Blame and the Empty Boat Practice

Posted by on Oct 8, 2015

Blame and the Empty Boat Practice

I am sitting with clients at my office in the autumn morning shade. Their rescue dog sits with us. He was caged in a dog mill for 7 years until my clients opened their home and hearts to him. A shifting of position in my chair used to startle him- now he is unfazed. His eyes are friendly and take in all that surrounds him. He is relishing his newfound freedom and is confident where he once was unsure, eager to explore the surrounding ranch and then return when called.

There is also a cat; soft, young, grey with white socks, friendly, and cute. I’m not sure where she came from, but she’s been calling the ranch home for about a month.

The dog sees the cat and chases her. The cat seems unsure of what to do and the dog is surprised by how easily he is on top of her. She finally gets it and runs up a tree, as high as she can go, peering down between the leaves. We pause to watch, and then go back to talking.

The dog waits under the tree, then, comes back to us when called. He paces around. I feel uneasy. I hear a voice in my head, “Maybe you should ask them to put the dog in the car.” My client makes a comment, “Do I need to tie you up?” Then jokingly adds, “With the leash I don’t have?” Her intuition mirrors mine.

I see the cat coming down the tree. I hear my voice, “Stay in that tree!” In an instant the dog is on the cat. He has her in his jowls. He is shaking her little body back and forth. My client is there instantly, screaming, “STOP!” “STOP!” I’m there yelling, begging. Finally the dog is pulled off the cat. The cat lays on the ground trembling, twitching. I stroke it gently, unsure what to do. She continues to twitch- then I see the life leave her, and in an instant, she’s still, gone. My client picks her up like a baby, gently rocking her, crying over and over, “I’m so sorry.“

A man who is visiting the property comes over to help. “I’m so sorry, “ my client says again. “It’s ok,” he says, “It’s nature.”  Her partner agrees, “He was acting on instinct.” Their words ring true yet how far I feel from that in the moment. “It could have been prevented had I listened to my intuition,” I think. Self-blaming mode is kicking in to full gear. I feel numb. Shocked. Later I feel sick, headachy, tired, and guilty. The weight of that young cat’s life is heavy in my heart.

The Empty Boat Metaphor:

There is a Zen story about a man in a boat on a river at dusk. Suddenly another boat is headed straight for him, coming faster and faster. He gets upset, and starts to yell, “Watch out! Turn!” trying to warn the other person in the boat, but the boat crashes into him anyway. By this time the man is furious and shaking his fist, continuing to yell, until he sees that the boat is empty. In Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron she writes about the boat metaphor, saying, “This is the classic story of our whole life situation. There are a lot of empty boats out there that we’re always screaming at and shaking our fists at.”

Charlotte Joko Beck also writes about the empty boat metaphor: “Now our encounters with life, with other people, with events, are like being bumped by an empty rowboat. But we don’t experience life that way. We experience it as though there are people in that other rowboat and we’re really getting clobbered by them. What am I talking about when I say that all of life is an encounter, a collision with an empty rowboat? … We think the other person should be different. They should be the way I think they should be. When we come to what we call “crisis points” in our life, it’s not fun- I’m not saying that- but it still is as it is. It is still the perfection…For instance, most of us in dealing with young children can see that whatever they do-even if they come up and give you a kick in the shins- that’s an empty rowboat, right? You just deal with it.”

No one to blame:

 What happened with the dog and the cat is an empty boat. There’s no one to scream at, no one to blame. We could go through the blame list:

  • It’s my fault; I should have listened to my intuition.
  • It’s my clients’ fault; they should have brought a leash.
  • It’s the dog’s fault; he shouldn’t be so aggressive.
  • It’s the cat’s fault; she should have stayed in the tree.
  • It’s the people who ran the dog mill’s fault; they suck.
  • It’s the weather’s fault- if it would have been colder we would have sat inside.

How far back should we go? Where does the blame begin? All of the conditions that came together to create the death of the cat have millions of other conditions that led to that.

Empty Boat Practice:

When we find ourselves in blame mode, we could instead try the empty boat practice:

  1. Listen to your story about who is to blame, and give yourself your full attentionI am to blame, I ignored my intuition, the cat’s death is my fault.
  2. Notice the impact that has on your body. Sick to my stomach, grief in my throat and eyes, constricted breathing, head aches.
  3. Drop the story and feel the sensations in the body. Stay with the sensation in the stomach, throat, eyes and head.  Tight.  Dull pain.  Tears welling up.  Tired.
  4. Offer compassion to your experience. Breathe into the sensation, hold it gently, let it be, tell myself, “You did the best you could in the moment.  You didn’t know this would happen.”
  5. Offer compassion to anyone involved that you feel called to offer compassion to. Imagine that person receiving compassionOffering compassion to the cat, I see it in my mind, and I imagine it receiving the gentle strokes I gave it as it died. 
  6. Contemplate what can be done?  The cat will be buried.  The dog will be on a leash next session.  I will pay more attention to my intuition in the future.
  7. Let it goWhat’s happening in this moment?
  8. Repeat as needed, until the blaming thoughts settle.

What about Isis? What about shooters in schools?

These are valid questions.  My answer is that perhaps these are not the places to start with the empty boat practice.  Instead we could start with with our own self-blame, with the subtle ways we blame our partners, our children, our friends, our neighbors, etc.

There’s no one to blame, so oh well?

Does this mean I shouldn’t take something from this experience? It’s just a dead cat, so moving on? Of course not- each moment in life presents itself with a gem if we are willing to pay attention, listen, feel, and grow. Life is always asking us to stretch- to become able to understand and hold more experience in our very being. Paying attention to my intuition is important. Understanding the nature of life and death matters. Each moment counts. You never know when your last will come. Life is rich with the invitation to hold all experiences with compassion.  And, as my client wisely said, “When you are getting bombarded by too many empty boats, it may be  time to choose a different river.”







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *