The Boat is Empty – A practice in handling difficult people

A lot goes wrong in a week, a day, even a minute when you live, work, and play with other people.  I’ll be the first to admit that people can do stupid, mean, ugly, annoying things.  (Last week I began this subject here with  mystical perspective on being offended or insulted).  Bottom line is, people can be knobs and nut-jobs.  Just yesterday, I was yelled at, spit on, pushed, and hit—and I still gave my two-year-old a treat after dinner.

Many spiritual and mystical teachers remind us that a lot of happiness depends on how we react to those things that go wrong around us.  And reactions are often controlled by perception.  Imagine you’re out jogging, and you come upon a large group of teens who are blocking the entire sidewalk, walking slowly, not leaving room for others.  You might feel a momentary sense of annoyance at their youthful arrogance, their self-centered nature.  You might even carry that disdain with you for the day, commenting to friends on the sad nature of teens these days.  Now imagine it was a group of three year olds toddling around.  You’d probably smile, go around, and go on your way.

It’s just a simple difference of perception changing your reaction.  How can this help us with mean, ugly, spiteful, bitter adult humans (not just two year olds?)  Just remember, “The Boat is Empty.”

One of my favorite Zen/Taoist stories is about an empty boat.  A ferry boat driver is crossing the river in his boat.  Coming at him is another boat driven by another man in a rush.  As the other boat approaches, the ferry driver unleashes a string of curses and condemnations on the other driver for being in his path.  He’s the ferry boat driver, after all.  This is his route.  Get out of the way.  For the rest of the day he is angry, cursing under his breath about how thoughtless and self-centered people have become.

The next day, the ferry boat driver is crossing the river, and an empty boat is coming toward him in the river’s current.  It must have come lose from the shore.  The ferry boat driver expertly maneuvers around the boat and continues on his way without comment.

What is the difference?  Of course, the boat is empty.  Well?  Full or empty, how did one boat ruin his day and the other not?

The point is that all our boats are empty sometimes.  Yes, in many cases, we are empty boats, especially when we are under stress, angry, hurt, or in a rush.  When we get keyed up, we change.  Modern spiritual thinker Eckhart Tolle calls it the “pain body,” and goes so far as to say that it’s almost a completely different person.  When we are like this, we think little of others, in fact, sometimes we can’t.  If you are mindful enough in a situation where someone else might be caught up in their emotions, you can imagine their boat, for the moment, is empty.  Then you can maneuver around the unpleasantness and move on.  Don’t take it with you.  The boat is empty.  The boat is empty.  Imagine you are meeting this person on the river.  They are coming at you in their boat, but they’re not in it…it’s not them right now.  Maneuver around and get away.

It’s a good mantra.  The boat is empty.  When I’m cut off traffic or in a conversation, I often repeat this mantra.  When others become angry or irrational, I repeat it.  When my own kids tantrum, or my students with severe emotional issues completely lose it and hurl a round of curses at me, I remember:  right now, their boat is empty.  They’re not there.  The good, strong spirit that is them at the core is not steering the ship.

I believe that most people want to be good.  But often, their boats are empty, or in some cases, too full, of emotion and stories and “I-thoughts.”  So full that they cannot, for the moment, see the other boats sailing around them.  Or even worse, they are so addicted to their negative state, they want to amp it up by colliding with others, like the angry man at the bar looking for a fight.

Remember, in these moments, that the boat is empty.  Maneuver around and go on your way.  Don’t make the mistake of the ferry boat driver who takes the other person’s negative state along with him.  Others’ emotions need not be yours.

Sometimes you have to GIVE UP expecting perfect behavior from others AND let their negative emotions DIE before they collide with you.  You’ll be glad you did.


Okay, so how do we know that we’re not the idiot, uh, I mean, empty boat?  Next week we will try a little practice in letting go of our own negative stories.  While you’re waiting, you can explore the question that could change your life or how to live in the moment, even when you don’t want to.  Finally, if you have free time, check out Leo Babauta’s great Simple Living Manifesto: 72 Ideas to Simplify Your Life, for great, practical ways to simplify.  It could be that your boat is actually so full of crap that you can’t see the others around you.