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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.

Rewind….

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.

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