The Empty Boat
Last week I wrote about how we can have a gentle awareness of our breath - or whatever object we are using in our meditation. This 'gentle awareness' contrasts with the tendency we sometimes have to grasp at our breath - to concentrate as hard as we possibly can. As I was doing some background reading for that I came across this quote from Lama Yeshe which I found particularly appropriate:
Many meditators emphasize too much on concentration: if you are squeezing, then there is no control of anger if someone disturbs you. The beauty of real meditation is, that even if you are disturbed, you can allow space and time for this.What struck me about this was not only that he warned against the kind of grasping concentration we are discussing - or 'squeezing' as he calls it - but that he outlines a specific danger of this - that we open ourselves up to anger.
This may seem a little strange at first, but it is worth contrasting the control we have when practicing gentle awareness versus the lack of control we have when we grasp or 'squeeze' at the object. When we concentrate as hard as we possibly can our minds are unbalanced. The slightest thing can send us off, and we open ourselves up to negative emotions such as anger. When we have gentle awareness and our minds are balanced we can meet disturbances and interruptions with equanimity.
As I was reading further around this I was reminded of the story of The Empty Boat that Thích Nhất Hạnh tells:
A monk decides to meditate alone. Away from his monastery, he takes a boat and goes to the middle of the lake, closes his eyes and begins to meditate.This story, which I believe is a re-telling of a story from the Zhuangzi, is really interesting. When we realize that our reactions - whether we allow anger to arise or not - depends on an unknown, then we learn something about that anger. We say 'that person made me angry' - but what if there is no person? Think of it as Schrödinger's Boat - If there's a cat in it we get angry with the cat, otherwise we don't get angry. Contemplating this allows us to strip away the delusion that anger is external to us, that it is something others enforce on us, and instead allows us to own our anger. Once we own it, we can choose to move beyond it.
After a few hours of unperturbed silence, he suddenly feels the blow of another boat hitting his. With his eyes still closed, he feels his anger rising and, when he opens his eyes, he is ready to shout at the boatman who dared to disturb his meditation. But when he opened his eyes, saw that it was an empty boat, not tied up, floating in the middle of the lake...
At that moment, the monk achieves self-realization and understands that anger is within him; it simply needs to hit an external object to provoke it.
After that, whenever he meets someone who irritates or provokes his anger, he remembers; the other person is just an empty boat.
Anger is inside me.
In his essay "Happiness and Peace are Possible," Thích Nhất Hạnh gives us the following advice for how to approach our meditation:
You don’t have to struggle with your breath. You don’t have to struggle with your body, or with your hate, or with your anger. Treat your in-breath and out-breath tenderly, nonviolently, as you would treat a flower. Later you will be able to do the same thing with your physical body, treating it with gentleness, respect, nonviolence, and tenderness.
Like Lama Yeshe he is showing how this gentle approach to our meditation carries over to our day-to-day lives, and allows us to approach this world with equanimity and kindness.
I have linked below a fully guided meditation on the story of The Empty Boat. Feel free to use it if you wish in your own practice.