Burmese monks on U Bein Bridge. Source: istockphoto.com/Joel Carillet

What are you still carrying?

Two Monks and a Woman
A senior and novice monk were traveling through the countryside when they came upon a river. The river was swollen making it very difficult to pass. Standing at the edge of the river was a lovely, young woman in elegant clothes unsure of how to get across. She asked the monks for help.

The monks had taken a vow of celibacy that prevented them from making eye contact with women, much less touching them. But after barely a pause, the senior monk picked up the woman and carried her across.

The novice monk was shocked and speechless. His elder had broken his vows! As the monks continued their journey hours passed and no one spoke until the younger monk could no longer contain himself.

“How could you carry that woman across the river when we aren’t even supposed to look at women?” he blurted out in frustration.

The senior monk replied, “I set that woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”


This ancient Zen parable has many variations. In some, the river is merely a puddle in a city street, making it even more eyebrow-raising that the older monk would help the woman. In another variation, she is also rude and entitled and insists that the monks also help carry her shopping. One wonders why anyone would want to help such a person at all.

What seems like a simple analogy on letting go of unnecessary burdens takes on a deeper meaning when you examine the many different details of this story. We have duty, responsibility, deciding between choices that aren’t so black and white, compassion, as well as interconnectedness. But letting go of unnecessary turmoil is the central them.

I’m always careful when I offer teachings on letting go because getting over the fact that your boss touched a woman while also helping her is entirely different from working through the painful histories that shape our lives.

But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.

The first step towards setting down a heavy burden is to recognize that it is something real. We can use mindfulness methods to look deeply at the roots of our attachments. Once we see what’s really there, then we can start asking questions:

What is it that I really want or believe when I hold on to this attachment? What is the outcome that I expect? Will it really give me what I think I want? Is it holding me back from greater happiness? What will happen if it doesn’t turn out as I expect?

Sometimes just acknowledging what’s there can dissolve the burden. Other times we discover that we need professional help. We want to apply skillful means in addressing these deep longings and fears.

The simple truth is that we can’t face our fears and struggles without knowing what they are. This is the essential value of learning to live with awareness and presence. Sure, we get the pleasant side effects of feeling more centered and calm, more appreciative of life’s smaller joys. But the true power of these teachings is in the doorways that they open.

So what are you still carrying?

Have a seat. Close your eyes. And listen to your heart.

Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, functional anatomy, and bit of this and that about living a healthy life. I teach yoga classes and workshops in the Washington, DC area, and you can find me online at Facebook or www.sati.yoga.
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