How often have you been awake at night processing what happened to you the day before? Perhaps you were reworking a conversation with a family member or colleague. Or maybe you were wondering how to pay that bill that just arrived in the mail. Or perhaps you are a teacher and were busy (re)giving your lecture again, only in a “better way.”
But at 2:00 in the morning, none of these mental exercises are serving you. You really need to sleep – not figure out how you might have more clearly explained yourself to your boss/students/son or daughter. You are losing energy trying to work out how to pay a bill that’s not due for weeks. But still … you can’t seem to stop. These thoughts are swirling around in your mind, keeping you busy and awake.
One technique that I have used successfully to still my mind is the mantra “Leave her at the river.” I came up with this phrase soon after hearing the Zen story about the two monks. It goes like this:
A senior monk and his younger disciple were traveling together on pilgrimage. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a young, beautiful woman also attempting to cross. She was dressed in silk clothing with abundant black hair piled on top of her head. The young woman appeared troubled and in need of help. She soon turned to them and asked if they might help her cross the river.
The two monks had taken vows to not touch any females. But then, without a word, the senior monk picked up the beautiful woman, placed her on his back, and carried her across the river. Upon their arrival to the other side, he gently let her down onto the riverbank, bowed and continued walking.
The younger monk couldn’t believe his eyes. After crossing the river himself and rejoining the senior monk, he was speechless. For more than four hours he couldn’t think of anything to say as they continued on their pilgrimage in silence.
Finally the younger monk could no longer contain himself. “Master, as monks we are not permitted to touch any women. How could you pick up and carry that woman on your shoulders?”
The old monk looked at him in wonder and then replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river. What are you doing still carrying her?”
Granted, this story is rather male in nature. (It would be a good exercise to try and write a female equivalent.) But its message is an important one. Too often we are carrying events, thoughts, feelings, or sensations around with us when we might easily ‘leave them at the river’. While our spiritual work demands that we take time to consciously process and reflect on our daily lives and actions, it is always more fruitful (and a better use of our skillful will) to do so at an appropriate time – a time when we might better resolve, learn, or gain insight about ourselves from the specific event we have experienced.
In psychosynthesis, this kind of distancing or detachment is called disidentification, and it is one of the most fundamental and essential concepts in psychosynthesis. The idea is that disidentification brings inner freedom. In fact, the more we are detached from our body, feelings, and thoughts, the freer we are to consciously choose our actions and to be our authentic selves. Assagioli wrote:
We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves.
In the story, the younger monk was dominated for hours by the image of the beautiful woman after the older monk set her down on the riverbank. In contrast, the senior monk was able to disidentify from the touch, sight, and scent of the beautiful woman to continue his journey in freedom and peace.
Next time you find yourself spending too much time replaying a conversation or rewriting a past event, stop and try saying: “Leave her at the river,” with the idea that the ‘her’ is the thought that you wish to put aside, either forever or for another, more appropriate time when you might skillfully reflect upon it.
Don’t be surprised if the thought keeps popping back into your head. When it does, just gently repeat the mantra. Try using humor. (e.g., “Oh for goodness sake, Catherine! Will you please leave that woman at the river!!”) Use your imagination to visualize yourself lifting whatever is troubling you from your shoulders and gently placing it down on the riverbed. Then take a deep breath and silently walk away towards inner freedom.