What are you carrying?

For today’s dharma talk I want to first ask a question and then I want to share a story.   Now for the question and  I want you to think about it for a few moments before you answer.

What are you still carrying?, What are you holding on to?

Now before you settle on an answer, I want to share a story with you.  A few of you may have heard it before, but every time I hear it resonates more and more with me.

Two traveling monks reach a river where they met a young woman. Wary of the current, she asks if they could carry her across. One of the monks hesitates, but the other quickly picks her up onto his shoulders, transports her across the water, and puts her down on the other bank. She thanks him and departs. The two monks continue on their journey.  The younger monk, broods and is preoccupied with what happened and finally unable to hold his silence, he speaks out.

“Brother, our spiritual training teaches us to avoid any contact with women, but you picked that one up on your shoulders and carried her!”

“Brother,” the second monk replied, “I set her down on the other side, why are  you still carrying her.”

Wisdom 101 By Deepak Gupte page page 14

OK so now I want to ask you the question again, what are you carrying with you?

What have you still not put down?

So what do you think is going on with this young monk? What is he worried about? What is the older monk teaching the younger monk?

Now think in your own life – which are you the young monk or the old monk?

Many of us are like the young monk; carrying something with us long after it is over. The heaviest burden we can carry is the burden of the past either for something that was done to us or done by us and I have talked about this before, how we are constantly time traveling from the past to the future and rarely present in the flow of Now. Many of us fix ourselves firmly in the past – many times because of our present suffering. Alternately our dissatisfaction with the flow of the present or an unwillingness to change in the present. places us continually in the future, where everything is controllable and the outcomes can be as expected.  As Gyomay Kubose Sensei has taught,

“Many people get attached to the past or to the future and neglect the important present. We must live the best “now” with full responsibility.”

Gyomay Kubose Sensei

We understand this, though many of us do nothing about it. I think that is why Gyomay Sensei ends his teaching with the idea of living with full responsibility. What does it mean to live with full responsibility?  I think it means that we live in the flow of Now with the ability to simply respond to whatever arises instead of being bound to reactivity and story making of how it should be different.

It is important to realize that In the flow of Now, the past and the future already exist – the myriad of causes and conditions of our life wave have brought us to this moment with one another.  All of it brought us here. What a blessing our past has been, our karma has been!  For me, that is the meaning of the opening prayer in the Zen tradition,

The teachings are incomparably profound and exquisite
Is rarely met with, even in hundreds of thousands of millions of lifetimes;
We are now permitted to see it, to listen to it, to accept and hold it;
May we truly understand the meaning of the Buddha’s words!

Manual of Zen Buddhism

For many of us, hearing and learning the teachings of the Buddha has transformed our lives.  How great it is that we found it and how grateful we are for all the things that brought us to this point. Our karma, our lives in their entirety, the painful and the joyful, the good and the bad, the laughter and the tears, the injustices and disappointments have all brought us here, like kind teachers to show us the way.

Sometimes it is hard to see this and we demonstrate our ignorance when we try to go back and fix the past or put off what needs to be done today because we can always “do that tomorrow” The problem with that is we think you have time but we don’t.

Getting Stuck in the Past

Last Sunday I shared the story about how I was attached to my suffering of an ended relationship and how I chose to return to it time and time again as if to prove that the love I felt for the woman who left was real, that I wasn’t some fool.  I found this shortly after I shared that last Sunday and I think it relates to today’s topic also – this is from Shulamit Widawsky.

“ Some people experience an extreme type of mourning, in which they have convinced themselves that moving forward is a betrayal of the person they lost, and of themselves as a responsible person. That is, they think that moving forward equals giving up on the person they lost and giving up on being able to have done it better. So they stick to the past and feel they are being true to something.

Unfortunately, such a situation cannot bring back the person that was lost, it can only stop the mourner from moving forward. Fear of being happy is part of this process. The idea, that if they felt true joy, that would prove that they have moved on, and that would prove that the loss is completed.”

Psychology of Everyday Life – Shulamit Widawsky.

In this passage, he is talking about the loss of a loved one through death but I think it also applies, in a lesser but no less, to the real loss due to divorce or separation. This is one way that many of us have been caught in the past.

Last Sunday we talked about Dukka; the pain caused by the second arrow and the story we tell about our pain.  There is no greater source of “storying” then in the stories of our past.

How many of you would say you sometimes get stuck in the past? I did and still do at times. I once spent night and day in a carnival I created out of my past. There we scarry ass roller coasters, Thor’s Hammers and endless halls of mirrors and there were clowns – oh good god – clowns everywhere – with names like King of Disappointment, The Great Jester of What Should of Been and the scariest was the Clown of Much Injustice – his lingering laugh….everything I did, everything was shadowed by this.  During the day, I went to work, school, hung out at friends but once I was alone I hurried back to my carnival trying to figure my way out. Ironic isn’t, how I would run back in to find a way out of it.

My first wife and I had a good life for a time – but we were different, I spent a lot of time in the past trying to figure out my wounds – Linnea and I call it “dig and burn baby” My Ex tried but it only made her life more painful. Her path was different.  Back then I thought the right way was my way – it is not, it is just one of many. I thought if I could figure out why I was so screwed up, why my parents hurt me or were so selfish and if I could figure out what I did wrong, then I could correct it and I would be happy and none of it would never happen again.  You laugh.  I know, but that is what I thought, that with enough understanding of the past I could secure a painless future.  What I learned is that there is so little that you can really figure out. How can we know the motivation, thoughts, fear, and karma of others?  In the end, memory is just another form of story and stories are not facts and the past is not fixable. I cannot change what I did, who I hurt or who hurt me – and there isn’t really anything to figure out that isn’t present in the flow of Now. 

My biggest reason for visiting the past was to find the answer to the chant-like question that echoed in my heart and in my head, “Why me?, Why me?”  Why me? is ultimately an unknowable question. Maybe it is the first “koan” we are ever given. In my own experience, wrestling with that questions, caused me to spend so much time in the past that I missed so much of what was in front of me. The flow of Now carried me along regardless and I discovered that when we get stuck in the past we become nothing more than spectators looking backward. Our lives are so much more than that. At the heart of every living thing is its innate suchness, an inherent beingness that can only be found in the flow of Now.  Ultimately everything else is either wake or illusion.

I want to be clear.  I am not saying that we can’t learn from the past,  we can and it can be an important teacher but when it becomes our only teacher, that is fraught we difficulties, Getting stuck in our stories, getting lost in them is too easy.   It is important for each of us to be fully aware of the limitation of the past.  I really appreciate this passage from – Ajahn Brahm in his book Kindfulness. Brahm is a Theravada Buddhist teacher and monk. At first, I was resistant because it challenged my worldview.

“Some people think that if they contemplate the past, they can somehow learn from it and solve their problems. But when we gaze at the past we invariably look through a distorted lens. Whatever we think it was like, in truth it was not quite like that at all! This is why people argue about what happened even a few moments ago.

When we see just how unreliable our memory is, we will not overvalue the past.

When we sit down to meditation…

Do not linger on the past.
Do not keep carrying around coffins
full of dead moments. If you do,
you weigh yourself down with
heavy burdens that do not really
belong to you. When you let go
of the past, you will be free
in the present moment.

Kindfulness by  Ajahn Brahm

I think the important point he is making is that we do not OVERVALUE the past. What does that mean to you?

I like the image of carrying around small coffins on our shoulders. It gives a whole new meaning about having a little baggage from my childhood!

From the Pali Canon – in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta, the Buddha taught,

What is past is left behind.
The future is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
right there.

Bhaddekaratta Sutta

Or in other words

the past is already gone, the future is not yet here; there is only one moment for you to live: that is the present moment

I want you to just observe your mind – this is a challenge I gave you a few Sundays ago and I want to give it to you again.  Observe how many times your mind travels from the past to the future – you can just quickly label it Past or Future. It will astound you how much time you spend going back and forth.  I also want you to observe when you get stuck in one or the other.  One way you can tell is when you start spending a lot of time in the past is when you start to feel down, depressed, lose energy or feel anxious about the present moment or the future.

I appreciate this quote I found – the author is unknown.

“If you live in fear of the future because of what happened in your past, you’ll end up losing what you have in the present.”


There is another form of time travel where we get stuck in the nostalgia of the past when life was good and when we do we tend to lose our vigor for the present.  The past is only alive in the Now as the energy that brought us to where we are.  When we spend all of our time looking backward we put up camp in the past where we hang out in dark cemeteries or in memory moviehouses talking to ghosts.

Living in the past is a heavy burden that can keep us stuck.  We want to be carried by the flow of life but are afraid to let go and it is exhausting because when we get stuck in the past we are resisting the flow of life,  we are standing in the middle of a stream trying to walk against the current of time. No matter how hard you try, the flow of Now, the flow of life is pushing you along with it. Let go,  let the flow carry you,  be free of the past.

The Buddha taught that all his teachings were about freedom – liberation

Do you want to be free? How many times have  I chose not to be free?

Again from Ajahn Brahm,

It is amazing how free you can be if you don’t limit yourself to your past.

Our lives can only be fully lived in the flow of Now because that is reality as it is, the dynamic ever-changing unrepeatable flow of our lives. It is the everyday miracle that we can tap into if we can only allow ourselves. To truly be free is our practice.

I love this from Thich Nhat Hahn

“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything—anger, anxiety, or possessions—we cannot be free.”


“To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.”

The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation –

Let us let go of the past and return fully present to the flow of Now. Let us unbind our hearts so that we can fly.

I want to close with this poem by Mary Oliver,

“to live in this world”

you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”

Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Volume One

You can listen to the talk at this address – https://wayofoneness.podbean.com/e/what-are-you-carrying/

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