Ever heard this quote and wondered what the hell it meant?
“Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”
It’s a common reaction.
Sometimes fragments of Zen philosophy spill into popular culture, and taken alone, they can be hard to decipher.
But this one’s a little Jedi snippet of wisdom that can benefit us all, when we know how to use it.
Zen and the art of better life
Do you hate your job, traipsing in with gritted teeth, barely scraping through the seemingly pointless activities on your list?
Or do jobs at home make you feel like your life force is slowly draining onto the floor like a big puddle of disappointment?
Indeed, we all have our own versions of chopping wood and carrying water that are soul-sucking every time we have to do them.
Which is about when the dreaming kicks in…
Maybe you envisage a better life, full of fun and freedom where you can leave such minutia far behind.
You probably feel that if only you could reach this Valhalla, your life would be complete, a bed of soft little roses, caressing your cheeks with flowery whispers.
Whatever our individual take on the ideal existence, we believe that if we could just achieve it, everything would be different.
Oh, enlightenment; a state above the normal humdrum of life.
But those wise old Zen monks knew different.
Four meanings of chop wood, carry water
1. There’s no reason to strive when we realise that nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
To me, the saying dispels the illusion that life would only be better if we had this or that.
You see, whatever your existence of technicolour awesomeness, you still have to chop wood and carry water.
There are always shitty activities, no matter how incredible or successful you are.
That why so many people, upon achieving their dreams, are disillusioned. They imagine they get to leave all the crap behind.
But that’s not how this little rodeo works.
Even so, most people set an even bigger goal, imagining everything will be better once they achieve that.
And so the cycle of suffering continues.
What they haven’t done (and the way to break this pattern) is to take this quote to heart and through some Zen magic, change their relationship with the world…
A process we’ll explore more shortly.
2. We can appreciate the everyday miracle of ordinary life through mindfulness and presence.
The other great teaching from the quote pertains to ordinary life in all its glory.
All those activities that we’re usually forced by guilt to do, can actually be pretty erm…great.
And this is particularly relevant today, in an age where social media contends that life isn’t worth living unless you’re sitting on a tropical beach playing on your laptop or swimming with manta rays and your model girlfriend.
The consumer and leisure industries have worked hard to indoctrinate us into pursuing new and novel experiences above all else.
The zanier (and pricier), the better.
I’ve bought into this notion countless times myself, and still do when I consider how awesome it might be to complete the next activity on the bucket list.
But what these adverts full of photoshopped families fail to mention is that after the initial thrill of the beach break or 5-star stay, we’ll feel exactly the same as we do now.
This quote reminds us that when perceived clearly, all experiences are equal in their subjective experience, whether you’re on a fancy cruise or scrubbing the toilet.
So in effect, we no longer need chase the dragon and dopamine hits of stimulating experience.
Rather, we must simply progress beyond the psychological veil to enjoy the most routine activities as if newborns seeing for the first time.
3. Wisdom lies in the quotidian.
Once we stop trying to escape some activities or experiences for “better” ones and fully submerge into whatever we’re engaged in, profound insights emerge.
We realise that it’s the normal activities that provide an extra helping of wisdom.
Every day, via any avenue of experience, we get to observe our consciousness and it’s contents, including the frequent games it plays.
We learn that rather than a highlight reel of spectacular experiences, the most mundane moments can be the best teachers and are ones to be savoured.
4. Everything has changed on the inside but nothing has changed on the outside.
All of this mind-bending might sound mightily heroic, but in essence, it’s a very simple, down-to-earth process.
And while everything changes internally for those lucky enough to have the realisation, externally, there are still dishes to be done and beds to be made.
That’s to say, the person changes, but the activities stay the same.
Have you ever seen a pretty Zen person doing normal, everyday things?
Do you notice anything different about them?
Often they just seem more peaceful, attuned to what they’re doing and in the flow.
In contrast, someone who’s stressed seems to have mentally moved on from what they’re doing to a million other things in their mind.
If they do return their attention to the present activity, they do it in disgust, preferring their imaginary future wanderings to the reality of the present.
But, it needn’t be this way.
I hate to break it to you amigo, but if you’re looking to walk on sacred ground when you finally transcend, you’ll be looking for a long time.
As the saying implies, even after achieving enlightenment, life remains the same.
There’s no mythical zone to enter, no fairy dust floating around; just the normal, everyday minutia of living, with all its quotidian tasks.
Life and it’s contents haven’t changed, only your relationship to life has, through a fundamental shift in perspective.
How to use the quote
We can talk about theory until the cows come home, but how the devil does this quote work in practice? First, a little bit about the slippery little fish we call the ego:
Many people feel that there’s a little controller inside their head, called the ego, and a separate universe out there.
Anything painful that happens out there is judged as bad by the ego. And boy, does it want us to avoid the bad feeling…
Comfort is the priority. After all, it’s synonymous to survival, an aim the ego prioritises.
However, Zen teaches us that the ego and feeling of a external world are just mind-made creations.
All we have are inputs, which our mind then interprets to paint a very real picture.
In other words, we’re left with consciousness and it’s contents.
Once you appreciate this, you begin to perceive the world very differently.
One of the effects of this perspective shift and weakened ego is that activities or events we once labelled as good or bad, become neutral.
We lost our reactiveness to them.
In this way, whether you’re changing nappies or sipping cocktails becomes irrelevant.
Diminishing the power of the ego through presence allows us to get interested in any activity we’re engaged in, exploring it with compassion and curiosity.
Moving forward with meditation
If you want to understand this Zen quote in a profound and altogether more literal way, over and above words on a little shiny screen, it requires further work.
To disarm ourselves from the illusions of the ego, we need to practice meditation, a technique to put us in touch with the machinations of our mind.
Click here for a meditation 101 article to get you versed in the basics and before you know it, the wood won’t be chopping you.
Rather, you’ll go forth and consciously chop wood, carry water.