Essays on Technology and Culture

“Chop Wood, Carry Water”

“Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”

— Zen Proverb

I’m not going to pretend I know a damn thing about being “enlightened.” I can barely make time for a ten minute sitting practice. Therefore, anything I say below that touches on anything spiritual should be taken with several grains of salt, as I am largely pulling it out of my butt, despite a couple of college Philosophy courses.

Whatever your chosen interpretation of “enlightenment,” however, the important part of the proverb is the repetition: “chop wood, carry water.” Sure, most of us don’t have to chop wood and carry water unless we want to. Many of us have heating and indoor plumbing in our homes. The proverb isn’t about chopping wood and carrying water, it’s about how we’ll always need to do the things necessary for survival and life, no matter our spiritual state. For you and I, to “chop wood [and] carry water” means to go to work, to take care of our children, to wash the dishes, to do all the day-to-day things that have to get done to keep afloat in this world.

That’s all there is to it, right? Thing is, it’s easy to let these required day-to-day things fall by the wayside. It happens to so many of us. One or more days where you forget to wash the dishes, and suddenly your kitchen smells funny, and you’re eating terrible delivery food out of planet-killing styrofoam with plastic utensils. If you forget about your children, they’ll also smell funny and then there’s someone from the state banging on the door.

As I was thinking about this proverb today, I got an email from Patrick Rhone’s This Could Help newsletter that touched on this very concept.

I find that one of the most important motivating factors in accomplishing any of our tasks is remembering the “why” behind it. And it is here that considering our missions will come into play.

“Why am I doing this? Why is this important right now? Where does completing this take me? What does finished look like? Where does this fit in my life-long mission?”

All of these should be able to be answered by first defining your missions and life long goals. Even the most obvious or overarching ones. Any single task on our list should align with these. Therefore, it is important that we do all we can to quantify them. For, all of our tasks leave an open question as to their value until we do.

To put it another way, “First, care.”

Another thing I ready today is a piece on Medium by Tami Sigmund, “I’m a thinker, not a doer.” It hit home. Her conundrum is so much like my conundrum was when I emailed Merlin and Dan in the early days of Back to Work.

I can never just sit and ‘be’ who I am. My mind is always heading off in some new direction, trying to come up with some grand scheme. I have a sense of anxiety when I’m not actively planning out the next ‘thing’ in my life. The next thing never happens though, because I’m too busy trying to figure out exactly what it should be, and how I should do it, and who would join in, what implications it could have on my life, and what holes I can poke through my plans to sabotage them before they get off the ground.

I could have easily written this myself. In fact, digging through my gMail archives, I still have the original email I wrote to Dan and Merlin then. Here’s the crux of it:

…I’m in my late 20s, working a full-time, menial clerical job along side a part-time telemarketing gig, to make sure I can keep a roof over my head, food in my stomach, and pay off the corporate masters I owe my education costs to. Neither of these jobs fulfills the yen I have to be… creative.

What does one do to find out what one is good at/suited to do/their passion/etc? This is, I guess, the crux of that whole “quarter-life crisis” thing…

The unwritten part of that is my own endless questioning of what I should be doing, whether it will work, and whether I can live with myself if it doesn’t. I’m reminded of a minor meme that went around Twitter a while back about your “Burlesque Name”. Your first name is your favorite drink. Your last name is your greatest fear. So, I’d be either Bourbon Success, or Bourbon Failure. I haven’t figured out which.

Part of the whole journey, since Episode 7, has been about finding the direction I want to go, lead by determining what I care about. That’s the hard part. I’ve got a vague sense of it now, which is more than I did three years ago, but even a vague sense of direction and understanding is better than none. But, to wrench this train back on the tracks, knowing my direction, having a goal, being enlightened to your purpose and design in life is not going to mean you won’t have to do all the mundane crap embodied in “chop wood, carry water.” This is the foundation upon which you can, with a little luck and perseverance, take that journey and reach the goal. It’s all connected.

Yet, it’s the mundanity of those day-to-day tasks that makes it so easy for us to forget what they’re really for. It helps to remind ourselves of just why we do all this stuff, be it washing the dishes, running on the treadmill after work, or sit and think about the next step in our lives. To “be who we are” is to do all these things. That’s what “be”ing is.