Chop Wood, Carry Water

Perhaps you are familiar with this Zen Buddhist quote?  When I first heard the entire quote, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”  I was unsure of what it meant.  I thought it had something to do with learning to appreciate the mundane tasks.  Years later I understood it to be a metaphor which essentially means when you decide to do something, just do that one thing.  In short, it means to be mindful.  

How often have you been driving somewhere only to realize that when you arrived, you don’t recall driving at all?  Have you ever read pages of a book and realized that you can’t recall a single word you just read?  These are common examples of not being present in the moment.  When you choose to read a book, you have already made the commitment of time so take full advantage of just reading.  

In meditation most people describe their mind wandering.  This is a normal process but what the practice of meditation trains is the ability to guide the mind back to present moment.  In the practice of meditation, we are practicing the ability to chop wood and carry water.  I have a dramatic reminder of the importance of being present in the act of chopping wood.  When I was about fourteen, I was chopping wood for the wood heater for our home.  I can remember being caught up in thoughts of things that happened in school that day.  As I swung the ax, I missed the log and the blade came down on my little toe of my right foot.  I was certain I had just cut off my little toe.

My leather tennis shoes I was wearing sustained a deep cut but when I pulled off my shoe and sock, much to my shock, there was no blood.  The toe did swell and it was painful to walk for a few days but eventually I healed.  More importantly I learned how to chop wood when chopping wood.  I continue to have my moments of allowing my mind to tell stories which I follow when I should be doing the task I set out to do but I now find I can bring my mind back to the act more quickly.  

The next time you find yourself mindlessly following the stories told by your subconscious mind, gently bring yourself back to what you intended to do so you can fully experience everything about the activity.  

Chop wood, carry water,

Brett