I’m not sure when Stillwater first came into our lives. You would think the arrival of a larger-than-life panda would have been more memorable. But we were busy back then. Between short naps and long stretches of playtime, PDO and preschool, routines and schedules, it’s no wonder he slipped in without notice. But once here, Stillwater became part of our family, and we still talk about him to this day.
Stillwater is a character in a series of Jon J. Muth’s children’s books that introduce children (and adults) to zen teachings. In the author’s note at the end of Zen Shorts, Muth defines Zen as “a Japanese word that simply means meditation.” Stillwater got his name from a Zen teaching that emphasizes the importance of seeing the world with an un-agitated mind.
In Zen Shorts, Stillwater teaches siblings Addy, Michael, and Karl three “zen shorts” or meditations, in the form of stories. He drops these stories into the adventures that he has with the children, and they are meant to speak particular truths with a different perspective.
Stillwater shares a “zen short” story with Karl, the youngest sibling, after Karl spends the afternoon being upset about something his older brother, Michael, has done. The story Stillwater shares, A Heavy Load, is taken from, “Zen Buddhist literature which has been passed along for centuries.” In it, two traveling monks come upon a (rather entitled) woman who is unable to step out of her sedan chair because the puddles beneath her are too deep and she would ruin her silk robes if she were to step down. Her attendants are unable to help her because they are carrying her packages, as well as her sedan chair, and cannot set either down in favor of the other. The older of the two monks quickly steps in, puts her on his back, and carries her across the puddles and puts her down where it is dry. Without even a thank you, she goes on her way. The two monks continue on their travels, the younger of the two ruminating over the young woman’s behavior. The younger monk just couldn’t abide her rudeness or her lack of gratitude, and finally expresses his frustration to 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!” To which the older monk replied, “I set the woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
Think about that for a moment. Allow it to sink in. The monk who carried her set her down hours ago. And when he set her down, he no longer carried her. The experience was in the past. He didn’t allow it to affect him. It didn’t take up head space or heart space. But the observer, the younger monk, stewed and brooded, and got himself all worked up – about a situation that didn’t involve him.
It is the older monk’s reply that has stuck with our family. It is a simple, yet profound way to reframe and recenter thoughts. It is very useful in seeing the actions of another person as separate from your response. It allows you to acknowledge how someone else makes you feel without being held hostage by your emotions. It puts in perspective the importance of not holding a grudge, or giving negativity the opportunity to fester. In kid parlance, we used it to lessen the weight of sibling slights. It was helpful in teaching Emily and May to move past disappointments. It is also a good mantra for all of us to keep in mind when we’re feeling resentful or overwhelmed. Why hold on to anger, negativity, and the weight of bad feelings?
Are you harboring a past slight that has become too burdensome to carry? Can you set it down? Are you replaying a hurtful discussion? Can you turn the voices off? Are you remembering exactly what someone did that hurt you? Can you shake the details off your shoulders? Can you conjure the image of a larger-than-life panda, talking to a little boy, about two monks, one of whom sets down the burdens he no longer needs to carry?