There is an old Zen Buddhist saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” This has been around for millennia, but I have found myself returning to consider its meaning more regularly during the past few weeks. My recent change of job has opened up a whole world of wood chopping which I was almost ignorant to before. My shed is surrounded by large stacks of logs from trees which were felled a few years ago when the garden was redesigned. Along one side of my shed is a large log store split into two bays. The house has open fires and a log burner so I took it upon myself to ensure there was a plentiful supply of fuel to keep the place toasty during the cold winter months.
During the quieter months of winter and early spring, the processing of these big logs into firewood is a great way to keep active and stay warm. Every morning, after arriving at work, I take my axe to the log stack to limber up for the day by chopping a few logs. The oldest, driest wood was chopped first and moved to stores nearest the house for burning, while I set about the younger, fresher, and damper wood, which would need to be dried in the stores for at least a year before it would be ready to burn. As I began to chop away at the logs I could feel my confidence build, and although I had little previous experience using an axe, I quickly learnt the most efficient ways to split the timber. Before long the wood began to stack up, and just before Christmas I managed to completely fill the stores.
The process of splitting a log can be used as a form of meditation. There is a strong need to be present in the moment and focus entirely on the task. You feel the tension build in the arms, like a coiled spring, as the axe is raised, and need to focus completely on the log as the cold steel of the axe is brought crashing down if you are to successfully cleave it in two. To lose focus at any point would make the task tiring and inefficient and even more importantly dangerous. For the Zen monks that originally came up with this saying, the wood itself would have been essential for providing fuel for the temple. Despite their devotion to quiet, sitting meditation, it would also still be necessary for a monk to complete the seemingly mundane, but essential tasks of life, such as chopping wood and fetching water. I think that the saying implies that by going about our everyday activities with the same focussed state of mind as we would in a more traditional meditation, that our everyday lives can also be a source of enlightenment and are able to give us the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction that we all seek.