Burn the Boats

By Anthony Gold

Not a lot is known about Hernán Cortés due to the unreliability of the information, but one thing is understood for certain – his initiatives brought about the end of the Aztec Empire in the early 1500s and captured immense riches for himself.

He accomplished what so many others before him had tried – but failed.

What set Cortés apart?

His techniques for motivating himself and his troops – and a brilliant philosophy for overcoming adversity.

Prior to embarking on the final leg of his historic voyage, Cortés recruited many sailors and troops to help with the impending siege. He personally interviewed each person to ensure not only that they were aligned with the mission, but to implant within each of them the sense of what success would feel like.

Every person on board Cortés’ eleven ships was single-handedly committed to achieving the goal.

Until they became disillusioned, and failure was imminent.

As the troops disembarked on the Yucatán Peninsula, they were tired, disenchanted, and eager to return home to Cuba.

What did Cortés do to re-motivate his troops and fully commit them to victory?

“Burn the boats!” he ordered. “We either win here, or we die.”

The rest is history. He captured and plundered the entire Aztec Empire.

Cortés wasn’t the first to order his troops to burn the ships. In The Art of War, written by Sun Tzu around 500 BC, he said, “When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home.”

The concept is that the boats are a retreat mechanism – something that can be fallen back on if things go awry. And if that “escape route” is eliminated, a committed path forward must be devised.

What boats do we have in our lives that ought to be burned?

Any beliefs that limit our growth, focus us on the past, and lay the responsibility for happiness and sadness on the world and other people.

What are some examples of such beliefs:

  • A certain amount of money in my bank account will allow me to feel contented
  • If this other person would do (or stop doing) a certain thing, then I’d be at peace
  • My upbringing and my past failures are limiting who I am today
  • If my body looked this certain way or was capable of doing these specific things, then my life would be much better
  • If I had a certain person in my life, then I wouldn’t feel lonely
  • My life isn’t where I’d hoped it would be today

All these beliefs sailed in on the boat that brought us here today. The ego.

And if we want to continue experiencing in the future exactly what we’ve encountered in the past, all we need is continue on the same ego voyage. It’s guaranteed to perpetuate pain, fear, disappointment, guilt, and sadness.

Or, we can burn the ego boat.

Torching the boat of the ego doesn’t mean limiting ourselves to a small bank account or serving as doormats for other people. But it does mean that we completely give up (burn) the belief that anything outside of ourselves is responsible for our happiness or lack thereof.

The ego will always convince us that happiness can be found in the world, our body, and other bodies. And that disappointment, likewise, is there. What we don’t realize is that it’s not true.

The source of sorrow is simply the choice for the ego. Nothing else.

And when we can truly burn the ship of the ego – meaning that we no longer choose the ego as our guide for living – then we begin experiencing a radically different life. One in which peace continually envelops us, and extends to everyone and everything around us. Totally independent of what is going on in the world, our body, and other bodies.

In such a state, we truly become a channel for love instead of fear.

Join me in Monday’s class where we’ll learn how to burn the ego ship. I look forward to seeing you then.

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