‘There’s a Zen story in which a man is enjoying himself on a river at dusk. He sees another boat coming down the river toward him. At first it seems so nice to him that someone else is also enjoying the river on a nice summer evening. Then he realizes that the boat is coming right toward him, faster and faster. He begins to yell, “Hey, hey, watch out! For Pete’s sake, turn aside!” But the boat just comes right at him faster and faster. By this time he’s standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and then the boat smashes right into him. He sees that it’s an empty boat.
This is the classic story on our whole life situation. There are a lot of empty boats out there. We’re always screaming and shaking our fists at them. Instead, we could let them stop our minds. Even if they only stop our mind for one point one seconds, we can rest in that little gap. […]. In this way everything we meet has the potential to help us cultivate compassion and reconnect with the spacious, open quality of our minds.’*
What strikes me here is that ‘shouting at empty boats’ is a frustrating and painful effort. Mindfulness here has nothing to do with being passive or retreating into a ‘neutral zone’: it boils down to learning to pick my battles. Recognising those empty boats is a first step.
* version of the classic Zen story is from Pema Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion, p. 103.