Zen is a branch of Buddhism that came about in China during the 6th century. Many of its teachings and quotes continue to be repeated, but they sometimes come across as nonsensical phrases meant to sound obscure. There is meaning behind the quotes, however, and the lessons are still useful today.
Photo by Janet Ramsden
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
Many of us get caught up in the end results of what we’re working toward or the way things will be when we finally achieve something. But the truth is that getting to where you want to go or being successful doesn’t mean that the work that lead you there goes away. Achieving your version of “enlightenment” is not an endpoint in and of itself. You’ll need to do the same things after in order to keep moving forward. There’s a Zen philosophy that says the way a person does one thing is the way they do everything, and whether you agree with it or not, the message is clear. If you can’t take on the simple tasks as best as you can, how could you conquer the big things? As Tom Barrett explains on his blog Interlude Retreat, it’s all about being in the moment:
When we are able to be in the moment, we no longer feel compelled to watch the clock. Whatever your work might be, bring all of yourself to it. When you are fully present, you may find that your labour is no longer a burden. Wood is chopped. Water is carried. Life happens.
No matter how menial the task may seem, practicing mindfulness and focusing on the present work at hand will help you develop a habit of always doing your best. And once you finally achieve “enlightenment” you still must chop wood and carry water. Do your work, do it well, and when you find success, do it again.
“Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and grass grows by itself.”
As strange as it sounds, sometimes it’s better to just do nothing. In our busy lives, we become focused on action and productivity, as if our world would stop moving if we stopped moving. The world goes on fine without your actions, and it goes on fine without you. Instead, think of ways to react to the world around you, or if you’re tired, do nothing at all. You can end up wasting all of your energy running around trying to find things to do. Stop banging your head against a keyboard and remember that sometimes it’s about letting things happen, not making them happen. As another Zen proverb explains: “the quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.”
You might think that you have to be the one to do this or that, or that you’re the only one capable of handling things, but if you kicked the bucket, somebody else would fill your shoes. The grass grows by itself.
“If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit; but whatever you do, don’t wobble.”
The advice from this saying is sound and simple to understand, yet difficult to put into effect. This day and age our attention is constantly being pulled a thousand different directions, with our focus going by the wayside. Not only is it important to be present in the moment when you do something, but it’s also important that you zone in as much as you can. If it’s time to work, just work. Empty your mind of the past of present and think about what needs to be done right then and there. Develop monk-like focus and eliminate distractions that may cause you to wobble. Give weight to your intentions and do exactly what you need to do.
“When hungry, eat your rice; when tired close your eyes. Fools may laugh at me, but wise men will know what I mean.”
Indeed, this saying does seem comical, but its simplicity is powerful. In our day-to-day lives we find a way to complicate everything. The food we eat, the work we do, the way we talk, the way we walk; everything has to “mean” something. Life would be much easier if you just responded to things appropriately. If you’re hungry, eat something. If you’re tired, get some rest. If you have work to complete, do your work. Stop wondering why you’re hungry, why you’re tired, or what the best way to do your work is and take a page out of Nike’s book. Just do it. It’s possible that your life could be much simpler than you make it out to be.