Skip to content

No one argues with an empty boat

September 1, 2022

I was talking with some friends in a meditation practice group the other day about – it now occurs to me – the relationship between wisdom and blame. It was about whether our actions and reactions are ‘on us’ or ‘on other people’, and about what shapes our decisions about this in the heat of the moment… as opposed to later.

For me, the discussion brought up a memory of a phrase I read long ago, and have reflected on at intervals ever since. “No one argues with an empty boat”.

Later, I thought I should check the origin of the saying, and it turned out to be attributed to the Chinese, Taoist, philosopher Chuang Tzu.

My interpretation is something like this – and I try to weave into it a picture of a place where waterways are crowded with small boats carrying passengers and produce.

Imagine you are piloting your boat on the river, and another boat comes speeding into you with a violent crash. You are thrown sideways, you injure your arm [it hurts!], some of your precious cargo falls overboard and there’s now a crack in the hull of your boat.

But the other boat is empty! It appears to have broken its moorings during a storm earlier in the day.

You may be shocked, hurt, angry and frustrated. But there is nobody to shout at, abuse or blame. The only ways to improve the situation are to get on and fix yourself, fix your boat, and maybe hope that some of the lost cargo can be retrieved. You set about practically putting things right.


Now imagine exactly the same situation, the same impact, the same damage, the same shock and pain. But this time, there… sitting in the other boat… is a person.

The injury and damage is the same as before, so the real solutions to your problems are the same. The only difference is the presence, in that boat, of another person.

But in all likelihood, stoked by your shock and rush of adrenalin, all your focus is on that person – you shout at them, you abuse them for their stupidity and recklessness… you tell them all the things they were doing wrong.

At this stage, a thoughtful and pragmatic person might start to point out to me that the other person isn’t irrelevant. Maybe they need to take responsibility, gain some insight and change their future behaviour. Maybe you need them to help fix things, or at least pay up later.

I have two responses.

The first is that, even if this is the case, your instant fury and abuse [your ‘boat rage’’ if you like] isn’t going to help facilitate this, or to get clarity on why what just happened, happened. Helping the other person to take responsibility, learn, or offer redress, requires an entirely different dialogue.

My second response is that this is a saying, a metaphor or parable. The boat, including us as pilot, is our own person or self, the other boat plus pilot is another whole person. By asking us to consider how we might react to an empty boat, I think Chuang Tzu is suggesting that when other people have an impact on us, our focus should be on that impact, not on the interior self or ego that we attribute to the other person… in that moment. The wise thing to do, he is suggesting, is to focus on putting things right, not on putting the person right. It’s highly likely that the latter is impossible, unless you want to dedicate the rest of your life to the task!

Bringing this back to my own outlook on life, I think that putting things right, in such situations, is therefore also largely about managing our own responses. After all, that is something which we can own and control. Or if we can’t entirely control our reactions in the moment we can, through regular practice, shift the odds in favour of our reacting in a wiser way. Maybe, to stretch the metaphor a little, we may also change the way we pilot our boat, and keep a better lookout, or help ensure that others’ boats are well-moored.

Even then, I wonder if Chuang Tzu’s own invitation goes beyond this. What if – and again in metaphorical and slightly ambiguous terms – we were able to empty our own boat? If we were the empty boat, how would others react to us when we interacted with them? Might they, too, then focus on putting things right, rather than putting us right?

What does it mean, to empty your boat? I think it’s something about ego, and selflessness. But I’ll need to reflect and meditate on that for a while yet.

Simple Compassion Practice

May 7, 2022

Happy New Year!

January 1, 2022

Happy New Year!

This event is full of connotations and imagery about a ‘fresh start’. But it’s entirely arbitrary isn’t it? Any day could have been, or could be, New Year’s Day – no?

There’s a lot of cultural baggage though. In the northern hemisphere, where the dominant Gregorian calendar arose, the New Year is close to the shortest day of the year – the longest night – so it does mark the beginning of a journey back towards spring, summer, light, warmth and growth. In this respect, it’s pretty much the same landmark as Christmas. That’s probably why it’s been adopted as a time to discard the old, start new things and make resolutions.

The problem is that we often then use the New Year as a one-off prompt to take on something too big.

In particular, just knowing or deciding that it would be good, or good for us, to do x, y or z, is often not enough to sustain behaviour over the long term. We need to build habits, through gradual positive feeback, and we need to know how to do this. Otherwise ‘I should’ or ‘I will’ are going to run out of steam.

There are exceptions. You might know someone who embarked on a major New Year’s resolution which lead to a life-changing new behaviour or life choice. But the odds are that this ‘stuck’ because other circumstances were lined up favourably as well – support, opportunity, and the intensity of the reasons for change.

My own suggestion for the New Year is to identify something that is important to you, but which also looks really achievable in the short to medium term. Achieving that, however modest it is, will make you feel good and could set you on the path to a succession of similar achievable stepping stones leading to some much bigger goal.

As 2022 gets underway, quietly open your mind to what you would like to be different. Then see if you can also get some clarity on how much of this is within your own control. What else needs to happen, to make the change possible? Identify that first achievable step towards this change. What does an achievable ‘Step 1’ really look like? Make a realistic and very practical plan for Step 1. In particular, don’t fall into the trap of making this a solo burden. Who else can you involve who also believes in this change, and will support you, or even make the same change alongside you? What do you need from them?

I will be doing the same thing. There are a lot of uncertainties around me at the moment – I’m sure I’m far from unique in that – and I’m definitely going to avoid reckless pronouncements. But I will be looking at how much I might achieve by changing, or adding, a couple of habits. Maybe I will share these, once I know what they are.

Here’s to 2022. Good luck!

Introducing Patience

January 20, 2021

A Practice to Support Patience

January 20, 2021

Letting Go (with introduction)

December 20, 2019

Letting Go

December 20, 2019

Public Course: Introduction to Mindfulness. Starts June 13th in Dartford

May 3, 2019


Summer, before the school holidays, can be a good time to get acquainted with mindfulness practice and its benefits. Summer evening sessions are particularly relaxed and positive, because it’s warm and it’s light outside. As ever this will be a gentle introduction to mindfulness. I have drawn on several years of working with groups in Dartford, and on public domain content from key thinkers such as Prof John Kabat-Zinn and Prof Mark Williams, to shape the public ‘Practically Mindful’ course.

As an associate of mindfulness teaching networks such as Potential Project, my ‘day job’ is teaching their mindfulness programmes in the workplace, for clients – many of whom are household names. However, as Dartford is my home town, I teach this public course for fees which are a fraction of what employers pay for similar training of this kind. I think about 100 people have now completed my courses in Dartford. And a number keep returning for the free monthly “drop ins” to refresh and share their practice.

It’s a course of five 1hr sessions, usually at weekly intervals, with home practice in between using audio downloads/podcasts. There is also a printed course pack.

More info below . Both the practical stuff, and answers to the questions I am most often asked about the course. But the latter really boil down to, “Yes, anyone can do this. It’s simple to do. It’s completely secular. It will make a difference to your life, possibly quite quickly. It’s based on workplace training, but is for everyone and applies everywhere.”

The sessions are always friendly and supportive. If you have a known diagnosis for, say, depression or anxiety, please be sure to read my “Important Note” below.
Detailed Course Dates and Times:
Thursday 13th June, 7:30pm-8:30pm, then each of the following three Thursdays at the same time [i.e. June 20th and 27th, and July 4th. Then a two week gap to the wrap-up session on 18th July]. The one hour sessions start at 7:30pm sharp, so please arrive in good time, particularly on the first evening.
Dartford Science and Technology College (DSTC). Heath Lane. Dartford. DA1 2LY
£60 for the whole of the five week course including sessions, printed notes and audio downloads.
[16-18 yr olds – £26. Returning participants from previous courses wanting a refresher – £26. Other concessions, case by case.]
How to sign up:
Please e-mail me on nick[at] or call/text me on 07958 516967 to reserve a place. Similarly, please get in touch if you want to find out more about me or the course. You can just turn up on the first night – but advance booking ensures you won’t miss out, and that I know how many printed packs to prepare.
I can take payment at the first session – by cash, cheque [payable to SoShall Consulting Ltd] or I can give you bank details for internet payment.
The course is not open to under-16s.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Please also consult with your GP or other professional, before taking this course, if you are currently receiving help with a condition such as depression or anxiety. Mindfulness can be very helpful, but this needs to be in conjunction with other interventions and support. Similarly, please consider seeking professional advice if you believe that you may be at risk of such a condition. This course is a gentle introduction, not therapeutic, and it should not be the first, or sole, resort for someone who feels they may be unwell.
What is Mindfulness???
Mindfulness is something that you do, something that you learn by practicing regularly and can then apply throughout your day. It’s a way of approaching life which helps you to focus on what’s happening right now, without judging or getting stuck in habits and assumptions. This is an antidote to mulling over what has happened in the past, or worrying about what might happen in the future. It helps us to obsess less about whether we are doing well, doing the right thing, look OK to other people or deserve to be happy. This course makes you aware of how thoughts and actions can just bundle us through the day on a kind of ‘auto-pilot’. Mindfulness offers an alternative to this – pausing more often and making conscious decisions rather than just reacting.
The results include reduced stress, better focus on one thing at a time, a clearer mind and better interaction with other people. These changes may, in turn, improve your physical health by reducing the damage that stress can do to our heart, circulatory system, immune system and digestion. More generally, mindfulness can help you to be happier and to appreciate more of life’s minutes – rather than just fast forwarding to the next ‘good bit’.
A good description of Mindfulness can be found on the Frantic World Website. The authors Danny Penman and Mark Williams have had a leading role in developing Mindfulness in the UK, and I will tell you more about their books on the course. But here’s what they say about Mindfulness.

“Nick, you say that you mainly teach mindfulness in the workplace. So is this just a work thing?”
No. There are many good reasons for teaching mindfulness in the workplace, but the techniques and skills are applicable to all aspects of life, and to everyone. I always adapt my approach for each audience – anyone can learn and practice these techniques, for a few minutes a day, and feel the benefit.
What actually happens on the course?
The course is informal, welcoming and fun – but also purposeful. You will learn what Mindfulness is, how it works, how to do practices, and how to apply Mindfulness to everyday life. I will also point you to other resources and activities you can use to keep going after the course finishes – because the purpose of the course is to help you start a habit that you can benefit from for the rest of your life. You will experience guided practices – typically 10 minutes – as I talk you though placing your attention on your breathing, or moving your attention around your body, and there are also other exercises to help demonstrate why Mindfulness helps. We will reflect, together, on what you experience during a practice and how your week has gone between sessions. This helps to reinforce your learning and to encourage others, or be encouraged by them, through sharing. Knowing that “it’s not just me” can be a big help!
You will be shown how to download audio tracks, which you can use on a mobile phone/tablet, PC or Mac, to do your practices during the week by listening to my voice.
There is a printed course pack which summarises the sessions, points you to other resources and suggests ways of continuing the Mindfulness habit.
Is this a religion???
Mindfulness practices are very similar to some kinds of meditation. Meditation techniques can be found in many different religions around the world, particularly Buddhism, which seem to have evolved similar approaches to dealing with life. When modern Mindfulness was developed in the 1970s and 1980s it was deliberately made more secular, so that belonging to a particular religion, or indeed aversion to religion, would not be a barrier to taking it up. Mindfulness is compatible with many religious principles – not least compassion towards others and towards yourself! That second is something many of us forget to have.

Other details:
I can give people other information when they sign up but, just in case:
DSTC is accessed from the entrance in Heath Lane and there is ample free parking. On foot, if you continue to follow the slope down from the car park, you will find some steps and signage for Reception.

Approaching Difficulty

April 11, 2019

Beginner’s Mind

February 14, 2019


Shadow Man
Enjoying a sunny walk
across the shadow
tree bridge

and waves
hesitantly to me

I know what he is
(I think)

But what does he
think of me?

A mere projection
from his realm
into the theoretical…
Third Dimension?

Or an Angel
standing in the sun?
To bring him into being