“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” – Zen saying
Like everything Zen, what appears simple is actually extremely complicated (but still simple: Zen hurts my brain sometimes). I’m sure the phrase “chop wood, carry water” means different things to different people, but to me it means that before and after all of the much more sparkly, shiny things we Westerners like to do with our lives, we still have to do the regular daily tasks of life. Laundry has to be done, dishes have to be washed, families have to be fed, so on and so forth. These tasks are usually viewed with a sense of begrudging obligation. Like teenagers moaning, “Oh, do I have to?!”
Yes, as a matter of fact, practicality, and logic, you do. We all do. And these things are extraordinarily difficult if you have a brain like mine that is constantly in 5th gear and thinking of the next Big Thing (TM) to do with itself. And dish washing has fuck-all to do with the next Big Thing, so it has often been difficult to make myself “chop wood, carry water”. It’s the same reason I’ve been unable to successfully meditate. My bipolar illness makes it virtually impossible to make myself slow down enough to do something as slow and menial as meditation, or dishwashing. A task that is merely tedious to someone else I find torturous.
Obviously this presents some serious life problems if I’m unable to engage in the basic tasks of life with as much regularity as I should. This is not to say that I keep a messy house or anything like that, but the flow of my life is never smooth. I lack an automatic daily routine like so many others do. I’m always on a quest to quiet my mind, which usually means giving it stimulation, which means abandoning housework for the computer, in most cases. Then the husband or the daughter is out of pants or something and I have to tear myself away from whatever I’m doing to tend to my familial obligations. It’s been a pattern fraught with guilt because I know I’m not living up to my particular duties. Families are like small businesses. Everyone has a job and if someone’s not doing theirs, the whole thing falls apart. As Mom (TM), I’m captain of this boat whether I like it or not, and lately our ship has been randomly wandering the sea and not pointed in a particular direction.
Now that I have been diagnosed as bipolar, it’s more important than ever for me to get that routine going, hopefully for long enough that it becomes unthinking habit. Every day, there’s wood that needs chopping and water that needs carrying, and I need that wood and water if I want to be as healthy as I can be. Luckily, it seems that the medication I’ve been given has slowed my mind down enough that I can engage in some of those tasks without it feeling torturously boring. In fact, over the last few days, I’ve found those activities to be soothing. I’m not precisely sure why, though I’m sure some of it is the alleviation of guilt over not doing those things. And there’s always that nice satisfaction after something is done and the knowledge that it doesn’t need to be worried about anymore.
I had my first taste of the mindfulness that a Buddhist is supposed to have as they go through life. Buddhism isn’t like Christianity, which is a faith that is largely practiced in small chunks at designated times during the week at church. Some people have a daily devotional practice, but most don’t. Buddhism, on the other hand, is a religion that is intended to be practiced during every waking, breathing moment. Be here now. Right now. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, right here, right now. That’s been incredibly difficult for me to date. My brain’s always flitting off in one direction or another, thinking of the next project, the next activity, blah blah blah. That’s lessening now, and more than once over the long weekend (thanks, snow!), I found myself just being right where I was, doing what I was doing. It was so nice. The bonus: when I got up this morning, everything was clean and tidy. There was nothing to immediately poke itself into my mind and start needling myself with what needed doing or berating me about what hadn’t been done, etc. And that all by itself is good medicine for a brain that goes looking for things to get all agitated about.