Chop Wood…Carry Water

“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.’”   (An ancient Zen tale)

A strange little story, but one that grabbed my attention. Oh how I’ve searched for some form of ‘enlightenment’ over the past few months! I’ve read stacks of books, streamed hours of videos, podcasts, Ted Talks…and on and on. But was still left hungry…for something. I didn’t know what.  So when I came across this quote, I was curious. As I searched the internet for the source, I realized that there seemed to be little consensus as to its origin or even its meaning. So, because many ancient quotes are subject to the reader’s interpretation, I bestowed upon this one my own, albeit personal, understanding.  I determined that, for me, this parable was another call to mindfulness – in the sense that, no matter what or who we are, there are basics that need tending to and we may as well enjoy the process, not just the results.

I think this may have been playing out in my own life without my even knowing it.

Now, chopping wood and carrying water are two pretty menial tasks, right? But in these days, over the past months, menial tasks have become eerily important to me. Folding clothes, cleaning woodwork, rinsing dishes…all have taken on new significance. With so much of my usually hectic schedule curtailed or often cancelled, I have found myself paying much more attention to these seemingly trivial, usually boring, chores.

Why, I’ve asked myself, am I so hyper-focused on small details like these lately. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve developed a new coping mechanism, one that is helping me get through the humdrum of confinement.

So…I chop wood and carry water…fold clothes, wash woodwork…more mindfully than ever before.

And I write. But over this past year, that too had changed. I realized, as I look back, that so many of the days’ entries were in the form of questions. Why did this happen? How did we get here? How will we get out of this? When will it end? Who will be the one with the solution? So many whys, hows, whens, and whos that journaling had become almost a futile waste of time. Often my journaling has been in the form of a prayer. But even as I took these questions to my God, there were no answers forthcoming. I was feeling helpless and abandoned.

But a few weeks ago my quest for enlightenment was rewarded! I came across this excerpt from  Letters to a Young Poet written by an Austrian writer, Ranier Maria Rilke. It read…

I beg you…to be patient to all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Live everything. Live the question. Don’t look for the answer to be given to you. Rather, feel your way into the question; linger there. Be mindful. The uncertainty is a rich place to explore. Remain there for awhile.

Chop the wood. Carry the water.

Perhaps the answer will show itself. Maybe not what we would ever expect. But it will be the right answer, nonetheless.

I’ve tried this. It works.