I Want to Live With An Empty Boat

Rainbow island

Rainbow on Cape Newagen, ME: Photo by Karen Swanson

“How much ‘ego’ do you need? Just enough so that you don’t step in front of a bus.”

 ~Shunryu Suzuki

“Whatever happens in your life, joyful or painful, do not be swept away by reactivity. Be patient with yourself and don’t lose your sense of perspective.”

~ Pema Chodron

“Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy. When you touch nonfear, you are free.”

 ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

I was cleaning out my oversized bag, getting ready for my trip across country. As I discarded old receipts and empty stevia packets, I found a note to myself that said, “write about loving without the judgment, the non-self—the empty boat.” I was delighted to remember the story of the empty boat and decided to take my own suggestion and write about these three things. To begin, I must write about the story first. I loved this story the first time I heard it in one of Jack Kornfield’s dharma talks. It is also included in a book by Tibetan nun, Pema Chodron. Searching a bit more on the internet, I found that that the seed of this story originally came from the Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu, who lived in the 4oo BCE.

The story goes that a fisherman is out in the early morning on the river. As the sun comes up, he sees another boat further down the river. As the boat approaches, the fisherman can see it is steering directly towards his boat. He shouts a warning as the boat gets nearer. The boat continues to come closer. Again, this time with anger, he yells to steer the boat away from his. The approaching boat doesn’t turn, and the fisherman watches embroiled in rage, as the boat crashes into the side of his vessel. Screaming curses, he glares into the interior of the immobile boat. There is no one in it. All his rage and judgment vanish at the sight of the empty boat.

When I heard this story, I wanted to carry it with me in my pocket to remember that the acts I imbue with vicious intent, all the wrongs done to me, are really mistaken perception. I wanted to see the empty boat in the moments when I was on hold with my health insurance being transferred to a specialist for the third time and when the kids didn’t clean up after making late night macaroni and cheese. I wanted to know the impersonal nature of life and remember that these actions are not done “to me” when I was disappointed that I didn’t get the email, or the acknowledgment I was longing for. The empty boat lets us experience the spaciousness of non-self and just as the fisherman’s blame and judgment evaporated seeing the lack of malice, so may we become empty of our righteous rush to condemn.

Chuang Tzu spoke about this as a protection, “If a man could succeed in making himself empty, and in that way wander through the world, then who could do him harm?” This way of seeing brings us the willingness to stop the dance of victim and perpetrator. There is a paradox that comes about when we empty ourselves of our desire to punish and blame, we become harmless to others—and as a result, we lose our fear of others.

When we can look at our lives with the reminder of non-harming and blamelessness, we can touch into the joyful aspect of not being a small self. And recognize that we are more than the trembling ego who reacts with temper tantrums when we don’t get our way, or when we are not considered. The idea of the empty boat releases the other person from the weight of our judgment and frees us both. Practicing emptying our boat, we can begin to see that our desire not to harm is rooted in integrity and caring. This is the love that we hoard and ration out to those who are worthy—the select few who agree to our rules of conduct, don’t irritate us, or cause problems.

There is a phrase in Buddhism, The Bliss of Blamelessness. This is the joy that comes from following our precepts and mindfulness trainings. Living in accord with our highest and best desires, we can rejoice that we are living lives dedicated to caring for living beings, generosity, kind and wise speech, sexual responsibility, and compassionate consumption.

When we live with an empty boat, it doesn’t stay empty for long. It naturally fills with concern for the quality of our consciousness and care for others. Our vessel becomes greater as we jettison our righteousness, our pride, and blame. We make room for what comes next—the love that values the purity of our own hearts and our own peace above the need to be right. Once we experience the spacious happiness of non-fear and are free from the confines of condemning and punishing, our boat has no room for war.

May we all trust our light,



Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh


B. Watson, trans. (1964, 1999). Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings. New York, NY: Columbia University Press


I am Happy For you–No, Really, I am.

New Harbor Sky

New Harbor Sky, Photo by Rick Errichetti

“Contentment is one of the key cornerstones of joy.”

~Christine Feldman

“How wonderful you are in your being.

 I delight that you are here.

I take joy in your good fortune.

May your happiness continue.”

~16th C. Singhalese blessing

“May the nourishment of the earth be yours,

may the clarity of light be yours,

may the fluency of the ocean be yours,

may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow

wind work these words

of love around you,

an invisible cloak

to mind your life.”

~ John O’Donohue


Dear Friends,

Joy at the success and good fortune of others is an inconstant thing. It might be easy for us to be happy for a friend’s child who received the football scholarship when we have no school tuition to pay, but if I am struggling to send my children school and I don’t have a job that pays well while my relative buys a vacation home, feeling some joy at their good fortune is harder and sometimes unavailable.

This ability to feel joy at the success of others is a very old attribute. It is called mudita in Pali and comes through the Vedic tradition that preceded the Buddha. It is the third brahmavihara. The name evokes Brahma, the exalted god who contains only love. Vihara means abode or dwelling. The brahmaviharas are the best homes or highest dwelling places of the heart and mind. They are also called the immeasurable as the Buddha directed the monastics to boundlessly radiate these qualities to all beings without discrimination. The four qualities are part of our birthright; they are not foreign to us but may be occluded by the three poisons of coveting, ill will, and wrong understanding. We may need some reminders that these qualities are waiting and available for us to develop.

The first quality is metta (maître/Sanskrit) which is universal friendliness, the second is karuna, compassion which includes the ability to remove suffering, and the third, mudita, is joy at other’s good fortune, and lastly upekka, equanimity or solidity. The least understood and least popular of these virtues is the third, mudita.

Pema Chodron, an American nun in the Shambala tradition says that mudita is the hardest brahmavihara to practice. In the face of overwhelming success of her friends she candidly wishes they would not “shine so brightly.” Being in the shadow of someone else’s success can test our commitment to the quality of our consciousness. It’s hard to be happy for others who seem to have so much more when we don’t have our basic needs met. And even when we do have our needs met, when we hear about someone else getting something we would like, it stirs the fire of envy and jealousy.

There are a few ways to look at this, one is that when there is contraction of the heart and smallness at another’s happiness it is because we mistakenly believe that there is a finite amount of happiness and if someone else has it—that’s the happiness we won’t have. We take their success personally. I am unbothered by the success of others in areas I have no interest in. Folks can become marathon runners or archeologist who gain fame and recognition without arousing any envy in me, but when they do something that edges into my territory—their child gets into the school my child was rejected from or they get the job I applied for—the reaction is pain, not happiness because I believe that the thing out there is actually mine and the success rightfully belongs to me.

Buddhist scholar and translator Bhikkhu Bhodi writes “’ Envy arises because we identify things as ‘I,’ because we perpetually seek to establish a personal identity for ourselves internally and to project that identity outward for others to recognize and accept.’” The remedy for this type of egoic drive is the understanding of non-self, and in the case of jealousy and envy, it is difficult not to be a self–and an especially cranky one.

The Buddha tells us that when we notice our thought taking us to an unhappy place, we should stop thinking those thoughts. “If, as one pursues a certain type of idea cognizable by the intellect, unskillful mental qualities increase, and skillful mental qualities decline, that sort of idea cognizable by the intellect is not to be pursued.” (DN 21). But how do we actually do this not pursuing? How do we drop the notion that success, prosperity, and accolades should belong to me?

This negative emotion of ill will and craving is a signal. Jealousy is information that we have left our own experience and are comparing ourselves with someone else. Founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg said, “If you want to make life miserable for yourself, compare yourself to other people.” He gives the salient example of comparing your lifetime achievements to Mozart’s at age 12. We do not tend to rejoice for others when they are too fabulous or when we feel we are not enough.

There’s the Sanskrit word, Santoshta which means contentment. Thich Nhat Hanh translates this as “I have enough.” It is also the reminder that I am enough as I am. When we can dwell in the beauty of contentment with our own goodness and our gifts, we do not need to turn our eyes to the world for validation of our worth. We can begin by offering ourselves loving kindness in the form of metta, compassionate touch, or holding ourselves with empathy and understanding. I find the phrases, “May I know my worth,” and “May I delight in my goodness,” remind me what I do have instead of what I am lacking. When we can fill ourselves up with joy in our own lives, we are less likely to be swept away by jealousy and desire for what others have—no matter how good it looks from the outside.

Thich Nhat Hahn asks, “How can we feel joy for another person when we do not feel joy for ourselves?” The lack of joy for another can alert us that our own joy reserve is running low. A practice for creating more joy in our lives is simply to train ourselves to notice the good and to stop. Be fully present for a sunset, the scent of lilacs at night, a kind word or a smile from a friend. Wherever we find small joys we can train ourselves to pay attention to these everyday moments of happiness. We can actively note how our body feels when we experience joy and happiness, what our senses register. We can bathe in joy instead of dismissing it in search of new obstacles to our happiness. When we make time for joy, it accrues in our life. Noticing the good, we tune to the richness we have overlooked. Joy comes in small drops, filling us up with contentment that spills over and offers itself to others—even those who get what we did not.

May we all trust our light,



Thich Nhat Hanh Calligraphy, Lion’s Roar. You Have Enough, Nov 2015




Life Is Always Teaching Us

crop, water tower

Woods and water tower, photo by Celia

“Joy is being willing for things to be as they are.”

~ Charlotte Joko Beck

“Mindfulness helps us go home to the here and now and get in touch with life. We have an appointment with life. That appointment takes place in the present moment. If you miss the present moment, you miss your appointment with life.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“Life always gives us

exactly the teacher we need

at every moment.

This includes every mosquito,

every misfortune, every red light,

every traffic jam,

every obnoxious supervisor (or employee),

every illness, every loss,

every moment of joy or depression,

every addiction,

every piece of garbage,

every breath.

Every moment is the guru.”

~ Charlotte Joko Beck


Dear friends,

Have you noticed that identifying what we don’t like and arranging our lives to avoid that thing doesn’t really work? Our life is our teacher. Life is the best and the most unyielding teacher we possess. What I’ve noticed is wherever I am caught, whatever I am resisting and hoping to get a respite from—that’s the very thing that life is going to shower me with. There’s a self-selecting pattern that keeps whatever is too big or scary playing out in my life, like a theme song.

A meditation teacher explained to me years ago that whatever we take issue with, whether it is irritating people, ignorance, fighting, not being considered, greed—name your poison—life would keep presenting us with this situation until something shifts. That sounds rather mysterious and vague. To make it more real, we can use the example of wanting peace and harmony and finding ourselves in the company of those who enjoy fighting and loudly debating, or we want to be considered…and we are not invited to the decision-making conversations. As my teacher explained, when we give ourselves enough respect and consideration, we no longer put ourselves in the way of what is painful. We learn to protect our own consciousness. She explained that this was also an energetic transformation and others recognize who will put up with their shenanigans—and who won’t. The world doesn’t change—we do.

Recently, I’ve been wanting some solidity, some connection with community and to put down roots, but life is not affording me that opportunity and I am left wondering if I will be moving again soon. I recognize that life is purifying me, pulling the earth from beneath my feet so I can learn to trust my own ability to balance. Life is teaching me at each transition and when things stop rocking my world, it is a sign that I have learned something. When there are balance and equanimity in times that would have sent us running from the room—or running to the Ben and Jerry’s—those events no longer have power to throw us off kilter and we may find that their incidence declines or stops.

Personally, I find it a relief to know that there is a purpose to this tumult and agitation—one of purification. There is a saying in meditation circles, “what is in the way, is the way.” This requires looking at our reactivity and conditioning without running. Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that if we are not available to the present moment, we miss our appointment with life. We don’t show up for the moments that are our teacher. Research shows us that not being present with what’s happening is not only commonplace, it actually causes more unhappiness than being present with what is.

Harvard University happiness researchers Matt Killingworth and Daniel Gilbert developed an I-phone app to sample real-time data relating to being present and happiness. They received over 650,000 reports from more than 15,000 adults aged 18-80 in over 80 countries evaluating their happiness. This data answered only three questions, “How are you feeling right now? What are you doing right now?” And, “Are you thinking of something other than what you’re currently doing?” Analyzing the results, the data showed mind wandering which ranged from a high of 65% during tooth brushing and showering to 50% at work, 40% while exercising and a low of 10% during sex. Researchers found that regardless of activity, the mind that wandered was “generally the cause, and not merely the consequence of unhappiness.” Regardless of the activity, the more the mind wandered, the lower the happiness level reported. This was true even in events like traffic jams and housework.

Matt Killingworth describes this correlation in his TED talk, “Yet even when people are thinking about something they describe as neutral, they’re still considerably less happy than when they’re not mind-wandering. In fact, even when they’re thinking about something they describe as pleasant, they’re still slightly less happy than when they aren’t mind-wandering at all.” Being with what is not only can create more happiness in us, it is the only way we can learn from our life.

Standing firmly present with compassionate mindfulness can give us the tools we need to make changes that matter. This week, I am inviting you to use the Zen teaching that asks us, “what in this moment is lacking?” It’s a real question, deserving an authentic, honest answer. Only when we are willing to know our fear, resistance, or hesitation in this moment, can we realize our solidity and accept the appointment with life. Only by being with what is can we learn what life is teaching us about our freedom.

May we all trust our light,


Mindfulness is a source of happiness



Less Intoxicants Means Less Apologizing

Exit Buddha

Exit Buddha, Photo by Celia

“The bad things, don’t do them.

The good things, try to do them.

Try to purify, subdue your own mind.

That is the teaching of all buddhas.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power

“Furthermore, abandoning the use of intoxicants, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from taking intoxicants. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression.”

~Abhisanda Sutta: Rewards, AN 8.39

“Monks, these four types of individuals are to be found existing in the world. Which four? The one who practices for his own benefit but not for that of others. The one who practices for the benefit of others but not for his own. The one who practices neither for his own benefit nor for that of others. The one who practices for his own benefit and for that of others…He himself abstains from intoxicants that cause heedlessness and encourages others in undertaking abstinence from intoxicants that cause heedlessness. Such is the individual who practices for his own benefit and for that of others.”

~ Sikkha Sutta: Trainings, AN 4.99


Dear Friends,

Over 2,600 hundred years ago the Buddha gave a set of five practical instructions called the Five Precepts, or Five Mindfulness Trainings for lay people to help eliminate unnecessary suffering in their lives. For some time, I’ve been wanting to write about the fifth precept that calls on us to refrain from “intoxicants that cause heedlessness.” I’ve been hesitant to weigh in because it can sound like an ultimatum and distance people from the practice. But I would like to share my own experience with this training and what I’ve learned putting it into practice.

In the Plum Village tradition, we can formally receive the transmission of the updated  Five Mindfulness Trainings. Folks are free to make the commitment to practice one or all five of the trainings. The most common training to be left out is—no surprise—number five which states, “I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations.” At first glance it does seem severe and Puritanical—I mean even if we don’t have a problem with intoxicants, with recreational drugs and alcohol, why would we stop using them if we are responsible adults and we are not harming anyone?

Early in my practice, I spoke with an older member of the sangha about his sobriety. He was never an abuser of alcohol or drugs, but he told me that he noticed his motivation to drink. When he used to drink, he gave himself permission for the ease and solitude that he wasn’t able to offer without a glass in his hand. Drinking was the signal that he wanted some rest. This led me to consider how I used alcohol. I had small children and was busy all day long. I looked forward to a glass of wine in the evening to relax and it seemed like a small gift I could give myself after a tiring day. What I noticed was that I was doing the same thing as my friend. My wine glass was a sign that I was done. This was mommy’s time—leave her alone and go to bed. Alcohol created distance between me and my children. Alcohol was what I gave myself instead of time to rest and the permission to stop and take care of myself. A glass of wine meant that I didn’t have to look into my exhaustion, my tiredness, my wanting to have some tranquility. Alcohol meant that I could do it all again the next day the same way and not have to recognize that I was withholding kindness, rest, and peace from myself. Drinking was a way to ignore my body and mind and abdicate responsibility for caring for myself.

Thich Nhat Hanh uses the word, “Interbeing” to describe how we are not separate small selves, but that we are part of a vast interconnected field of cause and effect. He reminds us that we belong to each other and our behavior affects each other. “In modern life, people think that their body belongs to them and they can do anything they want to it. When they make such a determination, the law supports them. This is one of the manifestations of individualism. But, according to the teachings of emptiness, non-self, and interbeing, your body is not yours alone. It also belongs to your ancestors, your parents, future generations, and all other living beings.” As a parent and someone who has seen close up the devastation of addiction, I consider my abstinence as a way to actively demonstrate my care and concern, not just for my own children, but for all of my species.

We live in a society where according to a 2012 Columbia University study, “40 million Americans age 12 and over meet the clinical criteria for addiction involving nicotine, alcohol or other drugs.” This is a greater number of folks than those with heart disease, diabetes or cancer combined. 80 Million more Americans are designated as “risky substance users,” and while not meeting the clinical definition of addiction, they overuse, binge and generally “use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs in ways that threaten public health and safety.” That brings the total of those who are highly involved with drugs and alcohol in the United States to 120 million. The U.S. Census Bureau recorded the population as 328,977, 514 on June 1st, 2019, which means that well over a third of our country is struggling with addictive behavior.

When we follow these trainings, they are a source of protection, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us. “When we practice not drinking alcohol, we protect ourselves, and we also protect our family and our society. A woman in London told me, ‘I have been drinking two glasses of wine every week for the last twenty years, and it has done me no harm at all. Why should I give it up?’ I said, ‘It’s true that two glasses of wine do not harm you. But are you sure they do not harm your children? You may not have the seed of alcoholism in you, but who knows whether the seed of alcoholism is in your children. If you give up wine, you’ll be doing it not only for yourself but also for your children and for your society.”’ When we model a behavior, we may give someone the strength to stop using. And when we don’t have the first drink, we won’t get to the fourth.

I never formally planned to stop drinking and never said, “this will be my last drink.” I am extremely fortunate that I did not have the added burden of addiction linked to my decision to stop drinking. As I committed to mindfulness, one of the most difficult times was in the company of friends who drank and used alcohol to allow themselves to do what they were longing to…either relaxing, giving permission to have fun, to celebrate and feel connection, or as an opportunity to express what was really bothering them. I used to wait for some bits of wisdom and insight from those who were drinking and each time I would be surprised when they got cloudy and lost any mental acuity. They fit the Buddha’s description of the brahmins and contemplatives who took intoxicants, “Because of these obscurations some brahmans & contemplatives don’t glow, don’t shine, are impure, dusty, dead” (AN 4.50. Upakkilesa Sutta: Obscurations). I needed to be a witness to understand that loosening control leads to the opposite of creativity and clarity and the opposite of mindfulness.

I do know that my ability to be mindful of my feelings and emotions and care for them without using substances has been a great gift to my family. I’ve recognized that sobriety has been immensely supportive for maintain right speech and using words that promote communication and understanding. And for the last 14 years, my kids have witnessed a reasonably happy person, capable of relaxing and caring for myself and others without the use of alcohol and drugs.

Applying our own compassionate mindfulness to our habits enables us to see what we are doing…and most importantly, what is calling out for my care? What do I really want in this moment and more importantly, how am I caring for my consciousness with this action? Can I meet myself honestly in this moment and be enough just as I am? Thich Nhat Hanh recommends if we want to stop a behavior, don’t just stop. Keep doing it—but with awareness. Know when you are smoking. Know when you are drinking…and do it mindfully. If we accept that the whole of our life is our practice, there is no area that is exempt from our awareness and care.

May we all trust our light,


The way out is the way in