A lesson on mental clutter from the book Zen Shorts

In the children’s book Zen Shorts by Jon Muth, a giant panda named Stillwater tells three stories to young siblings Addy, Michael, and Karl. All of the stories are famous Buddhist teachings, and you may be familiar with them even if you haven’t seen this beautifully illustrated book.

The third story Stillwater shares with Karl is called “A Heavy Load” and is about two traveling monks. During their journey, two monks come upon an awful woman who refuses to cross a river because she does not wish to get her silken robes wet or dirty. The older of the two monks quickly picks up the woman and carries her across the water. Many hours later, the younger monk is very upset and visibly angry about his friend helping someone so disdainful, and he feels obliged to share his frustration with the older monk:

“That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!”

“I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”

I think of this story whenever I find a dirty cup in our television room or clothing on the floor instead of in the hamper or notice that a co-worker dropped the ball on a small task. I remind myself that I have two options — I can be like the young monk and throw a fit and be in a bad mood and let it annoy me for hours, or I can be like the older monk and take care of the problem myself and immediately let go of the frustration. I get to decide if I want the cup or errant sock or unfinished task to clutter up my mind and put me in a bad mood, and, since I’d rather not have that clutter wasting my time and energy, I usually choose to be like the older monk.

I’m not a maid — and I’m not suggesting you become one either — but I get to decide how I’m going to react to a situation. Remembering, too, that I don’t know the full story behind why the glass or sock are out of place or why a task at work was left unfinished. For all I know, my co-worker got an important call from a client and had to stop a project mid-way through completion to handle an emergency. By helping out, instead of getting frustrated and throwing a fit, I’m making the situation better for myself and others. I get to choose not to fill my time with more clutter than the small item I encountered.

That said, if there is a persistent habit of other people leaving messes in their wake, a conversation about that behavior is certainly in order. However, frustrations caused by occasional messes are usually not worth carrying around with you and cluttering up your mind, energy, and emotions.

20 Comments for “A lesson on mental clutter from the book Zen Shorts”

  1. Profile photo of

    posted by Claycat on

    Good advice, Erin!

  2. posted by Debra on

    This is one of my son’s favorite books to have read to him. I once read a hint to never put off any task that takes less than 60 seconds. I find that I can pick up a lot of things that someone else leaves sitting around in about 3 seconds.

  3. posted by Emily Horner on

    Not that it takes away anything from the larger point of the story, but I think it’s worth mentioning that in the original koan, the monk wasn’t supposed to carry the woman over the river because of monastic prohibitions on touching women — it wasn’t that the woman was too unpleasant to deserve help. I can see why they changed it for the picture book, of course.

  4. posted by SleepUnderStars on

    This is exactly what I needed to hear this morning. I love the idea of editing out the clutter of my thoughts. Seems like it’d be especially rewarding to be this way for our loved ones–people who will, over the long term, appreciate the atmosphere uncluttered with edgy emotions.

  5. posted by Jen C on

    I think I need to read this story once a week. I can’t believe how much time I spend carrying the people on my back for hours or days. Of course, deciding not to carry them around is certainly different than being able to put them down.

    I find that when my depression is well controlled, it is much easier to let things go.

  6. posted by Dan L-J on

    Yeah Stillwater! We love that book and refer to it often. As much as I bring up the story to our daughters to try to get them to “put down the load” I need to remember the lesson as well. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. posted by April on

    Another parable I’ve heard (via Apartment Therapy) that helps me when I’m trying to unclutter: A wanderer on a lonely road came upon a torrential river that had washed out the bridge. So he built a solid and heavy raft, which carried him safely across to the other bank. “This is a good raft,” he thought. “If there’s another river ahead, I can use it.” And he carried it for the rest of his life.

  8. Profile photo of

    posted by Suzy on

    Oh gosh, a friend of mine told this story to me like a week ago! (She told me the original version Emily Horner is referring to.)
    I have a hard time forgiving myself mistakes I’ve made, which makes me carry around my guilt.
    I didn’t realise though the story could also be applied to dealing with clutter.

  9. posted by Lisa on

    Ha! I was just remembering this story yesterday, but I remembered a version where the woman is lovely and the young monk is freaking out because they’re not allowed to touch women. Anyway, I carry my old boss around with me way more than is good for anyone.

  10. posted by Jackie Trahan on

    Great story! I am having guilt that I could have done more for my parents before they passed. I think of all the things I could have done, and wish I had done more. But it is making me so unhappy. I need to let go of what I cannot do anymore, and try to learn from my mistakes.
    Thanks for sending that! It was very timely.

  11. posted by Julie Bestry on

    Wonderful story. A few months ago, I worked with a woman who had a large pile of “tool clutter” in her entryway because her husband had left it there, and the pile had become a source of resentment. I tried the old “would you rather be happy or right?” perspective, but eventually got my point across by reminding her of the Everybody Loves Raymond episode about the emotional tug-of-war over putting away the suitcase. This lovely story is much better for the clients who (unlike me) don’t take most of their parables from Gilmore Girls, The West Wing and sitcoms. Thanks for sharing this.

  12. posted by PKitty on

    Oooh … good story and I have not heard it before. I need to stop carrying my mother’s resentment and bitterness about moving out of the family home. She is 81 so yes it is time to go but things like this seem to get much harder with age!

  13. posted by Cindi on

    Great story and reminder that emotional and spiritual clutter needs to be dealt with as well as clutter in our physical environment. I love the point that we can choose what we keep in our heart and soul, but realize it takes work.

    By the way – your book is wonderful and highly motivating.

  14. posted by joss on

    I love that story -still working on actually practicing it. The other one that I love in there is the idea that you often can’t tell good luck from bad. That one has really helped me let go.

  15. posted by Clutter Free Kitchen In 5 Easy Steps on

    [...] A lesson on mental clutter from the book Zen Shorts | Unclutterer [...]

  16. posted by biscuitx on

    An excellent meditation for Lent!

  17. posted by Joan on

    Wow. I just receive this book as a gift and have not spent the time to read it cover to cover yet – now I will!

  18. posted by Mrs. B on

    Oh…I needed to see this. I have a tendency to carry things with me. I am fine with my family…but others..that is a different story. Thanks for the reminder.

  19. posted by Good Reads: Here We Are, This is You and Me on

    [...] Lesson on Mental Clutter at Unclutterer is a super-helpful approach to getting things done and letting things go, especially when you live [...]

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