Anger and the Empty Boat

I was digging through my old bookshelves (where my pre-Kindle favorites live) and came across Charlotte Joko Beck’s classic “Everyday Zen.” Beck was a famous American Zen meditation teacher, who was known for her down-to-earth teaching style.

I had read this book years ago, but didn’t remember much about it other than I knew I liked it. Thus, I was surprised when, opening to a random page, I encountered a passage that I had long ago filed away in my mental “I heard somebody say” drawer:

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 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. And 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 in 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 collisions with an empty rowboat? What’s that all about?


I love this passage, for a few reasons.

First, it points to a fundamental quality of our mental life. Our minds have a default tendency to take upsetting events personally, to exaggerate their negativity, and to spur us toward action that may not help the situation. Because our animal brains are not particularly designed for modern life, we have to learn to correct this tendency. To a large degree, this is what therapy and mindfulness practices are all about.

Second, I can totally relate. I run across empty boats every day: The crazy traffic on 101. The vagaries of the BART schedule. My intermittent wireless connection. There are countless opportunities for me to get caught up in my mind’s story about why the world 'should' be more to my liking. And sometimes, I get caught up in the story. We all do.

But I consider this Empty Boat perspective to be a real gift. And the tools we use in therapy--CBT, acceptance and commitment therapy, mindfulness practices--are all ways of practicing and reinforcing this perspective so that it becomes more easily accessible when life throws difficulties our way. With time and practice, we can start to see the empty boats for what they are, even before they hit us. Sometimes, we can even get out of their way.