Katie, the teacher of my Wednesday yoga class, likes to give us something to think about when we are all lying in savasana, the final resting pose at the end of the practice. I usually spend this time recovering from her core workouts, which I find challenging – bordering on impossible – as they require both coordination and superhuman strength, so I enjoy her inspirational offerings which take my mind off the burning. This week, she told a story about a monk that went out on a boat to meditate. I missed a bit of the beginning (because: heaving), but here is the gist: He floated out to the middle of a lake and closed his eyes, and meditated for a few hours. Then, while he was deep in concentration, a boat bumped into him and made a loud noise, and jolted him. He was angry that someone had disturbed him, but when he opened his eyes he saw there was no one in the boat. It was an empty boat that had come unmoored and floated out on the lake where it struck him. The next thing that struck him was the realization that his anger was internal. He thought his anger came from this interruption, this rudeness, but it was in his own mind and body and it was directed at this empty boat.
Anger is one emotion, but this metaphor can apply to them all. Yes, we are impacted by the way that we interact with and are treated by others. But then we tell ourselves a story about what that means as we decide (in half a nanosecond) how we feel about it. If I have a core belief that I am unlovable (which I do; I’m working on it), then when a friend is busy and doesn’t respond to my messages, I tend to go to my core belief as an explanation, as it confirms my dearly held self-conception and is never too far beneath the surface.
It also occurs to me that the empty boat is a good image when it comes to setting boundaries, also. I was pondering this as a chronic people pleaser, because I tend to ascribe a lot of intention to the people around me and it makes it difficult for me to assert myself.
This is an example of what I am talking about. My husband has established a tradition with his son where, when on road trips, they both take turns choosing an album to listen to on the drive. (Yes, I said “album;” we are Gen-Xers and we buy and listen to entire albums. The car I bought last winter doesn’t have a CD player and I am still trying to adapt.) Matt loves to listen to rock gods from the 60s and 70s. When his son was little he always chose one of the many Star Wars soundtracks. Now he is eleven and it is K-pop or something adjacent to Imagine Dragons. When I joined the family and the family road trips, Matt started asking me to take a turn and pick something. His car is a 2015 and has a single disc player, so I could either bring music or pick something from his vast collection that he keeps on an iPod touch. I usually demurred, however. I would say, ‘oh I don’t need a turn, whatever is fine…’ or, if I did pick something, it would be music from Matt’s iPod; something that I knew they would like.
Recently, while Matt was away on a work trip, I was listening to my music – mostly things I listened to in the 90s and indie-folk from the aughts – and I remembered how good it feels to connect with that part of myself. I know this sounds possible, but I think I had completely forgotten about music. Those few days, though, I listened to songs that felt like old friends and I listened to new (to me, at least) musicians who made me want to get up and move or sing along. I made a rule then that when I had a opportunity to choose music with my family, I had to take it.
It was a few weeks before I got an opportunity, and then I hit a snag. It was just Matt and me in the car, and his album finished and he reflexively picked another one. I had passed so often on my turn he had stopped asking if I wanted one, and I hadn’t noticed. This made it much more difficult because it meant I actually had to broach the subject, which I hadn’t prepared myself to do. I steeled myself, something I am physically more capable of these days thanks to Katie’s core workouts, and said, “Oh, I like this album. But can I pick the next one?”
Matt was surprised and said so. “Sorry, I didn’t think… of course! Play whatever you want.” So I did. And if he hated it, he didn’t say anything. Nor has he said anything since when I’ve played other music. He’ll ask questions about it, and I’ve finally come to trust that he isn’t scrutinizing my taste when he asks. He’s just trying to get to know me better, like a good partner is supposed to do.
Sometimes we are dealing with toxic people or systems who are very much IN the boat, ramming us. That is a reality that many people deal with and I don’t want to naively discount the external factors. But other times, we convince ourselves that people are harboring motivations that aren’t really there. Or, if they are, they are much less important to them than we assume. Sometimes the boat is empty, and all we have to do is give it a little push to send it back on its way so we can get back to what we were doing before the interruption.