[This is a copy of an article I wrote for our ship's Ombudsman newsletter and the NW Navigator, a regional Navy chaplain publication]
There is an old Zen story about two traveling monks who were preparing to cross a shallow river. A young and beautiful woman was also traveling in the same direction, but she was in tears because she had injured her foot, and no one was willing to help her across the muddy and rocky riverbed. The older of the two monks said, “I am willing to help you across the river.” Picking her up in his arms, they crossed the river safely; the monk set her down, and the young woman thanked him with a smile and went on her way. The younger monk was shocked that his master had carried the woman across, since as a monk he was not supposed to even touch women. Although he said nothing at first, the incident kept replaying itself in his mind throughout their day’s journey until they reached their destination, the monastery. Finally the young monk could not bear it any longer and blurted out, “Master, why did you do that at the river?”
The older monk replied, “Oh, you mean that woman? I put her down a long time ago. Are you still carrying her?”
The moral of the story is that we sometimes we dwell unnecessarily on things that belong in the past. Whether they are positive or negative actions, we can develop unhealthy attachments to them that eventually hurt our lives in the present. We think too much about how we were wronged by others, which may turn into long-standing grudges, or we think about past accomplishments too much, which then turn into “resting on our laurels.” Another moral is that we can also worry excessively about how our actions may look to others, even if it has good results; we think, “What will others say? What will they think of me now?” This may cause such worries that we forget the original intent of our act, and become discouraged from doing anything that may cause such worries.
All these worries cause stress and depression in our modern society. Often, we try to forget our worries through self-medication, or alcohol, or other diversions, but ultimately they only provide temporary relief. However much we try to forget unpleasant things, they always come back to remind us. The best way to relieve our pain doesn’t lie in the act of forgetting but rather in the act of letting-go. Others may define this as forgiveness, or we may also call it letting go of attachments. Much like cleaning out the garage and home of unwanted and unnecessary material clutter, we need to clean out our emotional and mental home of unneeded burdens that only serve to create obstructions.
Whenever we volunteer our help to others, we should also remember that volunteerism should be done out of true selflessness, a genuine will to assist others. We may like to be recognized and commended for our volunteerism, but like the old and wise monk in the Zen tale, our help may be misunderstood as only ego-serving. If help is given from a sincere heart, we accomplish the goal, and then we move on to the next mission. We may like to keep carrying the burden, but we will need to let it go one day!