Chop Wood, Carry Water

Our friends and family know Mike and I enjoy working on outdoor projects together. Our latest DIY venture has been removing and replacing several rotted retaining walls.

I have to admit the job has had this old girl sprawled on the ground breathlessly complaining, whining, and crying. I know there’s no crying in baseball and other virile pursuits, but I have shed tears while moving a thousand 45-pound concrete blocks, digging trenches, and shoveling rock. After a good cleansing melt-down, I usually regain my composure, pick up a shovel and get back to work.

For years, I’ve encouraged myself to complete overwhelming, difficult, or mundane tasks to a rhythmic refrain of, “Chop wood. Carry water. Chop wood. Carry water.” My motivational mantra refers to a Zen parable I read when I was about twenty. It goes something like this ~

There was a young monk who dreamed of learning the secrets of enlightenment. At the monastery, he spent his days chopping wood for the fire and carrying water to the kitchen. Tired and frustrated, he complained to the Zen master who told him, “Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.”

I certainly don’t consider myself enlightened, but I find this story filled with simple wisdom ~

Just Do It. The successful Nike slogan reminds us to stop making excuses. Yes, it’s hard and you’re exhausted, but the work needs to be done. Chop wood. Carry water. Harvest field. Change diaper. Build bridge. Sweep porch. Cure cancer. Work is what gives our lives meaning and purpose.

Be Mindful. Whatever our work, we should try to be completely present and give it our best. There is a saying that how we do anything is how we do everything. What matters is the task at hand. Forget about multi-tasking. Just chop wood. Just carry water.

All Work is Meaningful. There is no unimportant work. I have a new appreciation for retaining walls and the people who build them. The young monk was learning that all work, no matter how educated or enlightened he became, is really nothing more than chopping wood and carrying water.

Attitude is Everything. The Zen master in the story made it clear that with wisdom, the monk’s tasks won’t change, but his perception of the tasks will. The late philosopher Wayne Dyer similarly said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Find the Fun. As my favorite Disney Zen master, Mary Poppins, sang, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game!” Working alongside my husband makes every job a little more fun. I guess that makes him my spoonful of sugar.

When our retaining walls are complete, there will be plenty more things on our to-do list. Maybe we will plant some fall bulbs, paint the dock, or rebuild the creaky stairs. Thankfully, our work is never done, because when we stop chopping wood and carrying water, we stop living.

4 thoughts on “Chop Wood, Carry Water

  1. Thank you Simple Swan- I am going to share with my class- Love it! Now I must go, Click remote …pop bottle top…Click remote, pop bottle top…Grueling but somebody has to do it 😋

    Liked by 1 person

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