You probably heard this story before about the man who went fishing in the river with his boat. In the middle of his day, he saw another boat coming directly at him in full speed, apparently with no intention to avoid or give him a chance to move away.
The man yelled in his loudest voice, “Hey you! Change your way! Hurry up!” But his fate was sealed, as the boat reached him in a split second and hit him really hard.
The man screamed furiously at the other fisherman: “Are you stupid? How could you hit me in this wide empty river, are you blind or something?!" Suddenly, the man realized that the boat was empty and no one was on it.
What most likely happened was that the boat was loosely tied on the shore, and with help from the wind and the tide, it ran away from home. As simple as this parable might seem, it provides an amazing insight into human nature.
Our Perceived Version of Reality Versus True Reality
What’s going on inside our mind may have nothing to do with what is actually going on out there in the real world.
Our history, beliefs, emotions, judgments, and more, formulate our perception of the people and situations we encounter. This puts extra lances on our eyes, which cloud our judgment and change the picture entirely.
How many imagined rivals do you have? Colleagues, relatives, life partners, or even the whole world? How much anger do you hold on so tightly to, and for how long?
All these things with direct on-going influences on you — are they actual realities or just versions of an empty boat? Sometimes we define enemies and prepare for battles that we only make up in our imagination.
There are many human characteristics that play a part in what we can call here “the empty boat syndrome.” Here are a few of them.
Prejudice or Prejudgment
The Cause: We like things simple, clear, and fast. So jumping to conclusions and making snap judgements are very common and we think they are favorable responses.
The Solution: We should ask ourselves every time we get angry about something, "is this what actually happened, or is it just my interpretation of the situation? We need to review details, check the language we use ('meant' and 'intended' versus 'did' and 'said'), and ask for neutral opinions.
The Cause: Our minds like to minimize its effort and keep thinking in certain familiar ways, and hold on to the same beliefs.
The Solution: Challenge your mindset. Do not give yourself completely to certain ideas or beliefs. Keep an open mind about everything.
The Blame Game
The Cause: Like the man in our little story, blame gives us a justified reason – from our point of view – for being angry about something that happened, or something good that did not happened. When we place the blame on someone, we are relieved.
The Solution: An honest self-talk is essential here. When you blame everything and everyone for your misfortunes, you deprive yourself of self-growth and learning vital life lessons.
The Cause: we need to feel safe and prepare for the worst, it’s our primitive nature. So, we try to have everything under our control. That's why when bad things happen, we try to control them by pointing fingers and finding someone or something we can hold responsible.
And the more we try to control a problem, the more we get attached to it, and the more we obsess about the details, and the harder it becomes to let go of the problem.
The Solution: Practice giving up control gradually. Start small and always look for the big picture. Reflect on it. You will realize that most of what happens in this world in the grand scheme of things is meant to be out of our human control.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”― Lao Tzu
Acceptance and Letting Go
Reminding you of the importance of accepting what you may not like and letting go of your negative emotions and your struggle for control are not just clichés you hear often in Zen talks. Rather, it’s a practical solution to deal with stress and enjoy more peace in your life.
Thinking this way will not wipe out all your problems on a whim, but it will enhance your well-being and undermine the power of negative emotions over time.
Changing your perception means changing yourself and your life. It means replacing negative thought with a positive action. It means focusing all your energy on what you can actually control instead of trying in vain to control what you can’t.
When was the last time you encountered an “empty boat” in your life? I'd love to hear your experiences.