08 Jan Attachment

Two monks were walking to their monastery when they stopped to cross a small river. It had rained and the river was swollen, its current moving faster than normal. There was a young woman standing on the side of the river who was unable to cross on her own. Upon hearing her request for help, the elder of the two monks immediately went to her, lifted her in his arms, carried her across the river, and set her down on the other side. The two monks then continued along their way in silence.

In the evening, the younger monk could no longer contain himself and went to the elder monk and exclaimed, “Sir, as monks, we cannot touch a woman.”  The elder monk answered “Yes, brother.”  The younger monk then asked, “but then Sir, how is it that you lifted that beautiful woman at the river?”

The elder monk smiled and said, “I set her down on the other side, but are you still carrying her?”

This is one of my favorite Zen stories that illustrates a unique trait of the human mind called Attachment.  Many times, we become attached to a momentary event and find ourselves breathing life into it, keeping it present within our minds, or perhaps creating an imaginary storyline even though the event no longer has any real physical existence.

Oftentimes, this occurs when we feel a loss of control. This can trigger past fears and create a wide range of negative emotions ranging from worry to anger. We can also become attached to situations when we are disappointed with our decisions or how someone treated us. This often leads to a state of overcompensation, as we attempt to presently regain control over something that has already passed. Lastly, we can become attached to the things or people we want, imagining the storylines that would lead us to our desires, and away from the pain of loss or rejection.

While this is a common characteristic of being human, this behavior is nuerotic. When we carry a past event with us, we must give up our mindfulness of the present moment in order to do so. Likewise, time spent daydreaming about our future robs us of the present moment, which is the only time that offers us real influence over our environment. It is ironic that time spent obsessing about the things we want can become the obstacle that prevents us from attaining them, while time spent worrying about the things we want to avoid becomes an obstacle to letting them go.

The present moment is the only time that allows us to change from our past and progress towards the future, and we should always remember to keep it as our faithful companion, never falling behind it, never rushing ahead, and developing a daily practice of setting down distractions and moving on.

Michael Ken