Empty Boats- ex-wives, mass murderers, and other irritations.
I was introduced to the Buddhist concept of “empty boats” by Stephen Mitchell in his excellent book, “The Second Book of the Tao.”
Mitchell, who is Byron Katie’s husband, is the author of many books- mostly translations or interpretations of Oriental philosophy books. His interpretation of the Tao Te Ching is one of the best I’m aware of, and I’ve read dozens. I own a lot of his books, and enjoy them all.
“The Second Book of the Tao,” however, is my favorite. It lives on the table by my bed, and I’ve read and re-read it countless times.
From Amazon.com: …Drawn from the work of Lao-tzu’s disciple Chuang-tzu and Confucius’s grandson Tzussu, The Second Book of the Tao offers Western readers a path into reality that has nothing to do with Taoism or Buddhism or old or new alone, but everything to do with truth. Mitchell has selected the freshest, clearest teachings from these two great students of the Tao and adapted them into versions that reveal the poetry, depth, and humor of the original texts with a thrilling new power. Alongside each adaptation, Mitchell includes his own commentary, at once explicating and complementing the text.
This book is a twenty-first-century form of ancient wisdom, bringing a new, homemade sequel to the Tao Te Ching into the modern world. Mitchell’s renditions are radiantly lucid; they dig out the vision that’s hiding beneath the words; they grab the text by the scruff of the neck—by its heart, really—and let its essential meanings fall out. The book introduces us to a cast of vivid characters, most of them humble artisans or servants, who show us what it means to be in harmony with the way things are. Its wisdom provides a psychological and moral acuity as deep as the Tao Te Ching itself…
The story of “empty boats” goes like this: Imagine that you’re lazily floating along a river in your boat. It’s a peaceful day, and you’re leaning back, watching the clouds dance in a blue sky and are lulled into a meditative state by the easy flow of the boat on the water and songs of the birds in the trees on the shore. Then, abruptly, another boat bangs into yours, jarring you out of your reverie. Your immediate assumption is that the person guiding the other boat has intentionally hit yours, and you descend into anger and turn to defend yourself, and possibly retaliate.
Turning, you see that it’s an empty boat that has come unmoored and, quite by accident, run into yours.
The teaching behind this story is that empty boats are everywhere. The lying, cheating business associate that screwed you in a deal, the ex-wife with the bull-dog attorney, the driver who cuts you off in traffic- they’re all empty boats. With the proper, Buddhist, state of mind, you should be able to view all these distractions with a detached sense of equanimity and be able to choose to respond from an empathetic, aware place- as opposed to an immediate angry response.
Easier said than done, I know. But, on those occasions when I can pull it off, I find that it’s useful. Acting from an aware, empathetic place gives you space to choose your response. This is much more effective than just reacting. The phrase, “she made me mad,” for example becomes a complete non-starter. Nobody can make you anything. You get to choose your response, and it helps to put a little space between the thing you’re responding to and your response.
Like meditation, responding with an “empty boat” mindset is a practice. I’m working on it. Try it, and see how it works for you.
It’s an interesting concept, and useful as a model for living a peaceful life. What’s surprising is that there’s some hard science behind it.
Last night I was reading a collection of Malcolm Gladwell’s articles in his new book, “What The Dog Saw.” (Yea, I consume books like a stoner goes through Cheetos. It’s a benign addiction.)
Malcolm Gladwell, in an article called “Something Borrowed,” tells the story of a psychiatrist named Dorothy Lewis and her work. Actually, the article is about how a playwright plagiarized an article he wrote about Dorothy Lewis, and is a fascinating look at intellectual property rights, but the part that got me thinking about “empty boats” has to do with Ms. Lewis’ work with serial killers.
She maintains that serial killers are not responsible for or guilty of their crimes because of “neurological dysfunction and childhood physical abuse.” The difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom.”
I’ve read several books about the effects of early-life trauma on brain chemistry, and how these traumas can cause physiological damage and massive, detrimental rewiring of the neurological system- and this trauma doesn’t necessarily have to be physical trauma. Surprisingly, severe psychological trauma can cause physiological changes in the brain chemistry and affect the function of the neurological biology. I don’t understand this, but the scientists assure us that it’s true.
You’ve heard the phrase, “they’re just wired that way,” right? Well, trauma messes with the wiring.
But, this is the first instance I’m aware of where a scientist actually went into the field and got to know actual criminals. She interviewed them, learned the story of their lives, and studied how they became the “animals” that could kill innocent people in cold blood.
In every case, the criminals were suffering “disruptive neurological effects of prolonged periods of high stress.” In some cases, they had been heinously abused, both sexually and physically.
In other words, their actions were the result of damage to their cerebral cortex due to early-life trauma.
We’re all the cumulative result of our life experiences, which is why most of the therapists I know drive Mercedes Benzes. Most of us either deal with it or get help to deal with it, and, luckily, few of us actually act or our impulses to plant a meat cleaver firmly through the skull of those who, in our opinion, would benefit from such a treatment.
Quoting Gladwell, “It is the function of the cortex- and in particular, those parts of the cortex beneath the forehead, known as the frontal lobes- to modify the impulses that surge up from within the brain, to provide judgment, to organize behavior and decision making, to learn and adhere to rules of everyday life.”
If that cortex has been damaged through either physical or psychological trauma, it can’t do it’s job. The science is clear on this. Irrational, even criminal, responses that lead to, in the case of the victims, possibly death and in the case of the perpetrators, long prison sentences, and possibly death, are caused by neurological damage.
It turns out that jerks, vicious ex-wives, and yes, even mass murderers, really are just empty boats.