Empty Boat and the Key to Less Suffering

photo: shutterbabe510 on Flickr Creative Commons

Suppose we are out on a lake and it’s a bit foggy – not too foggy, but a bit foggy- and we’re rowing along in our little boat having a good time.  And then, all of a sudden, coming out of the fog, there’s this other rowboat and it’s heading right at us.  And… crash!  Well, for a second we’re really angry – what is that fool doing?  I just painted my boat!  And here he comes – crash! – right into it.  An then suddenly we notice that the rowboat is empty.  What happens to our anger?  Well, the anger collapses. . . I’ll just have to paint my boat again, that’s all.  But if that rowboat that hit ours had another person it it how would we react?  You know what would happen!  Now our encounters with life, with other people, with events are like being bumped by an empty rowboat.  But we don’t experience life that way.  We experience it as though there are people in that other rowboat and we’re really getting clobbered by them.  What am I talking about when I say that all of life is an encounter, a collision with an empty rowboat?  What’s that all about?

from Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck (pg. 57 of the 1989 trade paper edition).

I like to say that this is the story that changed my life.  It is one paragraph long in a book that is 212 pages.  I never even finished the whole book.  I read, maybe 50 pages beyond what I now call “the empty boat” story.  I’m sure the second half of the book is just as wonderful as the first half; but, the empty boat story so resonated with me that I basically just stopped reading.

Rereading the empty boat story now after so many years is odd because it’s just such a small story and since then I have read many other profound passages in numerous other books, including The Dhammapada which quickly became one of my favorites.  But it is the this story, in Joko Beck’s book that flipped a switch in me and I never looked back.

This story shone a very bright light onto my life and I realized that I had absolutely been living my life as if there was a person in the other boat.  In fact, I may have been living it as if there were a few people in the other boat.  All this anger and worrying about what other folks were doing in their boat caused me a mountain of suffering.  This was especially true on the road while I was driving.  I would frequently get angry at other drivers.  In my teens and early twenties, I was known to end an argument with a door slam.  Looking back, I can see that most of this suffering was caused by my lack of compassion for others.

I don’t know why it was the empty boat story that struck a nerve in me.  Right place right time?  I don’t want to mislead you.  I didn’t change over night.  And I’m far from perfect now.  But, I started using the empty boat story to alter my reactions to things.  Get cut off on the highway, instead of yelling and stewing over it, I would literally say “empty boat, empty boat, empty boat, empty boat.”  It became my mantra.  I got my partner at the time, Kate, to start saying it.  We would say it to each other.  One of us would come home from work and tell a story about an annoying person and we would be getting all worked up and the other person would just say: empty boat.  We helped train each other to change our thinking.

After some time passed, and by time I mean a couple of years, I started to notice that it was becoming automatic and that I was developing empathy without even realizing that was what I was doing.  All of this happened about 14 years ago and I still sometimes use the empty boat mantra; but, I don’t need it as much as I used to.  I let things go more quickly now.

I sometimes wonder what life would be like today had I not discovered the empty boat.  In 2005/2006, I experienced a crazy, life altering accident and my partnership with Kate ended after 18 years together.  That is kind of a lot to process in a such a short time span and throw in a brain injury and sometimes I’m amazed I’m here: healed, forgiving, experiencing compassion for Kate and her experiences and for the man that hit me.   The empty boat sparked a practice and a lifestyle change that has served me well, helped me be resilient during and after traumatic events and just generally made it easier for me to have fun and find joy in life.

What does any of this have to do with libraries?  Well, everything of course.  I’m my best at my job and in my life, when I am kind, empathetic, patient, compassionate and generous.   And the icing is that all of this also brings a deeper happiness to me.  There have been numerous studies showing that people who are altruistic are happier, people who have more compassion for others are happier and that people find happiness in being kind and helpful.

I don’t know that the empty boat story is for everyone; but, if it doesn’t resonate with you, go find your own empty boat story.  Figure out the best way for you to reduce the stress, anger and suffering in your life.  You will be happier and your impact on those around you will be more positive.  And that is clearly:  win/win.

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6 thoughts on “Empty Boat and the Key to Less Suffering

  1. You’re great! What a wonderful story. Haven’t been on here awhile–and I’m so glad I stopped by. Lovely posts! I love the boat story–and it will definitely come in handy. A lot of boats have been colliding with me as of late–good to have a new method of handling it! :-)

  2. So, glad you enjoyed that one. It’s such a simple little story but can provide such powerful motivation to let stuff go. I’ve been thinking of doing a painting of the “empty boat” to have in my house. A gentle reminder.

  3. I really enjoyed your article and am now going to use ‘empty boat’ as my mantra. Well done for getting through so much and thanks for sharing that it is possible with help from the empty boat! My life will never be the same from this day on.

    thank you

  4. Pingback: Fakin’ It « Civil Civil Servant

  5. Pingback: Be nice. Someone might be looking. « Civil Civil Servant

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