On Boats and Troubled Waters

by Marie Hathaway

This time last year, it seemed like 2021 was bound to be easier than 2020. And yet, in many ways, it proved more troublesome, the path ahead less clear. Embarking on 2022, amid stock market plummets and COVID case surges, we find ourselves afloat on a choppy sea of uncertainty. And I often find myself thinking of the line from Guys and Dolls—”Sit down, you’re rocking the boat!”

The surest way to capsize a boat is by rocking too hard to one side or the other. This is true for us as individuals when we get swept away by our thoughts and emotions. It’s also something we can feel collectively when we push too far to extremes and struggle to find balance in our society.

On an actual ocean voyage, to safeguard against capsizing, a smart mariner will use ballast: material added to the bottom of a boat or ship to supply balance and stability so the vessel can ride more steadily through the waves. In the metaphorical stormy seas we face now, we might ask, how can we—as individuals and as communities—add ballast to our boats?

To add inner ballast – or perhaps to become the ballast our world needs to help humanity ride out the pandemic and other challenges we face – we may, paradoxically enough, need to start by emptying our vessels.  

There’s a Zen story about a man who sees a boat headed his way and not slowing down. He yells and gets angry that the captain could be so careless of his safety. But as it get closer, he realizes the boat is empty, and his outrage withers.

This is a somewhat humorous reminder reminder not to make a fuss. Not to get carried away by things that are ultimately insignificant. It points toward the need to calm our own inner waters, so we can more capably navigate the ones around us.

The wisdom of emptying ourselves of the baggage we carry that may tip us too far to one side or the other has been recognized by sages in many eras. The Chinese Taoist Chuang Tzu suggested this strategy as a kind of protection: 

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.

The 8th century Indian Buddhist monk Shantideva invites us to take this work a step further. To offer this inner calm and peace to others in need of it:

May I become at all times, both now and forever
A protector of those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross…

Which brings to mind the words of one who some might call a more recent sage, Paul Simon, who sang of being “like a bridge over troubled water” for a friend in need. To do so, he says, I will lay me down.”

I read a double meaning in this. To offer compassion in this way, to some extent at least, I must set myself aside, putting down the things I think of as adding up to my solid self. Empty my boat. Lay me down. Sit myself down.

While I like the metaphor of it, I suspect it also literally requires the practice of sitting down. Taking the time to sit with ourselves and find ballast in our ability to come back to our basic nature. Tuning in to the awareness that knows we are always sailing on, and that we can stay grounded, even if we are far from shore. 

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