Empty Boat

In this period of upcoming finals and long nights and cold weather, I’ve been having a bit of trouble with taking things personally. A couple weeks ago, those were the twin themes of Rev. Kim’s sermon (the minister at the UU church I attend)–“quit taking it personally” and “empty boat.”

“Empty boat” refers to Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s story, which I will share with you here:

A man was rowing his boat upstream on a very misty morning. Suddenly, he saw another boat coming downstream, not trying to avoid him. It was coming straight at him. He shouted, “Be careful! Be careful!” but the boat came right into him, and his boat was almost sunk. The man became very angry, and began to shout at the other person, to give him a piece of his mind. But when he looked closely, he saw that there was no one in the other boat. It turned out that the boat just got loose and went downstream. All his anger vanished, and he laughed and he laughed.

And so I’ve tried to think, “Empty boat.” But it’s hard. I get sensitive when someone snaps at me. I get miffed with people who annoy me. People with whom I disagree sometimes bother me.

And so I know I need to try harder. I need to not let anger or hurt come easily.

Because, really, to quit taking it personally and to keep thinking “empty boat” is to be compassionate. It is to realize that everyone is not out to intentionally hurt you or make your life harder. It is to realize that each person is going through things that are harming and bothering them, and that their actions are a manifestation of that, not direct malice toward you.

It is seeing things from their perspective. It is assuming the best. It is loving them.

Loving one person much harder to do than abstractly loving all of humanity. It is much harder to love your roommates when they’re grumpy or to love the students who are shouting in the library while you’re trying to study.

But you have to start with those exercises of mindfulness, those exercises of love. If you want to cultivate a compassionate world, it has to start with these small acts.

And so I am trying to carry a compassionate heart. Attempting to be slow to anger, quick to forgive, and intentional in breathing.

Empty boat. Empty boat. Empty boat. Full and welcoming heart.

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