the truth I find in an old story

In Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, story 14 of 101 Zen Stories, Paul Rips relates the story of an old monk and a young monk going down a road during a storm. They come across a well dressed young woman unable to cross a muddy intersection. The old monk picks up the young woman and carries her across to the dry road on the other side of the intersection. The monks continue down the road until the young monk, troubled by what had just happened, reminds the old monk that monks in their order do not touch women and how could he break the rules so blithely. The old monk then says, ‘I left the girl there. Are you still carrying her?’

This is one of my favourite (very) short stories and one that I come back to time and again. Because I know that I have a tendency to carry things beyond when they can reasonably be carried. For instance, I am a maker of lists, and some of the items on my lists have acquired tenure, they’ve been on my lists so long. They have acquired almost an untouchability, saying to me, how dare you try and remove me from your list. I have been here so long that I have become an indelible, unremoveable item on your list.

This comes back to the previous entry in these musings of mine, of how to get stuck into the large things. The comment made by Jacey Bedford, friend and colleague, is the old adage that the only way to eat the elephant is one bite at a time. (And apologies to elephants, who have been in the news recently for much less worthy reasons.)

It’s an interesting thing, this comfort we develop sometimes in carrying the same thing for a long time. For such a long time indeed that the act of carrying itself becomes almost a comfort. That the thing we are carrying becomes a comfort blanket, a favourite stuffed bear, and this can make it hard to set it down on the side of the road and walk away.

But this is a common thread in Zen, that we are sometimes, often, the source of our own discomfort, because of our own tendency to carry the source of our discomfort with us. For me, I am beginning to think that one among the many things I carry is this comfort that arises from procrastination. That the fact that something remains on my list is somehow a good thing, a comfortable thing.

And so now, I bid adieu and go back to the list, the new things and the old things, and we will address one of each this evening. And perhaps, if I am strong and able, I will carry on with so attacking my list, the new things and the old things. It is an impossible dream that someday the list is empty, but at this point my sincere wish is that I can look on my list, and all of the things staring back at me are new untenured things.

~ by Jim Anderson on 20 November 2017.

2 Responses to “the truth I find in an old story”

  1. Also one of my favourite stories! Lists are fascinating and useful. I use mine as an importance sieve, because I vaguely worry about doing far more stuff than I can actually do. So it goes on the list, then either gets done (sooner or later) or falls off the list due to having become unimportant.

  2. […] some earlier reflections on aspects of procrastination can be found here and here, and here and here, and here and […]

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