April 9, 2021

Chop Wood, Carry Water

There’s a saying from Zen Buddhism that I’ve carried around and reminded myself of for years in lots of different situations. It’s been reworded, turned into a story, and attributed to many different people, but here’s a simplified version:

Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.

When I begin to feel frustrated by a task, find myself just mindlessly coasting through something, or frustrated by a perceived lack of progress I say a shortened version to myself - “chop wood, carry water”. It’s flexible and can bring up different thoughts depending on my context:

  • No matter how advanced my skills become, the basics will remain. If you want to do different things you need to become better at the basics to make that space.
  • Give the basics the attention they deserve, don’t just let them fade into the background.
  • My relationship to the basics will change as I progress, and I will see them differently even though they remain unchanged.
  • The basics contribute to the meaning of any task.
  • All tasks that are necessary are equal in their importance.

This isn’t an exhortation for stasis; the monks in question are seeking enlightenment. It’s a reminder to pay attention, be aware, appreciate the path behind and the place you are now, and a call to use those basics to grow.

© Eric Biven 2021