In a well-known Zen story, two monks are walking along a country road. They eventually come to a place where they need to cross a river. By the riverside they see a young woman who also wants to cross over to the other side, but the current is too heavy. The older of the monks offers to carry her across, and she gratefully accepts the offer. On the other side they bid farewell and the two monks continue their walk.
Several hours later, the younger monk cannot any longer keep his agitation to himself and says: “How could you? You know that we are not supposed to touch a woman, and the one you carried across the river was both young and very beautiful”. The older monk just smiled and said: “My friend, I let her down miles ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
This story perfectly illustrates the very human way that we are carrying with us so many heavy burdens of events from the past. We carry bitterness for injustices done to us. We regret many things we have done and said, and we also regret many things we haven’t done and haven’t said. We envy those who have been more successful than ourselves, and we tend to fill our minds with doubts and self-contempt. All these burdens are very real, and they cause us both sleepless nights and a lot of suffering.
They also limit us, because eventually they tend to become an integrated part of our life story and integrated into our identity. And all this for nothing. We may regret the choices we have made, but we can never go back in time and unmake them. Learning to accept all the wrong choices we have made, and no longer allow them to burden us will relieve us from immeasurable agony.
We should indeed beware of our past mistakes and learn from them so that we don’t repeat them, but we should always try to consider them for what they actually are – just memories and images in our brains.
And if our past actions have caused unnecessary grief and suffering to others, then its better to try to remedy the consequences of these actions than to crouch under their burden. We have the choice at any given point in time to reflect on our life story and set out to change what we are not happy with for the future, rather than dwelling under the burdens from the past.