There is a very old story about a fisherman and his boat. Two boats actually. In my new version of that story you will meet a grumpy man and you will learn why every boat is always empty. That’s right. Even if it’s a Google car.
Once upon a time there will be a poor man with short temper. Let’s call him Groucho. And let’s put the story in the near future. Groucho was so poor that he possessed nothing he was proud of. Instead of the Apple iPhone 21 that he would like to own, he only had … an old landline telephone. With a dial. With a broken dial.
Instead of the house he wanted to live in, his apartment was in a cardboard box in the middle of a busy road. No, that’s too much. His apartment was in the basement of a take away food shop. Specialized in smelly food. Extremely smelly. The famous „extremely smelly food take away“.
The only thing in his possession he had a soft spot in his heart for was his little car. It was old, but somehow loyal to him – that was the way he felt it. He even gave it a name. In the mornings, when he had to drive to work – he hated his boss, by the way – he would say: „Good morning, Carabella! Nice to see you!“ Because Carabella was the name of his car.
Groucho loved his car so much that he polished it every evening when he came back from work. While he polished it – or her – he told Carabella how shitty his day has been again. Sometimes, after his polishing was done, he would look at his work and – if you used a magnifying glass – you could even see a little smile in his face!
Okay. The stage is set. One dark morning, on a very foggy day, Groucho caressed Carabella and drove to work. It was very early and the streets were almost empty. Because of the fog he had to drive very slowly. He would come late and his boss would be annoyed, so Groucho was grumpy.
As he crept down this very small road he sees the headlights of another car driving in his direction. And he grumbles: „That idiot! What is he doing! This is a one-way street!“ So he hunks his horn!
But the other car doesn’t change its course and doesn’t slow down either. Groucho gets furious, hunks his horn again and again and shouts: „Hey, you Arschloch! Stop! Are you totally out of your mind! You will crash into me!“
Still no reaction from the other car. Groucho opens the driver’s window, puts his head out and shouts at the top of his lungs: „Stop! Stop! Are you braindead and blind! You’ll ram into my car! Have you ever driven a car before?“
But this moron in the other car doesn’t show any reaction. It’s as if he wants to collide with Carabella! He wants to hurt him, Groucho! That’s typical! He’s already late and now this blithering idiot wants to kill him! This could only happen to him!
Groucho brakes and slams in the reverse gear. The right idea probably, but it’s too late. The other car collides with his car! Groucho is fuming: „That arschloch hurt Carabella! My Carabella! The only thing in my possession that has any value at all! Carabella, I will avenge you: I’ll go over there, drag him out of his wreck of a car and punch him in his face until he whimpers like a baby and begs for forgiveness!“
So Groucho jumps out of Carabella, runs over to the other car, opens the door – but that car has no driver! There’s no one sitting in the car! It’s only an autonomous car with a malfunction!
In this instant his anger washes of him!
That’s all, folks
That’s my story for today. The original story is at least sixteen hundred years old. Because there were no Google cars in the fourth century, the Chinese taoists used boats to tell the same story.
The „story of the empty boat“ makes its rounds as a popular Zen-story, but the truth is: It’s older than Zen itself. In the way buddhism picked up reincaarnation from religions in India, it adapted many ideas from taoism when it arrived in China. So the use of the empty boat parable makes perfect sense in Zen.
When I heard it for the first time, it was the first Zen story I could relate to instantly. The other stories often confused me and I really began to dislike the teaching part of meditation retreats. My suspicion was: These stories were created to confuse. Like koans.
Along came Groucho and Carabella or – in the original version – the fisherman and his boat, and it clicked. Because this had happened to me, too. Because I was the fisherman. I am Groucho.
I remembered that I had made a similar experience. That my anger on someone was completely unneccessary, too. That overbold woman that jumped the queue right before my nose! Without even looking around. How rude! Tss… Then she turned around, said „Sorry, I had not seen you; I am blind“ and – pow! – the anger was gone. And I was a little ashamed, too.
So: Is the meaning of this story: Don’t get angry too soon?
Let’s have a look at our angry hero. Groucho is a poor man and his only friend is Carabella. That morning he is in a hurry and something unexpected happens to him. It’s easy to understand his anger.
What would have happened, if he had known that the other car was without a driver? That the boat was empty? Supposedly he would have not used his horn, had not yelled out the window. Instead he would have reversed earlier and the accident may not have happened at all.
This means: The anger does not have its source in the dangerous situation itself, its source seems to be the other driver. And, to be exact: The assumptions Groucho makes about him.
He’s an idiot. He can’t drive. He is out to get Groucho. Suddenly it’s a personal thing between Groucho and the idiot. Suddenly it’s a fight.
The anger derives from Grouchos assumptions of the alleged human being in the other car. As soon he realised that there was no idiot at all, all his emotions break down. His theory about the situation was proven wrong, so his anger was worthless.
In his fury he thought the idiot was aiming exactly at him, Groucho. It was a very personal attack on his existence. That’s the nature of Grouchos assumptions.
So it would have made no difference at all if there would have been a driver in the other car. Because the propability that the idiot even knew Groucho is very low. And even if it was an aquaitance, how plausible is the idea, that he was on a personal vendetta against our sad hero?
The boat is always empty. Always. The other drivers you meet in traffic never want to harm you personally. They don’t even care for you at all, as long your car is not an obstacle in their way.
So: Is the meaning of this story: Don’t make assumptions about other people?
Why is Groucho making assumptions?
It seems like a very normal thing to do, doesn’t it? We all do this, don’t we?
We will never know how any other human being feels. We only know how we feel. Sometimes we may think we know how other people do feel. But all we do is assuming that their emotion is similar to an emotion we already experienced.
Our subconsciousness compares our perceptions with our own experiences all the time. All the time! This kind of pattern recognition is its main work load while we are not asleep.
And we tend to expand this comparing machine on almost everything.
I am rather convinced that I can „read“ our dogs and cats. That I know what they want. I even feel that they are answering, when I ask them specific questions. That they understand what I say.
But these are assumptions, nothing more.
Basically their brains are so different from mine that it’s impossible to compare the emotions at all. Dogs don’t get sad. Everyone with a pet will disagree, I know. But: Their sadness is completely different from our sadness. It’s so different that it’s not justified to use the same word for these to emotions.
But knowing that fact doesn’t help. My subconsciousness just won’t stop working.
And the comparing machine in me doesn’t stop with pets or wild animals or bees and birds.
When I see one of our plants dying, when the leaves are weak and the stem bends slowly, I feel: „Sad little plant.“ I really do feel sorry for it, I want to comfort it somehow.
Because I compare the reality of the weak plant to my experiences, even if I don’t have leaves at all.
The comparing-machine works on things, too.
Cars can have very angry faces, when you see them in the rear mirror. And if they have we instinctively react to that face. That’s not a coincidence, you can be assured: Car designers know about this! The angry face look is intended. It attracts a specific target group.
The comparing-machine works on everything.
I’ve even heard people say: „This city doesn’t like me!“ Or: „The waves want me to drown.“ Or: „That cancer is nasty.“ The weather is friendly. The landscape is repellent.
There are millions of examples: But cities, oceans, cancer, the weather or a landscape do not have emotions at all. They don’t know nothing. The don’t care about you at all.
The boat is always empty. Always.
So: Is the meaning of this story: Don’t make assumptions about reality at all?
Pretty much. But … there’s one little problem: That’s impossible. Because we can’t stop to recognize patterns. We can’t stop to compare the world outside of us to the world inside of us. We can’t stop the comparing-machine.
But we can train ourselves to watch it while it produces theories of reality, solely based on the experiences we made. We can be witnesses of us while we are in the process of assuming.
If we do this, we will slowly learn that the comparing-machine is wrong most of the time.
You may not believe this, but that’s a cognitive bias. If the subconsciousness is wrong it simply deletes its work. But if its right: Wow! That’s a party! That’s joy! This one moment will get framed and celebrated over and over.
You can train yourself to listen to your assumptions. After a while you can catch your subconsciosness, before it destroys all evidence of its constant failures to interpret reality.
It’s wrong almost every time because the world outside of us follows rules that we will never truly understand.
Even if you and I would meet and we were both angry like Groucho, then our assumptions about the anger in the other would be wrong too.
Your anger and my anger are two completely different emotions! Learned differently in different bodies, made by different genes, caused by different experiences.
If you watch the comparing-machine for a while, you will observe: It even makes assumptions regarding your own emotions. It should work better, you might think, but it doesn’t. Every anger is a new anger.
Okay, that’s getting too deep. How to train your dragon? How to watch yourself making assumptions? How to watch the comparing-machine?
I constructed my modern version of the empty boat with cars. Because traffic is a very good school for watching your comparing-machine making wrong assumptions about the other road users.
Sure, there are idiots driving cars. People who are drunk or who are texting for example.
But even with an idiot behind the driving wheel: The boat is always empty!
Even drunken texting idiots are not after you! They are not actively planning your demise.
Even drunken texting idiots do not want to be involved in any accident at all!
If you don’t fall for your assumptions, you have time to react. You can choose what to do.
That’s a very important thing! You can’t overemphasize that: That’s freedom!
And it’s a very important thing especially if you sit in a ton of metal driving 40 mph and you are surrounded by tons of metal steered by other people and some of them may be drunken texting idiots.
The boat is always empty!
It’s never about you or your assumptions about reality.
The world around you is just … there. It’s about life Itself!
Ok, before we end todays episode: Let’s finish our story. Frau Anders insists on happy endings. O.k…
The malfunctioning Google car was very well insured. Groucho called the number fixed on the car … Wait a moment … Groucho borrowed a smartphone from a passerby and called the number and a very friendly woman answered. Carabella had almost no damage and got a new paint in a sassy color from the insurance money. And Groucho met the woman from that telephone call and if they are not dead – no, the story is set in the future: If they will not be dead then we can assume that all three of them will still be alive. Puh!
But now for real: That’s all, folks!