Last week I started an essay, contending that, emotionally speaking, events in the 1960s were as disjointed and perilous as the existential angst we face today. My mind had flashed back to those olden days as I cut kindling with my hatchet to start the first fire of the season with wood I had harvested off my land.
The war in Vietnam War raged. Each day the news reported, like a sports score, how many of the enemy we had killed, as if that number justified the death of many of our brothers and sisters who also became cannon fodder that day. Things flew further out of control as the decade unfolded.
Our beloved president, JFK, was assassinated, along with his brother Bobby when he ran for office. Tragically, the murders continued to accelerate, not only MLK and Malcolm X but “almost every major national leader of the black struggle in the United States.” The National Guard was patrolling our streets. Our cities were on fire. Polarization between pro-war and anti-war Americans reached a fever pitch. It felt like the apocalypse had arrived.
We tried fighting for social and environmental justice; we tried to stop the war any way we could, some of us after fighting in it, but to no avail. Finally worn out, overwhelmed by events outside our control, we retreated back to the land, looking for solace and simplification in our lives. For many, including me, it was a revelation.
I found refuge in the land: it was soothing to my soul to get off the consumer-driven rat race by living as simply and sustainably as I could. My apprenticeship with the natural world changed my life, teaching me the importance of living in harmony with the rhythms of nature. That’s when the true significance of the well-known Zen saying “Chop wood, carry water” became clear to me.
The origin of this saying goes back into ancient times when a young boy who had become a monk complained to his Abbot that all he did was chop wood and carry water for the monastery. I want to learn, he said. I want to understand things.
The Abbot replied, “When I started I was like you. Every day I would chop wood and carry water. Like you I understood that someone had to do these things, but like you I wanted to move forward. Eventually I did. I read all of the scrolls, I met with Kings and gave council. I became the Abbot. Now, I understand that the key to everything is that everything is chopping wood and carrying water, and that if one does everything mindfully then it is all the same.’”
That’s the lesson I wanted to write about, but it got edited by real life: I underwent surgery and discovered I have cancer, again.
Not surprisingly, this had a sledgehammer impact on me, smashing the words I was going to write so blithely about chopping wood and carrying water. Because of the intervention of real life, it struck me how I was “talking the talk rather than walking the walk.” Or, in Dale Carnegie’s words, I was “dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon.”
This week I can feel the actual prick of the rose thorns in the ouch of my stitches. Now it is real: The chickens have come home to roost, forcing me to ask again: how do you cope gracefully when things go to shit?
Yes, I can bloviate about watching our ecosystems and societal structures self-destruct around us. But that is still abstract, different from how it feels when my body is the target, when the comforts of middle-class life and the supportive armor of white privilege can no longer protect me. The question then becomes visceral: what do I do now, coming face-to-face with the grim reaper of old age, illness, and death.
I found great solace in Jon Aaron’s discussion of this in “Finding Joy in Uncertainty.” His radical solution is to refine the focus of “chop wood, carry water” — and our entire existence — down to just this breath right now: We can receive each breath with gratitude; we can receive each breath as an opportunity: “Oh, here I am, another moment to be fully present.” Then we can start to see the contrast between conditional joy and unconditional joy.
It works. I breathe in with joy in this perfect moment, the sun shining through the window, writing to you.