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Charlotte Joko Beck’s Parable of the Empty Rowboat.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Here at Adventures in Meditating, we firmly believe that no one deserves to be pelted with our uniquely perverse take on the meditative life all the time. And so we present, as a public service, a series of links to articles and videos around the web that we believe provide valuable insights into what mindfulness practice is really all about. 

 

This excerpt from Everyday Zen: Love and Work by Charlotte Joko Beck – recently deceased Zen teacher and general bad-ass of the East-meets-Western world – comes to us courtesy Digital Dharma. Here it is:

“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. 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 it that way. We experience it as though there are people in that other rowboat and we’re really getting clobbered by them.”

This is one of the most widely cited Zen stories kicking around the internet, a meticulously preserved calf’s brain floating in a jar which everyone is pleased to give pride of place on their menagerie. This is no surprise—it’s exactly the kind of story where a mindfulness practice applicable to the everyday finds a way to mouth-kiss the mystical tanginess of Zen. It is tasteful, useful, and fascinating, and yet at the same time makes me slightly squeamish. It is beautiful, in part, because it infuriates.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

It is easy enough to apply the “empty rowboat principle” (henceforth, “ERP”) to the kind of situation which arises a dozen or even a hundred times a day, in which an inanimate object or sub-sentient being causes us to feel anxious or vulnerable. Like when we smash our toe against a rock or when our computer takes way too goddamn long to download a file. At such times the ERP becomes the perfect tool for the job, because it is simply untenable to maintain that the computer is trying to piss us off, anymore than it is believable that the rock is trying to start some shit with us. We truly put a ghost in the machine when we suppose otherwise. We might even go so far as to give our computer an entire back-story, imagining that when it’s sitting there in the dark night after night, looking so peaceful with its little light fading in and out like a sleeping puppy, what it’s really doing is weaving evil, Iago-like webs meant to bring about our ultimate downfall. Do not think this way, it makes you seem very sad. All you are doing is creating conflict where conflict does not exist.

The cruel result of such a sensibility is that you’re likely to end up experiencing the exact same sensations you would experience if you were in the midst of a genuine, real-deal conflict, and not just a make-believe one. Pay attention to what happens inside your body the next time you feel yourself focusing a black beam of anger against something that has no brain stem. The sensations touring about your body – if you pay close enough attention to them – will present themselves as so immediate and tangible that they may almost seem transcendental. It’s amazing how uncannily accurate humans are able to be in describing the sensations related to anger and rage. Sometimes, for instance, we say that rage “bubbles up,” and it really can feel like bubbles, rage can, like eddies of indigestion. Or one might describe a heart hardening—and that brand of tightness, when personally experienced, is far from metaphorical. For me, anger almost always rises. When it does so it feels like the opposite of someone flinging themselves off a cliff and hitting every tree-branch on their way down. The waves of anger that rise in me instead hit every nerve on their way up, so it feels like a knobby stick is being slowly scraped against the ribs of a güiro.

Anger against the empty rowboat, when you look at it from this angle, establishes itself as the joyless cousin to masturbation. When you’re busy giving yourself the ol’ “five finger discount,” the common tendency is to skip over the sensuality that accompanies sex with an extra human being in order to get straight on to the splooging. The kind of anger we’ve talking about, on the other hand, is all sensuality, but with no pay-off. It is pure body sensation with no release. That’s right: rage against the empty rowboat is the existential equivalent of blue balls.

The ERP, however, is not only handy as a mental salve when the rowboat is actually empty (or at least devoid of a being that can answer for the supposed slight that’s been committed against you). It also applies in those situations when your vessel has been rammed but you maintain enough mindfulness to realize that the driver of the boat in question did not really intend to cause you harm, nor was s/he secretly seeking to humiliate or defeat you. This is especially crucial to keep in mind when you’re dealing with children, who, let’s face it, are basically like rocks, or, if we’re being generous, 1980s computers. It is no less important to keep in mind when dealing with the person you ought to know the best, like your partner. If you’re with someone for long enough it becomes really hard to believe that that person is not capable of reading your mind, and moreover continues to exist as an entirely separate human person from you. It can gall, then, when your boats scrape against one another because you were not properly using your words, and instead were trying to communicate only via the unreliable medium of brain lasers.

So far, this is all fine and good—the ERP seems the thing to beat, for sure, when it comes to forming a unifying principle for mindful living. Things get thorny, however, when you run afoul of people who actually do want to hurt you. The fact is, sometimes when someone fucks your face with his or her fist, he or she is doing it on purpose. Sometimes a punch is just a punch. Sometimes, the boat is not empty; or occupied by unknowing or innocent objects; or filled with people you love. Sometimes the boat is really just full of shit.

It was impossible for me to not reflect on this discomfiting counter-argument to the ERP in the wake of the April 15 bombings at the Boston marathon. Anyone seeking to live a mindful life is bound to confront at one point or another the reality that there are people out there who are trying their double-damnedest to sincerely do you damage. For me, what becomes paramount in light of this realization is to not deny the existence of external pressures, but to draw a distinction between acting and reacting to them.

Well, welcome to existence anyway, citizens: you cannot always choose how other folks are going to treat you, but you can choose the way you respond to the treatment.

There is revenge and then there is renewal. And accepting the latter does not mean that you are tacitly agreeing to “take it,” that you are satisfied to ignore the hand that beats you. There is a world of difference between pacifying a threat and turning the threatening party into blood pudding. Threats must be pacified, or we wouldn’t be left with a square inch of earth to meditate upon. But once the pacification has been achieved, we face the much harder choice of either reacting to what has occurred to us with hardness in our hearts – with a spirit of vengeance – or choosing something different. The former choice inevitably means restaging the trauma again and again, either inside ourselves or through striking out against others. The latter, on the other hand, takes the energy that has been stirred up and gives it useful work to do.

The frustrating thing is that a vengeful reaction has such a delicious tangibility to it—its results can be immediately observed and savored, even if they can never fully quench the vengeful spirit. Conversely, a wise redistribution of energies stirred up by an upsetting event favors incremental improvement, which may not yield tangible results until years or even lifetimes have passed. But to choose the former in lieu of the latter is awfully selfish, is it not? This is a long con we’re playing on reality, after all, and the more of us who play it, the better chance we have of coming out of it all with the jewels.

The meditation teacher Pat Coffey tells a story about a Catholic nun who fears she is losing her faith, and who goes to her Mother Superior to list all the doubts she has developed. The Mother Superior’s advice to her is simply this: “In the course of cataloguing all your doubts, make sure to remember to doubt your doubt.” I feel like giving myself similar advice whenever I find myself in the crosshairs of someone else’s hate-motivated actions, and the only desire I feel an appetite for is the desire to smash. But if I want so much to smash, why should I not smash my desire to smash? Why smash the other boat when I could instead smash the very lack of boats that results in so many humans drowning?

As has been widely reported, Patton Oswalt took the opportunity of the Boston Marathon bombings to call to mind this quote from Mr. “Fred” Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I’d like to propose this as an amendment to the ERP, required when the empty rowboat turns out to not be empty at all. In other words, consider teaching yourself to make your first reaction be, “How can I help? How can I help others who have been hit harder than myself? How can I help this to not happen again? How can I help myself heal?” Often this will involve building more boats—not stronger boats, necessarily, but smarter boats. Softer boats. And supporting putting smarter, softer people into them.


(1) There’ll be time enough to battle the robots when their insurrection begins, people. Don’t rush it. (Hopefully by that time we’ll have gotten our zombie problem under control.)

(2) Nikolai Tesla successfully invented this, but so far only Jeff Goldblum has succeeded in putting it into practice. That’s right: Jeff Goldblum can read your mind. Odds are he is doing it right now.

(3) Sometimes, a fisted face-fucking is just a fisted face-fucking.

(4) This amendment still works really well when the boat is, in fact, empty, as it so often is.

There’ll be time enough to battle the robots when their insurrection begins, people. Don’t rush it. (Hopefully by that time we’ll have gotten our zombie problem under control.)
Nikolai Tesla successfully invented this, but so far only Jeff Goldblum has succeeded in putting it into practice. That’s right: Jeff Goldblum can read your mind. Odds are he is doing it right now.
Sometimes, a fisted face-fucking is just a fisted face-fucking.
This amendment still works really well when the boat is, in fact, empty, as it so often is.

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