Chop wood, carry water
Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.
— Zen Kōan
BY ERIN SMITH
I have a way of starting my day. I call it cat, coffee, computer.
When I awaken, I start the coffee and let Cat Stevens in. Then I settle on the couch with a cat in my lap and a steaming cup of coffee by my side. As I close my eyes, I take a deep breath, smelling the just brewed coffee (my favorite smell, other than my child’s head). I stroke Stevie’s soft fur until she purrs.
Those three senses — smell, hearing, and touch — bring me into my body enough to meditate. I breathe mindfully for a while. Then I open my laptop to journal. Though it’s far less romantic than writing longhand in a beautiful journal, I now type out my daily thoughts and dreams. My morning routine grounds me and helps to set the tone for my day.
My family recently experienced a tragedy that we are still processing. This season shook our daily rhythms, left us bereft and unmoored. There has been a lot of canceling and rescheduling of appointments, assignments, and school/work schedules.
But I have not canceled cat, coffee, computer.
Zen Buddhist Layman Pang (740-808) wrote,
“My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing.
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
My supernatural power and marvelous activity:
Drawing water and chopping wood.”
The shorthand for this directive became, simply, chop wood, carry water.
Fire and water are the things that help us survive, the pyramid base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Humans need food, water, and shelter to exist. Whether we are happy or sad, on top of the mountain or buried beneath its rubble, we must drink water and tend the fire. Whatever is happening inside our hearts and minds, life goes on.
But it’s deeper than that too. Chop wood, carry water is a mindfulness practice that helps us be awake to whatever comes, helps us see that ordinary and extraordinary are only separate sides of the same coin. We maintain an outside routine (cat, coffee, computer) so that the inside is present to whatever comes.
As Walt Whitman wrote, “I contain multitudes.” We all do. Humans are complicated, multidimensional creatures with a vast array of emotional states. Every emotion is a part of the process. Cat, coffee, computer is thus a cornerstone practice that helps me stay with the onslaught of emotions as they come, instead of running from them or pushing them away. When the grief comes, I cry. When anger or worry arises, I pace like a caged tiger. When the joy or laughter arises, I embrace that as well, rather than feel guilty for feeling delight in a dark time. One moment we rend our garments, the next we twirl under an apple blossom tree, nature’s breeze turning it into a private ticker tape parade.
Distraction would be easier, numbing my pain with bourbon or podcasts or carbohydrates. Numbing out helps me imagine I’m in some brighter future where this season is simply a distant memory. But that isn’t the way grief works. If we don’t process it now, there is no freedom in the future. Healing isn’t a straight diagonal line. It’s a messy scribble. Life goes on. No way through it but through it.
So we chop wood and carry water, leaning into the practice. Let the external steady us when the internal is a scribbled mess. We practice when the sun shines to build the necessary resilience and grit for the darker, stormier days. So I’ll brew the coffee and let the cat in. I’ll sit quietly even when my mind screams. I’ll journal, even when no words come.
And maybe I’ll get outside more too. On the days I am too bone-weary to chop or carry anything, I’ll sit under a tree by the creek and just be.