Archive for March 2010

Chopping and Carrying

March 24, 2010
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I am often reminded of the Zen saying: “Before Enlightment chop wood, carry water; after Enlightenment chop wood, carry water.” I resonate with the idea that doing the things of life with awareness will lead to Enlightenment – in whatever form we might imagine it. I particularly value the idea that those who are so Enlightened still have the “wood and water” elements of life to engage them.

This set me to thinking about how this might apply to our clinical work – as well as our personal lives. Thus the question: “Which wood do we chop? Which water do we carry?” What are the wood and water of our work as therapists and human beings? I began to imagine the therapeutic setting as a place where client and therapist walk in with their particular forms of wood and water. The trick is to make sure we recognize the forms they manifest in.

We begin with paying attention, being present, listening to the stories that unfold. We do our best to create a safe containing space where the story can unfold and be heard. This echoes Winnicott’s idea of “Transitional space”, and the alchemical idea articulated by Jung of the vas hermeticum. This is where the wood and the water become the prima materia that can be transformed into the gold of wholeness and healing.
But how to recognize such potential in our wood and water? Sometimes the “wood” is a splinter just under the skin; sometimes it is an impenetrable forest we find ourselves lost in; and, sometimes it is the resource for a new structure – inner or outer. Just as the “water” may be a flood of tears; the rain of regeneration; and sometimes it is a tsunami of overwhelming trauma and grief. And, there are those times when there seems to be no wood, no water in a desert of depression.

These elements are often experienced as either too much or too little. Too much in the sense that we don’t really want to face them. We’d rather find something a little less scary and less demanding of effort and the risk of change. Sometimes they are too little in that they are easily undervalued and treated like the lowly lead in alchemy. We, like Goldilocks, often want to find “just right”, which usually means avoiding the dark woods and the watery depths.

Still, we wait, we listen for the beat, watch for the Ariadnian thread, the whisper. We get better at being in the state of “not knowing”. This can be hard to do since those we work with want us to know. And, we wait, staying alert to the dual temptations of grasping and aversion. Grasping at the seemingly easy answer and averse to plumbing our own forests and depths.

We learn the chopping of wood as the work of clearing space, building fire and shelter. It becomes the differentiating of one part of the wood from another. It is not us imposing our will on the wood, but rather being in respectful service to it so that we may learn to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

We carry water as a basic task of life that both literally and metaphorically we cannot survive without. And we learn the difference between a burden and a gift.

Yet this is not the way the “real” world seems to operate or to value. These are not points of view that can be measured and quantified – much less qualify for insurance re-imbursement. Nice ideas maybe, but not really applicable when real suffering and pain and fear are pressing on us and our clients. Where is the wood and water in having been laid off from a job? Or, in being in a relationship where all are in pain? Or, being alone and feeling that life has no meaning?

I’ve come to appreciate that it is just here in such life experiences that the chopping wood and carrying water are most needed. Jack Kornfield has a quote that I find fitting: “The unawakened mind tends to make war against the way things are.” In such a war we all suffer. I once looked up the definitions for “suffer”. Webster says that definition number one is to “undergo and endure”. But it also means “to allow”, as when Jesus says, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”It seems to me that paying attention, being present and aware includes both definitions.

That’s where the Zen saying becomes particularly meaningful in the world most of us experience each day. We “undergo and endure”. Our experience somehow begins to change when we can also “allow” life to be what it is. When I have voiced this to certain people they say it is a cop-out, a way of somehow just rising above the harsh realities of existence into a kind of spiritual denial. My response is that there are two kinds of chopping and carrying: the first is before Enlightenment and assumes that when we can end the war of resistance against “the way things are”; to really be present for Zorba’s “The Whole Catastrophe” and to get a glimpse of Enlightenment. The second kind of chopping and carrying is the much harder work of bringing those glimpses into everyday life. I often ask myself, “What else is true?” I don’t ask this so much when things are going in ways I like, but when things are harder I find it a way of doing good psychic bookkeeping with both debit and credit columns taken into consideration.

The Latin motto for the Jesuits is: age quod agis, which translates to, “Do what you are doing.” It’s an excellent motto for those seeking to be present in the chopping and carrying of life. So, welcome the wood, and celebrate the water.