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.