Chop wood and carry water: Part II

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Photo by João Silas

Last week I wrote about the painstaking process of removing decades-old wallpaper, and how I related to it with the Zen proverb:

Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

I wrote about how it’s so simple and yet can be interpreted in different ways.

It can mean that even when you reach a pinnacle of achievement, you’ll still have to complete everyday mundane tasks. That never goes away.

OR it can mean that enlightenment is actually found through routine and everyday mundane tasks, not despite them.

OR it can mean that enlightenment and peak happiness is an inward journey. To the outside world it looks like nothing has changed, even if everything has transformed in your eyes.

OR it can mean that life goes on, and success and happiness don’t mean you get whisked to a mountaintop or a corner suite to spend your days in bliss. You wake up the next day and the world keeps spinning.

Or it can mean that changing your life DOESN’T bring happiness, contentment or enlightenment. Moving to a new state, getting a promotion, finding a partner, having kids — none of that by itself brings fulfillment. It’s inside the whole time.

I realized another interpretation today, thanks to Roz Liddle’s comment on my post. She wrote:

I love to strip wallpaper — jealous.

One person’s nemesis is another person’s nirvana.

Enjoy what you are doing, when you are doing it.

Find satisfaction in all things — even housework!

Be happy.

What’s the difference between Roz’s task and mine? A mindset. How we chose to see a simple task. That’s it.

In Buddhist teachings, there’s a metaphor of crossing from the shores of suffering to the shores of liberation. And the journey is just a mindset change.

“The journey is liberation itself,” writes Brother Phap Hai. “We cross the water only to realize that the two banks of the river are one, that the journey that appeared to be from one place to another — the shore of suffering to the shore of liberation — was less of a journey than a shifting of perception to discover where we have been all along.”

Another interpretation of “chop wood, carry water” is a shift in our framing. Before enlightenment, we approach a task as a chore and something to hurry through. After enlightenment, we can approach a task with mindful appreciation.

It reminds me of the difference between saying we have to do something vs saying we get to do something.

Saying I have to remove the wallpaper makes me focus on the seemingly mundane, arduous long process.

Saying I get to remove the wallpaper makes me focus on the fact that I have a home for my family that shelters us from the snow that’s currently falling. I can remodel and make the room exactly to our liking. And it gives me solitude and quiet to listen to my favorite podcasts. Not everyone is so fortunate.

If I say I get to chop wood and carry water, I think about the fact that I’m able bodied and can sustain myself with resources from the earth. It’s a damn miracle if you think about it just a little.

It’s just a subtle shift in seeing the world that changes everything.

Thanks Roz for helping me see that.

Written by

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity: http://bit.ly/thecreativejourney

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