What the fable of two monks and a woman can teach us about living well.
A few years ago, I gained an interest in Buddhist philosophy. Within the philosophy, I found an amazing mix of history and simple yet practical lessons. Along the way, I discovered a series of tales laying out some of the most important principles. I found the most memorable of these fables to be “Two Monks and a Woman”. The story is short, yet powerful:
A senior and junior monk were traveling together when they came to a river with strong currents. They were preparing to cross the river when they noticed a beautiful woman also attempting to cross. She asked the monks for help.
There was a moment of uncertainty as both had taken vows not to touch a woman. After a brief silence, the older monk picked the woman up and carried her across. The junior monk was angered but said nothing.
After about an hour of walking, the junior monk asked the senior monk, “as monks we are not permitted to even touch a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”
To this, the senior monk replied, “I set her down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?”
We Must Learn to Let Go of the Past
This Buddhist parable conveys the importance of letting go. Many things will happen in our life. There will be good things, tragic things, funny things, odd things, etc. We have to be able to let go of them all.
We cannot recreate the past and live it again, we can only live in the present moment. Letting go is the only way we can create a better present and future.
When we aren’t able to let go of the past, we cannot see a better future. We are blinded by the previous injustices that blur our vision. The senior monk has moved on. He is able to live happily because he has let go of the thought of the woman and his breaking of vows. The junior monk, however, is stuck in anger and frustration. His inability to let go of what has happened holds him in a state of displeasure.
How much time do people spend thinking about times they felt wronged, exes that they no longer have, and struggles that aren’t a part of their life today? These moments take up all our cognitive and emotional capabilities. Instead of creating a life we love, we’re attempting to recreate a past we’ve already lived. Just taking a few steps toward clarity would tremendously improve our happiness and our ability to work toward a better future. First, we have to learn to let go of the past, so that we can embrace the future.
“How do I let go?” you ask. Here are a few strategies that will help you let go of any past struggles:
1. Give Yourself Some Silence to Deal With the Issue
All too often, we try to move on from harm without allowing ourselves to do a little healing.
We go through a breakup and try to find the next relationship as soon as possible, or we allow a difficult childhood to control us well into adulthood. We don’t want to run from the problem and let it wreak havoc on our life, but we also don’t give ourselves the time needed to face it. We try to keep ourselves busy.
Unfortunately, this usually leads to more problems down the road.
After a difficult life event, give yourself a few minutes each night to be alone and focus on the problem. Some good questions to ask are:
- What caused this problem?
- How best can I deal with the circumstances it has created?
- What can I learn from this situation to prevent it from happening again?
Allowing yourself to ask and think about these questions may be very difficult at first. You may have a noticeable emotional reaction the first few times but as you continue to think about the problem, you will discover new ways to positively reframe your struggle.
The more you allow yourself to focus on the root of the problem, the more aware you will become of how it affects you. Once you’re aware of how an issue is affecting you, you can begin to mitigate it and possibly remove it altogether.
2. Address the Beliefs Created by the Scenario
When we go through a life-changing struggle, it can change our beliefs about ourselves. We may start to think we’re dumb, unlovable, or incapable in some or all areas of our life. Letting go requires that we identify and work toward positively changing these beliefs.
To change our beliefs for the better we must first look at the opposite belief. What if instead of unlovable, we were incredibly lovable? What would that look like? How would it feel?
Once we know the belief we want to create, we can move in that direction. So start by identifying ways you exemplify that belief.
If you want to start believing you’re extremely lovable, you can focus on how you listen to others or how your parents laugh at your jokes. Simple and truthful ideas are the best.
I’m sure you can find at least one small way you exemplify the belief you want to create about yourself. This is your starting line. Each day you have an opportunity to add one small reason to the list. These small steps have a compounding effect and you’ll soon find yourself scoffing at the idea of being anything other than loveable or hard-working or whatever the belief is that you hope to create.
Once you see the belief as true, you will act in accordance with it, creating more and more examples each day.
3. Embrace Your Imperfections
One of the most important parts of letting go is embracing our imperfections. Believing we should have acted differently is often part of the reason we hold onto past troubles.
We might expect ourselves to have the right words when we need them, to hold on to an amazing relationship through thick and thin, or be the perfect friend every day. Unfortunately, life rarely works out this way.
We do our best to be the best version of ourselves, but we slip up sometimes. We make mistakes and lose out on opportunities. We react emotionally when we don’t want to. No matter how hard we try, we can’t outrun or hide from our perceived imperfections.
When these things happen, the worst thing you can do is beat yourself up over how things worked out. There is no need to inflict more suffering upon yourself for an issue that has already resolved. Instead, try working toward embracing your imperfections.
Your past and future awkwardness are part of the wonderful mix of characteristics that make you an interesting person. That awkward or weird tendency you’ve been stressing about might be the thing the deepens the connection between you and a new friend or potential partner.
Imperfections are only imperfections because we’ve labeled them as such. Once you discover how to change the label, those things you see as imperfections become another part of what makes you a wonderful person.
Perhaps the hardest part of letting go is forgiving. We have to forgive ourselves and whoever we feel wronged us.
Forgiving doesn’t mean admitting what happened was right, but it does mean making peace with it. Forgiving is not an act of weakness, but an act of strength. When we forgive, we don’t allow the event to have any control over us. We let ourselves see beyond the circumstances of one event.
There are so many things we’re still holding on to because we have yet to forgive ourselves and others. Past breakups, mistakes, and betrayal can bring back emotions of anger, hatred, and frustration years after they happened. Sometimes, these events prevent us from approaching similar scenarios because we fear the same thing will happen again.
If we aren’t able to forgive, the past can prevent us from living our best life.
Don’t Let the Past Define Your Future
Our past is how we got to where we are today. It is the story, circumstances, and beliefs that have led us to this moment. It may determine where we are now, but it doesn’t have to decide where we go from here. We have the opportunity to change our beliefs, update our story and put ourselves in better circumstances. We have the opportunity to change our life. The only requirement is that we let go of the past and accept a new future.
Sometimes, the only wall between us and a better future is the struggles we hold onto. Reliving these days holds us in place and we become unable to enjoy the present.
You have amazing potential. Don’t let your past steal it from you.