There’s a Zen proverb I’ve heard before, but it’s meaning is just starting to sink in.
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water”.
I know, it takes a while to get your head around it. Some Zen proverbs I’m sure are intentionally
obscure, so they challenge us and it takes time to figure out what they mean. Like a cryptic
crossword clue, we are forced to give it our full attention to figure it out, it’s not a quick-fix, no
instant gratification, but a slow, steady process to get to the answer.
This is the whole essence of Zen, which is a Buddhist practise, which really needs to be experienced
to understand it. You can’t read a book on Zen and think you’ve mastered it, you can’t try to use
your mind even to intellectualise it and think you’ve got it.
Zen is not a theory, an idea, a piece of knowledge, or even a belief. It’s a path to enlightenment
which is actually very simple, but almost impossible to describe. But I’m going to try, as ever to
explain it in stories.
Last weekend, I set off to Port Isaac with a busy mind and an overactive nervous system. In my head
I was problem solving, and my body was responding to perceived threats in a not altogether
pleasant way. Not very Zen at all.
Yet walking the South West Coast Path for a few hours, just focusing on putting one foot in front of
the other, taking time to enjoy the views and some interesting chats, my head is starting to clear,
and I feel loads better.
One of my favourite parts of the hike was climbing over the rocks on Port Quin, trying not to fall in.
All I could think about was where to place my foot next, calculating my next move, and using my
instinct to tackle this natural jigsaw.
My mind was distracted from all the worries from back home, I had to concentrate fully, and be
completely in the moment, connecting the pieces of the puddle so I could cross to the other side
without getting wet. This was starting to feel a lot more zen-like. I was at one with nature, and
completely in my element.
The walk back felt lighter and I started collecting flowers and noticing the birds more. The colours
were appearing brighter, and my breathing was deeper, more effective. We talked about Ancient
Yogic theory that we only have so many breaths for the length of our life, which is why we practise
taking long and slow breaths in yoga.
Our breath is an indicator of our mood and our mood is an indicator of our breath (another Zen
puzzle for you there).
At this point in time, both my breath and my mood were feeling in pretty good
By the end of our walk, although ready for a nice, big roast, my mind is clear. I haven’t really got a
worry in the world. We sit outside the Port Gaverne Inn, enjoying a well-deserved Cornish Rattler,
and I’m thinking life is pretty good. I don’t care that we’re too late for lunch and they’re not serving
I’m living in the moment, and I’m going with the flow, accepting what is, and trusting what is to
For me, this is Zen, and back at home later, chopping wood, I realise I now have the true
understanding of the proverb: “before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water”.
Whether it’s cooking dinner, doing a jigsaw, climbing a tree, or painting mandala stones, when we
engage ourselves fully in what we are doing in that moment, we free ourselves from the mental
processes that have been weighing us down, and start to feel a lot closer to enlightenment.