Before Enlightenment: Chop Wood, Carry Water.
After Enlightenment: Chop Wood, Carry Water.
It’s an ancient Zen saying you’ve likely read many times before. Author Stephen Altschuler recommends giving it a try literally, at least the “chop wood” part, in his recent article for the SF Chronicle, with some welcome how-to advice on chopping wood without hurting yourself. It’s a great little article, which got me to thinking about more everyday outdoor chores like mowing the lawn or shoveling the driveway.
Stephen Altschuler is an exceptional writer, melding a strong gratitude for nature with a Buddhist spirituality. This comes across even in this brief article, and much more so in his great book The Mindful Hiker: On the Trail to Find the Path (one of my personal favorites, in fact, which I will look forward to blogging about in the near future).
Along with step-by-step wood chopping instructions, Stephen Altschuler wrote:
…I still enjoy the ritual of splitting wood. It’s a meditation that is nearly as effective as sitting cross-legged in a zendo. You must be very focused, very steady, very silent. There is nothing digitalized about it. Nothing to be rushed. Nothing “to-do list” about this …
Yes, like in the zendo, this is hard work, but there are countless benefits. Your body will be stronger, your mind will be quieter, and your spirit will be lighter. It’s also a wonderful cathartic remedy for commuter time on the freeway or your neighbor’s barking dog or crowded shopping malls…You’ll be warmer as well, as Thoreau pointed out, at each step in the process, and you will be sharper when you do go back to thinking.
This same mindfulness can be applied to other outdoor chores like lawnmowing or shoveling out the driveway. But the truth is (and unfortunately for me I speak from vast experience here), it is all too possible to mow your lawn or shovel your snow and still devote 95% of your mind to playing and re-playing all sorts of energy-wasting thoughts and personal slights, real and imagined.
I confess this is especially true for me in the winter months, while shoveling the driveway. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing…the winter of our discontent, literally and figuratively, I suppose…
In contrast, try ruminating like that while chopping wood, and the likely consequence will be to send your maul on your foot and not the log, bringing you back to mindfulness of the present moment with a vengeance! Same goes for carrying water: focus on some mental chatter and it’s likely you’ll spill your buckets…now haul your butt back to the well or no drinking or washing for you!
The consequences of un-mindfulness are a lot more direct when attempting these particular tasks. Still, the investment of mindfulness while doing more common albeit less taxing outdoor work than wood chopping will repay you just as Stephen Altschuler wrote.
It would help to remember, especially the next time I am faced with a snow-covered driveway and a thought-cluttered mind that mindfulness is not “possible but too difficult”…rather, it’s “difficult but quite possible.”
If you find any particular outdoor work to be especially meditative for you, please let us know with a reply. Thanks!