The Burdens We Carry

Many people find it difficult to understand how clinging to their experiences, emotions, past hurts, and fears hinder their progress to change in ways they want to. Mostly we cling to these things because change is scary. What if we don’t like what we become? What if other people don’t like me? What if something really bad happens to me and I haven’t been preparing for it? What if, what if, what if?

But living this way just leads to stagnation, we miss out on all the experiences happening right now. They fly right by us and we never notice because we are too busy thinking about what our grandmother said to us last Tuesday about the job we haven’t even got yet that we need to earn money to buy the house not yet built.

I’m a psychologist and I see this all the time. The present speeding by right under my clients’ noses; precisely the thing they don’t want to happen hence why they are sitting in my consulting room. But telling someone that for life to get better they have to focus on the now doesn’t work. The past is where the pain is so we want to change it to make it better. The future is where the pain is going to happen so we want to avoid that potential pain at all costs. Who cares about the sunlight on our face? Sure it feels good but it won’t make things better or more certain.

Only today, I was trying to guide a client who is so stuck in the past and so desperately trying to get concrete answers to why everything has happened, that he has essentially crippled himself, carrying so much mental and emotional baggage he could give Atlas a run for his money. No answers were ever satisfactory, nothing could be let go, nothing could be forgiven, everything had to be pondered and reworked making it impossible to move on. No matter what I said he felt the only choice to move forward was to keep working at changing the unchangeable past.

So I told him a story about two monks, a woman and a river.

The story of Two Monks and a Woman is a well known Zen parable. There are many versions but in all versions the message is the same; you can either choose to respond to the now and leave the unchangeable past in the past, or you can choose to carry the past with you, increasing your burden the further you travel. There is another message I like to take from this story as well; you can’t fill a cup that is already full. We don’t have to forget about what happens to us or by us, we just have to give the experience the energy and time it deserves, and ultimately learn from it, thereby emptying our cup to allow room for more tea to be poured.

Below is the version of the story I tell. See what you make of it and tell me, how full is your cup?

Two Monks and a Woman

A senior monk and a junior monk travelling together, making a pilgrimage from their temple to a shrine in the mountains. At one point of their journey, they came across a shallow river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a young woman who was also attempting to cross.

On seeing the monks, the woman cried “Can you please help me? I fear crossing the river as the current is strong.”.

The junior monk shook his head at the woman and proceeded to cross the river himself, as his creed did not permit him to touch a woman. However, the senior monk picked up the woman, and carrying her over his shoulder he forded the river and set her down on the other side. The junior monk was very upset, but said nothing.

As they continued their journey, the senior monk noticed that his junior was very quiet so he asked, “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”.

The junior monk replied, “As monks we are not permitted to touch a woman. How could you then carry that woman on your shoulders over the river?”.

The senior monk replied, “I may have carried that woman over the river, but you seem to be carrying her still.”.


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