Chop wood, carry water Print E-mail
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Friday, 14 August 2020 09:46
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Chop wood, carry water. Chop wood, carry water. Chop wood, carry water.” These are the words I’ve been repeating throughout this time of Covid-craziness.

Actually it’s a Zen kōan – an ancient story that helps you to practice awareness. The words are based on something written by Layman Pang, who lived from 740 to 808.

Later on, his words were adapted as follows: “The novice says to the master, ‘What does one do before enlightenment?’ ‘Chop wood. Carry water,’ replies the master. The novice asks, ‘What, then, does one do after enlightenment?’‘Chop wood. Carry water.’”

To me, these are grounding words in uncertain times. You may not agree with the ‘how’ or the ‘why’ we’ve arrived in the midst of this pandemic, but the level of worldwide shock cannot be denied.

Whichever way you’ve been dealing with it, wishing that things will simply go back to what they used to be is no longer an option. Many of us tolerate conditions out of our control with the hope that the problem would soon go away. But, when you get so caught up in the way you wish things to be when the pandemic is over, you suspend life. You disconnect from the now. Keeping an eye on the calendar, you don’t bring all of yourself into this day.

In fact, you feel bound by the daily grind and just rush through duties, withdrawing yourself from the task at hand. Your body may be chopping wood and carrying water, but your mind is elsewhere. You hold such strong resentment towards everyday errands that you become their slave, a victim – the wood chops you and the water carries you.

Kyle Kowalski says it’s as if he can hear his dad saying: “Do what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Don’t do what you’re not doing while you’re not doing it.”

Once you stop trying to escape some tasks or events for ‘better’ ones and fully immerse yourself into whatever you’re doing, everything changes. See, girlfriend, it does little good to reach an astonishing state of awareness on your meditation pad if you lose it the moment you’re faced with household chores.

Take washing dishes: Rushing through it with your thoughts on what you’re going to do afterwards, makes the feeling of slavery worse. Clearing your mind of thoughts doesn’t seem to work either, simply because it’s not possible.

The trick is to pay attention to the stray thoughts that wander into your mind like you’d pay attention to clouds crossing the sky. Translucent blimps! You just let them be. Notice them instead of identifying with them. Rather get into your body. Feel the heat of the water on your hands. What do you see? What do you hear as you’re moving the sponge over the dishes?

If you can be present like this, you start feeling that nothing is either bad or good, but your thinking makes it so. If you start realising that wisdom lies in the commonplace, the most ordinary of everyday tasks, then nothing is more important than chopping wood and carrying water. All activities are equalized. You can just be.

Kimberly Holman writes that we forgot how to just be. “All our spiritual searching and seeking simply boils down to this. We all want a life of joy and ease. Yet for some reason, we can’t figure out how to make one for ourselves. So, we look for some ultimate experience without ever realizing we’re already having one.”

Actually this can’t always be recognised right now. Somehow we need hindsight to realise that we’d been happy. Surely this is crazy! The only time we get to live is now, yet we don’t know how to be present now.

So, repeat this after Mary Jean Irion: “Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow.”

“Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return.”

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