin to find it easier to forgive ourselves for our own failures and short-comings, for being quicker to anger or slower to recover. The man who laughs at his own foolish anger forgives himself for his foolishness.

Riding the Currents

Sometimes, though, it is hard work to put these ideas into practice. The more we are willing to let the ego-self take a backseat, to allow ourselves to ride the currents of chance and circumstance, and to begin working more intuitively and intentionally with these natural currents (which is what "magic" essentially is, after all), the more we may appear to others as just an empty boat or a passive witness. People may expect us to act as if we are in complete control, to respond to their anger with anger and self-righteousness of our own. They may accuse us of indifference or irresponsibility if we do not react the way they expect us to react. Sometimes we might even feel as though our efforts to keep a perspective and sense of lightness and joy (and even humor) about situations only helps to aggravate others' negativity more.

I know that, as I grow older, this seems to happen to me more and more, in politics, in debates about religion or art, and even in my mundane "real life" working as a waitress. Sometimes I feel utterly bewildered by the anger other people direct at me, or at how angry I'm expected to feel. Nothing I say seems to make a difference, each word somehow twisted to fit into and build up the other person's anger and blame. It's as if, my ego not big or bold enough to satisfy, they invent an imagined ego for me. I truly become an empty boat for them, as they fill me up with foreign motivations, projecting intentions and actions onto me that range from the woefully inept or ignorant, to downright malicious.

Meanwhile, my efforts to be a thoughtful and kind human being, living gently according to a principle of love, seem not only to go unnoticed, but to contradict reality. Sometimes I feel as though the laws of action and reaction themselves seem to be implying that I might just be a little crazy. After all, how could my perceptions and those of others be so different? How could I be so wrong, when I was only trying to do my best?

When I begin to feel like this, I know I can always rely on two solid foundations--my writing, and my friendships. Today, my best friend has his own stresses and obstacles to deal with, so I turn, thankfully, to my writing. Both of these foundations help to remind me of who I "really am," nudging me to identify not with the ego-self or the story of ego that others might tell, but with a more essential and connected part of my being. Whether I am opening up to the "muse" of poetry or prosaic ponderings, or I'm interacting with an intimate friend who has his own flaws and lovable eccentricities, either way, I am grateful for the reminder that there is a bigger world out there... A world that is larger than I am and often unpredictable or even unkind, but that is messy and beautiful and worthwhile nonetheless.


  1. Beautiful story. We all encounter that empty boat at some point, don't we?

  2. 24 JUne 2007 (even tide)

    A study of Sun Rays (Crespuscular)

    Running to find the end of the rainbow.

    Running to find that shaft glory--to be bathed in light.

    Bearing the soul to the divine.

    Seeking rest, surcease and cleansing all at once.

    Faith like a waterfall--full, abundant and never ceasing.

    25 June 2007

    Faith like a dream.

    Steadfast like a rock among the rapids.

    Quickly before the moment has passed

    Look into the water and see the gathering malestrom in the deep.

    Faith like a million droplets in a summer storm.

    Take delight in the rain.

    Move and have your being in it.

    "Be still and know that I am God."