Being Humble

(originally posted Sept 27, 2012)

done fishing today

done fishing today, Lesbos, Greece inner sea ~ D. Nelson

Last week after some quality time cultivating my garden of mindfulness at Deer Park, I packed up the camping gear and slowly drove out of the hidden mountain valley. Neil Diamond’s glorious Jonathan Livingston Seagull soundtrack CD was playing, as I rolled slowly across bouldered hills into the fog of Escondido. Still on my mind’s consciousness was young brother’s talk, which included reference to the ancient Chuang Tzu story of an empty boat. Chuang Tzu was a Taoist sage, living sometime before 250 B.C.

“If a man is crossing a river and an empty boat collides with his own skiff, even though he be a bad-tempered man he will not become very angry. But if he sees a man in the boat, he will shout at him to steer clear. If the shout is not heard, he will shout again, and yet again, and begin cursing. And all because there is somebody in the boat. Yet if the boat were empty, he would not be shouting, and not angry.

If you can empty your own boat crossing the river of the world, no one will oppose you, no one will seek to harm you….

Who can free himself from achievement, and from fame, descend and be lost amid the masses of men?

He will flow like Tao, unseen, he will go about like Life itself with no name and no home.

Simple is he, without distinction. To all appearances he is a fool.

His steps leave no trace. He has no power. He achieves nothing, has no reputation.

Since he judges no one, no one judges him.

Such is the perfect man:

His boat is empty. “

(20:2, 4, pp. 168-171) Chuang Tzu. The Way of Chuang Tzu. Translator/Editor Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1965.

watery clear lake divide

Embracing that thought of the empty boat as a koan I began the drive home with clear, blue southern California skies and end of summer heat. Recalling the front tire blowout (mentioned on my “finding the key” post) on the way down I was planning on taking it easy driving the interstate back. As I first met cars an intentional remembering that these cars are empty. Empty of anger, ill will, and ultimately, empty of having a separate existence. We are flowing on this river of time and space together. Cooperating like the cells of my body, and not competing. Even though my quickly judging mind might think, “hey, these people are in a hurry, seem impatient and my slow mindful driving is not making them any happier”, I adjusted best I could to support harmony on the road out of Escondido. Breathing and smiling holding the wheel of my empty boat. Fortunately the early morning traffic was light and spacious. No tailgater, no tailgatee.


full of everything ~d nelson

On the way down it seemed, in my memory, that the air was mostly clear. So as I approached the high San Gabriel mountains which were obscured by smog I sighed to the air that could be seen. Over the grapevine my empty boat journeyed through the San Joaquin Valley farmland with fruit and nut trees next to the roadway and an occasional fruit stand with fresh produce. Sometimes the freeway went across the California aqueduct, a canal which brings water from the north into the valley and southern California bringing it life, keeping it from returning back to its natural state of being a desert.


Empty boats of different colors, dancing up the interstate at the speed that is not too fast, not too slow, but just right for them. Well sometimes the big truck passes the other big truck and goes kind of slow, relative to the vehicles that were doing 90 until forced to go 60 while the big boat was in the fast lane. But knowing that it’s an empty boat I felt happy. Seeing truckloads of bright, red tomatoes make me happy. Seeing an occasional bunch of tomatoes that bumped off and smashed on the freeway made me happy. Cruise control made my leg happy. When the afternoon heat kicked in the a/c made me happy. Missing the large pieces of rubber tire retread across the highway made me happy, also. I was mindful to help my empty boat not hit anything, this time.

water contact ~d nelson

May all beings be happy and safe, be aware of obstacles and arrive alive. After awhile I notice a vehicle on the side of the road with a flat tire. Having been in that situation a couple of weeks earlier I had understanding and compassion. So I pulled over and offered to help. She seemed nervous at my presence and told me that triple A was called and already on the way. Wishing her well I smiled and got back into the boat. After several more hours, getting close to the Bay Area, I spotted smoke and soon approached a fire engine on the opposite side of the road. It was just finishing putting out the fire on a completely burnt out shell of a car. Couldn’t even tell what kind of car it used to be. No evidence of the occupants but I was sending metta that they are free from injury. The traffic was backed up a couple of miles slowly passing that scene. Instant reminder of how fragile we are. How quickly life goes by. After taking my time driving it was wonderful to regain my land legs and do some walking meditation through my neighborhood. Perhaps a step closer to realizing the empty boat inside myself. Although it will take many more rivers, that’s ok. One breath in awareness at a time, still a happy and imperfect man.

Talks from that retreat, as well as many others, available as a podcasts at:

Post in memory of Phap De (young brother, 1935-2016)


45 thoughts on “Being Humble

  1. Pingback: Q&A Tuesday: How Does An Empty Boat Help You? - Wyzga On Words

  2. Jean-Jacques @ Gypsy Café

    Your post reminded me that it’s in the empty spaces that we do all the thinking
    and meditating on life. Were your boat too full on that day (with sounds or other
    people) you may not have noticed anything inside or outside of your vessel as
    you traveled along the highway. Being empty sometimes can be a true blessing.

  3. AmyRose🌹

    Hi, David. I’ve not been around WP for quite the while, having been thrust in the Hurricane of Life. Yet today I came here and glad am I that I did. How much your post brought assistance to me as a picture of an empty boat is now firmly in my mind as I allow the storms of life rage by me without touching me. Beautiful post, dear friend. Much Love and so much appreciation for who you are!! Thank you and Bless you! XOXO

    1. smilecalm Post author

      thanks for taking a timeout
      from your precious time away
      to send a thoughtful greeting, dear Amy!
      it’s wonderful when we find
      our boats empty of unpleasant feelings,
      forgetting about our individual
      and collective trauma.
      may you be well 🙂

  4. Rosaliene Bacchus

    “Simple is he, without distinction. To all appearances he is a fool. / His steps leave no trace. He has no power. He achieves nothing, has no reputation. / Since he judges no one, no one judges him.”
    ~ David, I was especially struck by Chuang Tzu’s above description of a perfect man. Should Tzu spend a day on the streets of America’s large cities, he would be shocked at the way we now criminalize those among us who are without distinction and power.

    1. smilecalm Post author

      thank you for that thought, dear Rosaliene!
      smiling to this recognition of the perfect
      and imperfect all around us!
      life’s so precious
      yet we’re imprisioned
      in a material world mindset.
      may we get through this
      collective trauma 🙂

  5. JoAnna

    “We are flowing on this river of time and space together.” I feel happy reading this. Boat songs come to mind: “Picture yourself on a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.” But I supposed we do have to pay some attention forward as we float along in our empty boats. An idea I have not thought of before. Thank you!

    1. smilecalm Post author

      thank you for gently floating
      along with me on these beautiful waters
      with colorful trees & sky, JoAnna!
      some might say the lessons highlights that humans have trouble
      with other living beings, including themselves.
      your peaceful presence makes me feel happy 🙂

  6. Healing Grief

    I love the wisdom of Chuang Tzu’s story and his words have taken a long time to integrate and understand. Sometimes I live by them and other times I forget. What comforts me is that we are all trying to navigate these empty boats along the river of life, as you shared, one breath at a time, and next time I see you David, I will wave, remembering I am not alone.

  7. Sue Dreamwalker

    Wonderful reminders here David of being in the Flow.
    May we both navigate our waterways in mindful contentment
    As we Step into and out of our vessels
    May we continue to steer ourselves through the ocean of time
    To be aware we are all droplets
    That merge into Oneness.

    Love and Blessings my dear friend, A beautiful repost of your journey and mindfulness..
    Sue ❤

    1. smilecalm Post author

      such a beautiful image
      of merging into oneness, dear Sue!
      yes, i believe it’s true
      and has always been so.
      may your day be well 🙂

  8. Dennis the Vizsla

    hello smilecalm its dennis the vizsla dog hay wow the water luks peeseful but the trip sertinly wuz eventful wuznt it??? it wuz gud of yoo to stop to see if yoo cud help with the tire problem!!! ok bye

    1. smilecalm Post author

      thank you for such happy observation, dear Dennis!
      twas a long time ago,
      but i’d like to think
      it would be the right
      action that happens again.
      wishing you a happy day 🙂

  9. Linda Arthur Tejera

    We’re all traveling life’s highways just trying to get where we need to be. We need more good samaritans such as yourself to help each other along. Wishing you a safe and happy journey! 🙏

    1. smilecalm Post author

      you’re so kind to refer to those
      mythical samaritans to help others,
      in need, including strangers, dear Linda!
      i truly admire the Mother Theresa’s among us,
      that all have their basic needs be met.
      wishing you a happy moment 🙂

  10. Ka Malana -

    I’m glad that I saw and read this. Last week I was stuck behind a truck that had wood debris fall off on the highway in front of me. I was spared. Was my boat empty? I remember wondering if that situation could happen and just called to God, Angels, etc…. be with me.

    When I was in college I was guided to Chuang Tzu but I didn’t know this particular story. It makes so much sense! Why is the mind so offended by persons? Or somebodies? I was just thinking of this today about quotes from people who are no longer alive. I was thinking this about wisdom, but not particularly belonging to anybody. I appreciate reading your thoughts! Another Deer Park moment! Very lovely to share 🙂 just there again this past Sunday. Here again now!

    1. smilecalm Post author

      happy to know of your surviving
      to be doing good deeds for self & others
      and getting to spend more quality
      time at Deer Park, dear Ka!
      I intend to get down there this fall.
      Does sound funny to get angry at an empty boat, or a tree, flower or deer.
      I am inspired to continue efforts at extinguishing flames directed towards fellow humans 🙂

      1. Ka Malana -

        I am inspired too, David.
        My husband and I are attending a group healing for anger workshop this weekend, so… maybe that will help with extinguishing the flames and maybe we can all love ourselves and others more when we realize that we are all on the same road, going the same place. It’s a sincere effort that takes us all kinds of places. I plan on having a busy schedule in the fall but one day I’ll maybe be at Deer Park at the same time as you. My very best regards to you David….and all….always 🙂

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