The Deeper Invitation in the Story of the Empty Boat

Like the Taoist Farmer story, the story of the Empty Boat is often used by coaches to help their clients gain perspective. Here’s a short version:

A fisherman is on the water at dusk with poor visibility. He sees a boat coming right towards him and starts getting frantic and yelling for the fisherman steering the boat to change course. When the other boat rams into his, he unleashes a hysterical invective at the other fisherman’s moral and intellectual competence, only to discover the boat is empty and was simply adrift.

We sometimes use this story to support clients in exploring emotions like anger, blame, and judgment, especially when others are involved. It can also be an invitation to maintain equanimity when mishaps occur and nobody is at fault.

As it is typically used, the Empty Boat story is about better understanding our own stories to help us manage our own reactions. This is all well and good. Every little bit of perspective helps. But sometimes stories get watered down by retelling and time, and I wondered if that might be happening here. The Empty Boat story as it is commonly used seemed too buttoned-up. Too cute. Too practical.

Taoists usually don’t tell stories to help you find an easier way to cruise through life. They offer you the “red pill” and a glimpse at how deep the rabbit hole goes. (Walt Whitman, an American Taoist if there ever was one, wrote in Song of the Open Road: “I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes.”)

I thought it might pay to go back and read the original Chuang Tzu text. And sure enough, right after the boats collided… in the very next lines… there it was:

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world
No one will oppose you.
No one will seek to harm you.

‍Wait. Empty my boat?  I thought this was about just seeing everything around me as empty boats, un-caused, blame-free, whether someone is in them or not. Isn’t my boat fine?

And what does emptying my boat even mean?

Chuang Tzu goes on to say: free yourself from the desire for achievement and fame. In other words, stop controlling. Stop steering your own boat. Let Life, that which you are inextricable from, steer, and see where It wants to go.

It also means you stop reinforcing a separate identity…whether it is your social status, your gender identity, your followers on social media, or your Enneagram type. For that matter, stop even seeing yourself as separate. Keep throwing everything out, until nothing is left, not even you.

Whoa. Scary stuff. Who would want to do that?

Most wouldn’t. If you have a pretty cushy life, you would be crazy to—sorry—rock that boat by trying to shed the images and fronts and capabilities that you have cultivated to help you get where you are.

Better to just use the Empty Boat story to round off the rough edges, reduce some friction and some of the trouble your over-the-top reactions might get you into. Nothing wrong with that. We live on stormy seas and getting through, more or less unscathed, can feel like victory.

The only reason to want to empty yourself is because an urge arises inside you to know the Truth. Not because it is going to benefit you, but because you are tired of being a lie, tired of believing you’re a separate self, tired of feeling separate. If you get your head in that tiger’s mouth, as the saying goes, it is not easily extracted.

Once all that jetsam of mind and ego are in the water. Once you aren’t there. Then all that’s left is everything else. Just this, as they say in Zen.

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll…
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look’d at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my spirit “When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of every thing in them, shall we be fill’d and satisfied then?”
And my spirit said, “No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond.”
Long enough have you dream’d contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.
Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.

~From Walt Whitman’s  Song of Myself, 46

So the deeper meaning, the Taoist meaning, is empty your own boat and you won’t have to worry about other boats, not because boats won’t collide, but because other won’t exist. No you. No other. No problem.

Dennis is an executive coach and consultant based in Boulder, CO. More by and about him on his website.

Photo by Artem Sapegin on Unsplash