Zen is a branch of Buddhism that originated in China around the 6th century. It has been with us for a while. Many of the teachings and quotes have found their way into western life, but they sometimes come across as nonsensical to some. There is meaning behind the quotes, however, with useful lessons available to us even today.
Generally there are two different ways of understanding Zen. The first is the belief that your mind is, from the beginning, fully enlightened, and the second is that at some point in time we pass from being imprisoned by ignorance and delusion to a true vision. Your enlightenment is timeless yet realizing it only occurs over time. To Zen, it is the moment of awakening that is important.Needless to say, there is confusion around some of the quotations. Here is my attempt to help you pass from ignorance to vision. Let’s see if you awaken…even a little here.
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
Any of us can get caught up in the end result of what we are trying to achieve, or a new way of looking at something. What a lot of us miss is that even when we reach our goals, the work continues, even if only to maintain our success. Achieving what you consider enlightenment is not an end, but an important waypoint along the way. You need to continue to do the same things in order to keep moving.
There is a Zen axiom that goes like this:
“The way a person does one thing is the way they do everything.”
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 journey that leads 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 you reach your endpoint 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. 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 you are in the moment, you don’t watch the clock. You bring all of yourself to your work regardless of what it might be. When you are fully present, labor isn’t the burden it might have been…wood is chopped, water is carried, work gets done. Life happens. Life goes forward.
It really doesn’t matter how small the task might seem, it is an opportunity to practice mindfulness, and to focus on the work at hand. Doing that you develop habits of always doing your best. Once you achieve “enlightenment” you still have to chop the wood and carry the water. Do your work, do it the best you can, and when you reach success, keep on doing it.
“Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and grass grows by itself.”
I know this might sound counterintuitive, and it certainly runs contrary to modern self-help dogma, but sometimes it really is better to just do nothing. Life is busy (to say the least) and we grow to become focused on productivity and action as if the world was going to stop if we stop. (Spoiler Alert: the world will go on fine without you…it did before you and will continue after you.) What you might consider is the way you react to the world around you, or if you are exhausted to simply do nothing at all. You can end up spending too much of your precious energy. Stop beating your head against that wall…keyboard…people… remember sometimes it’s about letting things happen, not making them happen. There is another Zen proverb “the quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.”
When Not Doing Anything is More Productive
When you really want to increase your productivity, sometimes, with certain things, it is better to do nothing. I know, I can hear you say, “but Frank, I’m the only one that can do this” or that, or that you are the only one who can handle things. If you woke up dead tomorrow, somebody, someone would fill your shoes. Of that alone you can be sure. The grass does indeed grow by itself.
“If You Walk, Just Walk. If You Sit, Just Sit; But Whatever You Do, Don’t Wobble”
A simpler message there may never have been. It may be simple to understand, but damn, is it hard to put into practice. In this age where everyone and everything vies for your attention, we are all pulled in a thousand different directions. It messes with our focus and keeps us distracted. It is important to be both zoned in and present in the moment with our work and relationships. If it is work time, just work… Empty your mind of the past…anything that is not in the present, and do what need to be done right then and there. Develop monk-like focus and cut out all the distractions that might cause a wobble in your balance; just do exactly what you need to do.
The moment you get easily lost in work goes by a number of names: focus, concentration, attentiveness, or awareness.
“When hungry, eat your rice, when tired close your eyes. Fools may laugh at me, but wise men know what I mean”
What, you say? Let me tell you that even though the saying might seem comical, its simplicity is powerful beyond measure. In life, most of us manage to complicate just about everything. What we eat, what kind of work we do, and how we do it, the way we walk, the clothes we wear, even the way we talk, and everything has to “mean” something. If we can’t figure it out easily, we just assign a meaning to it. Life would be so much easier if we just responded appropriately to each situation as it comes. If you are hungry, then eat. If you are tired, then get some rest. If you have work do to, complete it. Stop wasting your life wondering why you are hungry, why you are tired, what is the best way to do your job, or what to wear. Take a page from that old NIKE ad… just do it….JUST FRIGGING DO IT! Your life will be simpler in the end. Stop making it so hard.
The meanings of these lessons hold up pretty well under scrutiny, but feel free to interpret them as you feel appropriate. Indeed, the world isn’t the same as when they were written. The main parts of life still remain from then, and continue to today, so I guess it is just how YOU apply them to your life.
Keep in mind thought, that the best of lessons stand the test of time and as my mother (not Zen) used to say, “a word to the wise is sufficient”
SPEAK WITH A LIFE COACH IN BATON ROUGE
Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.