Rowboat

One of my favorite Buddhist teachings was given by the late Charlotte Joko Beck in her wonderful book “Everyday Zen”. It goes something like this.

Boat fog

Imagine that you live by a lake, and you have a rowboat. You’ve just repaired and repainted it, and you’re really pleased with the job. There’s a fog on the lake the morning after a stormy night, and you decide to row out and enjoy the quiet, surrounded by nothing but the mist and the water.

So you’re rowing along, and then scraaaape, you run into something, and you realize it is another boat. You know your paint job that you’re so proud of is messed up! You’re ready to give the other boater a piece of your mind when you realize that the other boat is empty. Looking closer, you see that there is a rope dragging from the bow, and you realize that the boat must have broken loose from its mooring during last night’s storm.

Suddenly your anger vanishes, now replaced by concern. To whom does the other boat belong? Can you tow it to shore and find the owner? What should you do? Your head is in an entirely different space. Instead of being angry, you want to help your neighbor get his boat back. None of the facts have changed, only your perception of them.

Do I react to situations before thinking first? Do I jump to unwarranted conclusions before I have all the facts? Are there decisions I have regretted, things that I should not have done or said that were the fruits of inappropriate anger? Do I allow my life to be disrupted by strong emotions that are pointless, resentments that damage relationships and feelings that can affect my sobriety, just because I jumped before I looked — before I bothered to consider all the facts rationally?

I’m afraid I’m guilty more often than I like to admit. I’m an addict, and we love to jump in and straighten things out before discovering whether our umbrage is warranted. We harbor resentments, because if you screwed up then maybe I don’t have to look at my part. We like to feel good about ourselves, and if we can’t manage that because of the shame and guilt that rules our lives, a good bit of righteous indignation can at least make us feel superior to some poor schmuck who may not even know what we’re shouting about.

We talk about “character defects” in the rooms of recovery. As I’ve written here before, I much prefer “unskillful behavior,” because we can improve. We can learn from our mistakes and become more skillful in the ways that we deal with the collisions in our foggy lake. But we can do that only if we’re willing to consider both sides of an issue and own our part, instead of flying off the handle.

Maybe a rowboat, some fog and a bit of meditation is just what we need. Or maybe a canoe. You paddle those facing in the direction you want to go.

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