Set Down that Heavy Load: The Things We Carry

When I was younger, I enjoyed the acquisition and accumulation of stuff. Clothing, books, cute knick-knacks, purses (because no purse is ever the perfect purse, but hope springs eternal).

My older sister went shopping for baby clothes with me when Eldest Daughter was but a newborn and distinctly remembers me saying, “Why buy one when three will do?” (In my defense I was talking about baby bonnets—I figured there would always be one in the wash and one misplaced somewhere. In this I was correct.)

In the same way I acquired thoughts and emotions. Packed ‘em around in my head for years sometimes. Chewed on old grudges, mourned old sorrows, felt guilty all over again for some dumb or cruel thing I did in high school. (Sorry, Tim T.—I should not have teased you.)

Then I began reading Buddhist thought by various writers. I discovered myself in those pages and realized that indeed, attachment causes suffering. Every time I dug up an old bone and chewed on it I left yet more toothmarks—on myself.

No one else learned any lessons or said they were sorry or changed their minds based on the scenes that played out in my overactive imagination and memory. Yet the body responds to those things in your head just as if they are real, so I got all the same adrenalin, accelerated pulse, and shallow breathing from an imaginary fight or debate as I had experienced in the real thing.

I began to say to myself, “Why dig those ruts any deeper?” I learned to stop myself when I started playing the tape over again (for you young ‘uns, think of that as hitting the left arrow button).  I began to set down the stuff I carried in my head.

Somewhere in one of the books I read I picked up the line, “Don’t let someone else live in your brain rent-free.” Every time I poked an old mental bruise, I once again gave that person or that incident residency in my brain. I gave away my energy for free.

There is a wonderful Buddhist story that illustrates this in the children’s book Kindness, a collection by an author in my hometown of Spokane.

The story describes two monks, one young and one old. The old one helps a woman cross a stream by carrying her on his back, which the young one considers a violation of their vows.

Hours after the incident he scolds the older monk, who replies, “I set that woman down beside the stream long ago. You have carried her all this time.” (Various versions of the two monks story can be found here.)

I try to set something down every so often, whether it’s a once-treasured possession I wouldn’t bother to replace if the house burned down (a new measuring stick I just learned) or a negative thought.

I asked my friends on Facebook what they carry, leaving it up to them whether they wanted to answer metaphorically or concretely. I got such wonderful answers that I’m saving them for a follow-up post. 

A teaser for that post: Some carried negative thoughts like those I describe here. Others, though, carry things like a song to sing, lessons learned from a beloved grandfather, optimism, and peace based on religious faith. You don't have to set down everything in your head. And I apparently have very practical friends, since among them they have everything from a multi-tool to a Swiss army knife and a tape measure to lip goop (always lip goop).

Your Turn
  • What do you carry?
  • What have you set down?
  • What are you still carrying that you would like to leave beside the stream?
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  1. I think I am going to read my daughter that book by Sarah Conover. It sounds like a lot of the other things I talk her about - thanks for sharing

  2. Another great eastern philosophical truism:

    "One who suffers sooner than necessary, suffers more than necessary", or something along those lines.

    Great post!

  3. Enjoyed your post, have a good day!


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