I came across a short story I had not heard for a long time, and it reminded me of how much people hold onto situations, emotions, burdens that don’t help them to live a happy, fulfilled life. The story goes like this:
Two celibate monks were on their way back to their monastery one very wet and windy evening. As they reached the river they needed to cross, they noticed a woman standing at the bank. It was clear she was nervous to step into the river which had risen with the rain. The older of the monks, without a thought, put the woman on his back and carried her over and put her down on the far side. As the monks continued their way home, the younger one looked upset, but he said nothing. In fact, he hardly spoke to the older monk for days, until finally he asked him what was on his mind. The younger one said: “Last week you carried that woman on your back, although you know it is against our vows to touch a woman.”, to which the other replied: “I put her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her a week later?”
Very often this is our habit. We hold on to situations from the past that we cannot change, and they become blocks in our relationships and in our ability to move forward in life. We worry that past failures, past hurts, past events will repeat themselves. The truth is, the more we hold onto them, the greater the chance that they will repeat- as the Buddhist philosophy tells us, we are our thoughts, what we think we become. This way of being in the world has always challenged man.
The first century Roman philosopher, Seneca, was aware of it when he wrote: “Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped, worry no more. We, however, are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.”
It takes courage to explore yourself, to identify what you need to let go of, so that you can enter fully into the natural flow of your life. Imagine as you go through life you carry a bag on your back. Every time you feel wronged, hurt, guilty or criticised you put a stone in the bag. Every time things don’t work out the way you expected, every time you fail to achieve what you hoped, every time you feel defeated, you add a stone to the bag. Every perceived judgement, every perceived insult, every loss, every failure, adds another stone. It becomes a very heavy bag, the weight of it pulls you back. If you could put it down and open the bag you arrive at the start- line of letting go. Acknowledge each stone, ask what you gained from carrying it for so long, what can you learn from it? Are you ready to leave the bag of stones behind you, to walk unburdened into your life?
Fear is the greatest obstacle to letting go; letting go of the conditioning of your mind, of the stories that replay themselves, of the security you believe you need. There is no security in holding on, but because the things we hold onto are familiar, we are comfortable in the suffering. It is like a lion released from a circus cage and taken to a safari park where he has lots of space to roam. He will not move very far; he is too used to only having space to move a few steps back and forth. We have all seen a child holding onto the side of a swimming pool, afraid to let go, until with encouragement, he lets go and realises the joy of being held and carried by the water.
Shortly before he died, Steve Jobs said: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” We never know how long we have in this life. Don’t wait, discover yourself, let go of the past, and unburdened, jump into life.