Chop Wood, Carry Water

The Idea: The importance of allotting time, every day, to stop thinking and just be.
A few weeks ago Rob Paterson pointed me to this post on Evelyn Rodriguez’ Crossroads Dispatches blog, with this wonderfully ambiguous quote from Wu Li:

Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

and this quote from Linus Torvalds’ Just Barely Enough Design:

Nobody should start to undertake a large project. You start with a small trivial project, and you should never expect it to get large.

I’ve taken this “don’t try to run before you walk” advice to heart in the evolution of AHA! The Discovery and Learning Centre — slow, natural, collaborative, under-engineered at first.

But it seems to me there’s a deeper message in the Wu Li quote. It’s not so much about attention to detail or accepting the necessity of routine or living a simple life as it is about living in the moment. Paying attention.

Since getting back from Montreal I’ve been trying to take it easy to recuperate from the kidney stones, which are still causing me some discomfort, apparently because they have caused an infection in my system. I am drinking eight glasses of water per day, per doctor’s orders, and, because the season continues to be so cold and miserable (more snow and hail today) I’m still stoking the high-efficiency fireplace every hour or so when I’m at home and awake. So I am, in fact, chopping wood and carrying water regularly every day. The slowdown has given me more time to think, and except for a pile-up of e-mail has not significantly reduced my work productivity. The remembrance of last week’s extreme pain and the lesser recurrences since then have made me somehow more alert, more attentive, in my comfortable moments. There is seemingly less noise in my head.

Just this small amount of progress has convinced me to add Live In The Moment to my Getting Things Done “to do” list, under the category every day. I have flagged this project as Important and allotted an hour a day to it. It will be an experiment — I’ll have to figure out what precisely I will invest this time in, but I have some ideas. I know walking in the woods with Chelsea seems to be effective. I am going to try to allot some of this time to physical exercise, which has been effective in the past, at least until procrastination sets in. I will keep trying to learn to meditate, which so far has not worked as well. I think I may try to learn to cook vegetarian food. The time spent chopping and stacking and carrying wood will count. One way or another, I am promising myself to spend an hour every day doing something that is purely physical, and during that time to avoid abstract thinking, quiet the noise, let go and just focus on being, on sensing, on paying attention.

It’s my personal healing program, I guess. I’m just wondering why it took a physical illness to make me realize that something so important was absent from my otherwise wonderful Getting Things Done list. Now I’m asking myself what else that’s important is missing from the list.

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10 Responses to Chop Wood, Carry Water

  1. kerry says:

    Ah, this has been one of my favourite zen quotes for many years. It struck me too, when I first heard it. As a young child, I became an earnest seeker of “enlightenment”, expecting, in my child-like imagination, to encounter a completely different landscape on the other side of it, only to later discover that there was no need to seek in the first place – it was always there. Sure, there is a subtle and powerful shift in perspective…its kind of like “everything has changed and nothing has changed”. I continue, on the other side of a new insight, to wake up and show up for the day as I would any other…yesterday, if I wanted to drink and to be warm, I had to “chop wood and carry water”…today I need to do the same… but my awareness of performing the actions may have changed dramatically. From an observers point of view, however, what has changed? Before, after…all looks the same. I find a delightful humour and peace in contemplating this quote. I can smile at my attempts to take action to change the world, knowing the appropriate perspective. I love paradox :)

  2. kerry says:

    Oh, and I forgot to thank you, Dave, for making me giggle the other day when you mentioned, in an off hand kind of way, the fact that your kidney stone was shaped alarmingly like a kidney. See – even in your pain you managed to make someone on the other side of the world smile – not at your misfortune – but at your subtle humour. It made me wonder if, in fact, the freckle on my upper arm might not, when magnified, resemble the coastline of, say, California? It was a wonderful Douglas Adams kind of moment that I truly appreciated – thanks again!

  3. Dan says:

    Dear Dave, wanted to tell you about this idea of living-in-the-present when I read about your kidney stones. It didn’t feel right, now it is. I deeply believe that almost any kind of illness is related to a sign for us, either metaphysical or coming from within our body’s natural intelligence, to stop and begin to feel and listen to our breathing, when the time is ours. I’m happy you mentioned your GTD list, because I think that illness is *the* way nature tells us that we have to rememeber that the time is ours. When is not, when it belongs to others more than to us (family and friends, work, web) we are not in balance, and a crisis is forthcoming and sooner or later we’ll see the consequences. If you want to begin to meditate, begine with paying attention to your breathing, you’ll naturally improve, because you’ll want to go back to it more and more. In India they say that every man is born with a fixed number of breaths, the sooner they finish the sooner we go, so it is convenient to everybody to learn pranayama and the art of awareness through breathing ;-)

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Kerry: Thanks. Paradox is like a gift to all writers, isn;t it? So is irony. Makes the job a lot easier ;-)Dan: Yes. What’s interesting about GTD is it allows you to see exactly how and how much of your life you are ‘giving away’ on things that are important vs urgent vs neither. Excellent for keeping things like work/life balance in perspective. I’m using both Fontana’s and Kabat-Zinn’s books on meditation and both include breathing exercises, so I’m on the right track but stull struggling.

  5. baxter says:

    a meditation technique as easy as falling off a logsit in a chair or lay down eyes closed look at the blank screen place your awareness in one hand or both feel blood flowing in one finger til felt move to the next finger do the same thought arises watch it thought passes go back to awareness in hand see blank screen in mind thought arises watch it thought passesgo back to awarenss in hand at end of 20 minutes resuming full consciousness hand(s) ought to be tingling

  6. Cyndy says:

    All I can do is smile. I think that’s THE most important addition to your to-do list. Living in the moment IS meditation. Live the moment fully with every sense.

  7. Of course there is a deeper meaning to that quote! (I like folks to consider the layers of meaning in what I write.) ‘Enlightenment’ – ok how about something less ambitious, awakening – doesn’t change our external world. It’s an internal shift in perception. I’ve been doing more Vipassana meditation and walking more slowly since the tsunami. Glad to hear you are taking care of yourself.BTW, chop wood quote related to this quote:Distinguishing between profane and sacred,Their vexations flourish. – Zen classic Xin Ming by Niutou Farong

  8. Rob Paterson says:

    Samuel Pepys had a bladder stone that was “cut” for without anesthetic. I will spare you the details. He carried the stone around in his pocket for the rest of his life to remind himself and others how precious life is and how not to worry too much about things that he could not control. Dave a I see a locket in your life with a little kidney shaped stone around your neck.Hoping that you make a full recoveryBest wishes Rob

  9. Ranga says:

    I wanted to add a little comment about water. According to certain naturopathy people, it is better to drink about 5 litres of water a day. In fact most or all physical cell level ailments can be prevented or cured by consuming large quantities of water.I have been taking about 16 glasses of water a day. It has helped me in weight loss. One should not consume water with food. You can take water 30 minutes before food and 2 hours after food. It is not good to have ice water.For more on this topic and greate natural living tips, please visit

  10. Jon Clement says:

    An hour of physical non-thinking… how about getting your hands dirty in something NEW everyday? Keep in mind that a routine walk in the woods fills the same ‘frame’ in your mind.

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