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Taking Off the Weight

Our Parent Coffee this week focused on mental health. In the spirit of well-being, I would like to share a favourite story.

There is a famous story of a Zen master travelling with his disciple in Japan. The Zen Master and his young protégé have taken strict vows, and are forbidden from touching and speaking with women. One morning on the road, they come across a broken bridge over a rushing river, and a beautiful young woman waiting on their side. The old Zen master immediately offers to carry the lady across the river on his shoulders, much to the dismay of his student. The master carries her across, places her down safely, and the two monks continue down on the road. Much later that night, when they have safely arrived at the temple and are bedding down for the evening, the young monk finally confronts his master.
“That’s not proper behavior for a monk. Why did you help her?” he asks.
The master calmly looks at his young student, and replies,
“I left her at the river. Why are you still carrying her?”

This is one of many famous koans, or Zen stories, about Tanzan Hara, a Zen master who was notorious for disregarding social customs. We may not be Buddhist monks, but the lesson still applies. How often are we like Tanzan’s protégé? Personally, I can attest to worrying about things long after I should. How often do we find ourselves fretting about what is already done, long after it has passed? More importantly, is it healthy for us to do so? The lesson is, of course, about letting go. In particular, letting go of unhealthy thoughts, something that is increasingly hard in life. There are the usual suspects to blame, of course; social media, smart phones, etc, etc. But as Tanzan’s story proves, this is something humans have been struggling with for since time out of mind. If Buddhist monks struggle with this, how can we possibly be successful?

Tanzan would have recommended meditation (zazen). Obviously, we can’t all become monks, but we can practice clearing our minds, or “mindfulness.” Mindfulness has been “en vogue” in education lately, but the practice is timeless. More and more, the research supports a bevy of benefits to simply taking a few quiet moments to still our minds. It need not be intense meditation, staring at a temple wall with our legs crossed, nor praying on our knees at church. It can be as simple as a few minutes in the morning, a quiet pause on a walk, or even a few deep breaths at your desk before work. We’re all carrying that metaphorical person on our shoulders, and if we’re not careful, we’ll be weighted down long past the time.

This holiday, take a moment to reflect on the weight you may be carrying, and make sure you remember to put it down.


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