A Kōan is a story that might seem like a paradox at first. Many meditate on them, trying to tease out meaning, for there is no correct solution.

Recently I was looking through some Kōans, and one jumped out at me. It mirrored an aspect of my life that I am currently dissatisfied with, but was unable to label and address until I read the following story about two monks.

One day, two monks set out for a temple in a valley beyond the woods. While cutting a pathway through the woods, they came across a choppy stream they needed to cross. There, stood by the bank of the stream, was a beautiful young maiden dressed in silk. She was clearly at a loss as to how to cross without getting muddy and wet. So, without thinking twice, the elder monk gestured to pick her up. Shocked, she obliged. He put her over his shoulder and waded across to the other side. The younger monk, dismayed and uneasy at what he had witnessed, followed in tow. Upon reaching the other side of the bank, the elder monk put the maiden down gently. The maiden paid her respects and walked on. The monks then continued on their way to the temple. As they navigated through the forest, the younger monk, still troubled by what he’d seen, asked, “How could you do that? We aren’t even supposed to make eye contact with women, let alone pick them up and carry them!” Without a thought, the elder monk turned to the younger monk and said, “Oh, are you still carrying her? I put her down when I reached the other side of the stream”.

I see myself in the younger monk too often, carrying thoughts much past their expiration date. These thoughts are toxic, usually centered around a person or a situation. I’m good at letting anything go that I deem out of my control. However I continue to carry these toxic thoughts because I feel that I have a modicum of control in the situation. I mull it over, weigh the pros and cons and run conversations over in my head ad nauseam. It’s really quite exhausting.

Does carrying those thoughts with me help? I don’t think so. I haven’t experienced any benefit from mentally spinning in circles. It seems like an exercise in self-torture and wasting energy. Personally I find that self-talk in the third person is incredibly useful in dealing with this. Once I realize that I’ve started spinning on one of those thoughts, I mentally stepping back and think “Oh, Robertson is on that toxic thought again”. Labeling it in the third person can snap you out of the spiral and give you control over what to spend your mental energy on next.

These thoughts are usually instigated by emotions, but preserved by feelings. Those two words seem interchangeable, but are two distinct phenomena. Emotions are physical and instinctive. Joy, fear, anger and attraction are emotions. We have no control over them. Feelings, on the other hand, are our reactions to emotions are exist entirely within our heads. Happiness, worry, bitterness and love are feelings.

My current toxic thought was created and sustained by my inability to manage my feelings. It started when someone annoyed me (emotion). It continued because my frustration (feeling) has allowed me to come back to it, day after day, and waste mental and emotional energy playing out scenarios in my head. Unwittingly I have chosen to carry this with me. Seeing this situation in a Kōan has given me the opportunity to deal with it by letting it go. Writing about it has also helped.

Find a way to choose what to carry with you. If you don’t have a choice, you don’t have control.