This post worked it's way into the forefront of my mind and meditation. I am sure that I had heard this story before but was reminded of it again at just the right time in my life recently. Funny how the thing we need to hear or be reminded of the most will just come along when it is truly needed. I love the different parables and stories that are shared among Zen teaching. They have a way of teaching us valuable life lessons through mythology. This parable is accredited to the late and wonderful Vietnamese monk and peace advocate, Thích Nhất Hạnh who has many wonderful and inspiring books that I can only recommend as "Must Reads" to anyone on a path of personal discovery through Zen and Eastern philosophy, or just how to be a good human being.
The Parable of the Empty Boat
A monk wishing to meditate away from others takes a boat and goes to the middle of a lake. He closes his eyes and begins to meditate. After a few hours of uninterrupted silence, he suddenly feels and hears a bumping of another boat hitting his.
He keeps on with his practice, with his eyes still closed, slightly disturbed though by the interruption of silence. He then feels the bump again. Now his thoughts rise and an irritation stirs within him. His anger rises to the point that he cannot contain it any longer. He is ready to shout at the boatman "who dares to disturb my meditation!"
However, when he opened his eyes, all that he sees is an empty boat, just floating in the middle of the lake… At that moment, the monk achieves self-realization and understands that anger is within him; it simply needs to hit an external object to provoke it.
After that, whenever the monk met someone or something that irritated or provoked his anger, he remembered: “Its just an empty boat...The anger is inside me.”
For several weeks now my evenings have been stirred into a tizzy with a mixture of anxiety, frustration, and anger. I have been so taken over by my emotions. We have been for months now trying to get our basement remodel finished. The project started last November and has turned our home and lives upside down.
Sadly, the contractors we hired weren’t very good. But in these times, it’s difficult to get a contractor, so they were who we could get, had a (now relatively) good price, and they had the basic skills to hang drywall better than I have... so we hired them. Over the months, each time I would go down the stairs with some excitement to see the progress they had made, only to find poor finishing work, shortcuts, a lack of quality of workmanship and almost total proper planning by the guy and his assistant. I would come back upstairs with a deep sense of frustration and remorse. This has gone on for months now too with several stops and goes and the usual hiccups of electrical and plumbing added into it.
And now let's return to the Empty boat and anger parable. Looking back now, I realized that a lot of the anger I was feeling each night had a source and it was not from the external things that were happening in and to our basement. It was not from my frustration and buyer’s remorse. My anger was coming from within myself.
Those external things were giving my anger something to awaken it.
For over a week now I have been really focusing on this point. Our anger nearly 100% of the time is triggered by an "empty boat." The emotion of anger is heavy and burdensome. It overwhelms us to the point that we cannot carry it and we like to throw it outward. We like to blame those things outside of ourselves. As heavy as anger feels though, it weighs nothing. Anger isn’t really a “thing” at all. It exists only in our minds and settles in our bodies as tension. Our thoughts pool up and become sticky. Scientifically speaking a chemical reaction is occurring , neurons are firing and all of that anger builds and sticks in our bodies as adrenaline. But this is all triggered by one thing. Thoughts.
I have been meditating on this “empty boat” philosophy and it has been very helpful in my personal anger management, and my relationship to the world around me. I have grown to understand better that all of our emotions come from thoughts and expectations within ourselves. We begin to think that those thoughts are "reality." But this is not true. We have the ability to be mindful of our thoughts and emotions.
While I am not suggesting that we can completely control the emotions that arise within us we can, with practice, recognize them as emotions made of thoughts and ideas that have no tangible form.
With this understanding we can take away the power they seem to hold over our lives and the way they influence our decisions. We can harness them for the good and not the destructive. Better choices, better outcomes.
So the next time you snag your line, get hooked in the trees, miss a strike, get skunked, have someone’s dog splash through and spoil your run of stream, or maybe you are just in traffic and someone cuts you off, remember the empty boat. Your anger does not come from outside of you. It comes from within you. Because you are the source of the anger you can also be the source of its resolution. Just notice and name the emotion. Recognize where it is coming from and that you have a choice with how you want to steer your own boat.
Speaking of Empty Boats…
It is only slightly ironic that concurrent to this lesson and meditation, that I have come into possession of a big yellow canoe. I have been walking my dog around our neighborhood. Nearly every day we pass a house with a canoe sitting unmoved and unused next to it's garage. I see that it is faded and not being used and I kept thinking to myself that if I ever happened to catch the owners outside, I might ask them if they were interested in selling it. Last week the stars aligned, and there was a kind older woman outside. I asked her about selling it to me and she seemed super happy to have me ask. It was a great deal for me and a relief to her. It didn’t come with paddles, life jackets or a trolley but those things I will be collecting over the next week or so. I look forward to making some memories with my son and dog on some great canoeing and camping trips. I will retell the story to him of the monk in the boat and hopefully he will appreciate the story of “the empty boat” as much as I do.
Dennis Vander Houwen lives in Colorado with his patient and supportive wife, talented artist son, a smart older dog, a new river puppy, and a very lucky cat.