Chopping and Carrying



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.

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10 Comments on “Chopping and Carrying”

  1. Don Hellwig Says:

    Very good, Padre. Am forwarding this on for others to reflect on.

  2. Randall Gates Says:

    Fabulous Alan – how indeed do we make room for answer d.) all the above. So many of my clients are holding tightly to the child-like dream that there is a magic eraser and all the unpleasant chores, conditions, and experiences can someday be eliminated and that the goal of happiness is tenable as an exclusive state. Can they suffer the loss of this dream and accept that happiness just one note from a symphony where all notes, however discordant, are all quite normal for the human experience? I often hear the voice of a child in the background where they resist this less than ideal truth and rage “it’s not fair!” In my view, whereas pain is unavoidable, suffering is related to an ideal that says “this should not be happening (to me).” Do we eliminate the undesirable or just make room for them at a bigger table where they sit with less authority in the full company of the psyche?

    As an alternative to the word “enlightenment” can we just say that we are “ok” with things as they are? That we humbly accept (allow) the wood and the water in the context of the mysterious human condition and surrender our aversion for any season (situation) of life other than the happiness of Spring? Can we make peace with a world where the proverbial cup is not half full or half empty, but completely full and completely empty: a simultaneous equation that we either “allow” or will ultimately crush our defenses and find acceptance for itself. I like your comment “what else is true?” as the trick is to find that fullness, especially during the times it appears empty; finding empty is easy.

    I guess I see “ok” in the concept of a powerful, conscious surrender, not in defeat, but in recognition of the complexity of this divine symphony that accompanies every step, no more or less present in any moment; irrespective of carrying water or wood or dancing a jig.

    But the waiting and listening you mention, the “not knowing” that allows us to sit between grasping and aversion; this is indeed the gift and the challenge. As another bleeds before us from sharp edges of their broken but desperately needed defenses, we cannot wish away this suffering, but have the patience to be “ok” with it as an essential element of their process. Tis a steep hill at times—and some days it is just simple endurance that gets me though.

  3. Diana Says:

    Thank you, Allen. I have just appreciated your words with my afternoon tea. I love this: “Still, we wait, we listen for the beat, watch for the Ariadnian thread, the whisper.” Something in the rhythm pulled me in to the rhythm of listening–of listening deeply.
    I appreciated how you responded to the feeling that perhaps this is just a “nice idea” that does not apply to real suffering. I had the concern, when beginning a positive psychology course with a co-therapist, that the ideas sounded nice, but were essentially luxuries our clients, with very real problems–homelesseness, mental illness, substance abuse–could not afford. I feared the material would be too painfully upbeat, would ask them to bypass over very real issues. The other therapist convinced me their receptivity to that way of thinking depended, partly, in our own belief in it, and how we presented it, and, it turned out, our clients took right to it. We had some of the greatest discussions I’ve seen there. Possibly because so much of that way of thinking has to do with basic human values and sustenance. As chopping wood and carrying water is.
    Thanks again, and be well,

  4. Dear Allen,
    Just the other day I told the Goldilock’s story to a client. Its funny that anyone would consider non-resistance “spiritual denial.” Radical acceptance is a profound practice. It sounds simple, however its not easy. But it is where peace in the present moment is always possible.
    I’m grateful when I am permeated with that deep acceptance.
    Have you read Michael Singer’s Untethered Soul, my current ‘Bible.’ ??
    I highly recommend.

    It is a joy and inspiration to read your considered and poignant reflections.
    Thank You.
    Blessings and Love

  5. Laurie Casriel Says:


    It was so timely to read your post and be reminded of the futility of “making war with what is.” It just so happens that was exactly what I was doing at the time, of course not realizing it until I read your blog. Just the reminder in the context of you blog was enough for me to drop it and to again allow things to be as they are. And lo and behold, they changed. Imagine that! And what a relief to feel so much more relaxed and energized. It is exhausting to be at war.

    And reading the next article you included, I appreciate that you included a part on how we as therapists can resist the idea that we are helping to create certain problems we encounter. In my own situation, I can see that it was in not being aware of the emotional vibe I was putting out, that I was at least in part responsible for the situation being created. That same situation which I was waring against in my mind.

    I think your background religious experience has been so valuable to your students and clients, of which I have been one. I am happy to be able to read your blogs and articles, and to continue to enjoy a meeting of minds with you.

    Happy Spring,

  6. LuAnne DePons Says:

    Very interesting questions. I never before considered what wood and water were in the context of that Buddhist statment. I agree with what you wrote. Nice thoughts of going into the deep woods or deep in the ocean. I thought when you referenced that we carry water as a basic task of life, you were speaking of our bodies; 90% water. Be embodied.
    No matter what your work is, “show up,” Joan Halifax used to tell us during grueling and long meditation retreats. First order of business is simply to show up. Next order is to show up by being present to what ever is, embodied. As you say, be with what is. How can that be a cop out? Copping out would be allowing avoidance (suffering); lack of acknowledgement.
    Being with whatever life lays in front of us is the point. Take up the bucket and fill the bin. Attend to what is needed everyday. It seems that this might be a comfort to people struggling. You are not expected to do any more than what is on your plate today. Small steps to a larger goal. The difficulty is in being willing to acknowledge that life is mundane.
    Enlightenment is the freedom that comes from knowing deeply that life is simply life, no firecrackers, just wood and water. And yes, as you suggest Allen, it is a blessing; finally letting go into simplicity and bowing to whatever life presents.
    What freedom, to stop the inner argument.

  7. Josh Freeman Says:

    Allen, if there’s one key lesson I’ve learned from you over the years (and there have been a lot of them) it’s this core idea of “do what you’re doing, and be with what is.” It’s the starting point. It’s the only place we CAN be. Even though it’s sometimes difficult to remember that truth.

    As always, you inspire. Thanks.

  8. Clifford Lazar Says:


    My comment is superfical. I have trouble reading long gray pargraphs on my screen. Topic titles and shorter paragraphs would make it more readable.

  9. […] Chopping and Carrying March 2010 9 comments Explore posts in the same categories: Uncategorized […]

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