“Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”
This is a moderately famous Zen koan. And it’s a phrase that keeps popping into my head as I pursue the secular meditation/ mindfulness practice that I keep gassing on about. Like many Zen koans, it seems to mean somewhat different things to different people (if you Google the phrase “chop wood, carry water,” you’ll find hundreds of people explaining what it “really” means). There’s the obvious meaning: after you get enlightenment (whatever the hell that means), the everyday tasks of your life aren’t going to go away, you still have to do work and manage your life. There’s the somewhat less obvious meaning: after you get enlightenment (whatever the hell that means), the pains and stresses of your life aren’t going to go away, chopping wood will still be hard work and carrying water will still make your back hurt. There’s the still less obvious but more commonly- understood meaning: our lives are largely made up of mundane tasks, and these tasks aren’t just junk we have to slog through to get to our real lives, they are our real lives, so it makes sense to embrace them and fully experience them rather than racing through them distractedly as if they didn’t matter.
All of which is true. But here’s what this koan has been meaning to me, and why it keeps popping into my head when I meditate:
I am who I am.
I will always be who I am. I am not going to get away from myself.
Here’s what I mean. There’s this weird paradox I keep running into. Meditation and mindfulness are having a dramatically transformative effect on my mind and my mood, my emotions and my approach to life. At the same time, they’re not really changing who I am at all. I am still fundamentally the same person that I was before I started, with the same affections and ambitions and anxieties, the same irritations and guilts and self-doubts. And I have to accept that if this practice is going to work.
When I meditate, I sometimes get frustrated with the constant hamster wheel in my head, chattering and nattering and worrying and distracting me from my focus. In theory, my meditation practice is supposed to involve focusing my attention on something specific (such as my breath, or scanning my body from foot to head); noticing when my attention has drifted from this focus; observing my distracting thoughts or feelings without judgment; and gently returning my focus to my breath or my body or whatever. In practice, my meditation often goes something like this:
“Focus on my right heel. My right heel. Jesus, I can’t believe that idiot commenter on AlterNet. Did I remember to pitch my AlterNet editor with that story idea… hm, I’m noticing that my attention is drifting. I’m gently returning the focus to my right heel. Right heel. Sole of my right foot. Sole of my… I haven’t returned that email from Charlie, I really need to do that. I wonder if Charlie would be interested in a workshop or a discussion group on mindfulness and sexuality? Who else would be interested in that? If I do that, should I do it as an in-person group in San Francisco, or an online group, or… no, this ISN’T what I’m focusing on right now. Crap. Observe that my attention has drifted onto this thought, LET THE THOUGHT GO already, return my focus to the sole of my right foot. Sole of the foot. Ankle. Notice that my ankle is a bit sore and tight… probably from the gym yesterday. Am I going to have time to go to the gym tomorrow? Maybe if I get caught up on my email and the messages in my Facebook inbox. You know, I haven’t done the Atheist Meme of the Day on Facebook in a while, I know people really liked that, but it was such a time-suck… GODDAMN IT, YOU STUPID FUCKING BRAIN, WILL YOU SHUT THE HELL UP AND LET ME FOCUS ON MY RIGHT ANKLE FOR TEN FUCKING SECONDS?!?!?”
Somehow, I don’t think that’s what my meditation teacher meant by “observe without judgment, and gently return.”
In fact, getting frustrated and angry with myself for having thoughts and feelings and plans and ideas and anxieties and so on arise in my mind when I meditate… it’s totally counter-productive. When I get irritated with my distracting thoughts or feelings, and angrily shove them on the back burner, and jerk my attention back to my breath or my left knee or whatever… I lose the flow of the practice. When I can observe my distracting thoughts or feelings, and sit with them for a moment, and let them be what they are, and then gently return my focus to my breath or my left knee or whatever… the practice is much more effective. (Not to mention more pleasant.) And the thoughts and feelings and so on don’t jar me out of the practice. They become part of it.
So when I meditate, and the hamster wheel is being unusually loud and active and frustrating, one of the things I do to stay in the practice is to remind myself: I am who I am.
This practice is not making the hamster wheel in my head go away. And I don’t think it’s going to. I think I’m always going to be a person whose mind is perpetually spinning at a zillion miles an hour, a person who has dozens of thoughts on her mind at once, a person who’s constantly thinking of the future and trying to shape it, a person who lives in the future far more than she lives in the present, a person with plans and worries and hopes almost constantly on her mind. And I’m basically okay with that. It’s frustrating and annoying at times… but it’s also a big part of why I am where I am today, and why I’m able to live this life and do this work that I find so fulfilling. This practice isn’t going to make the hamster wheel go away… and I wouldn’t want it to.
What the practice is doing — gradually, to a small degree, to a very slightly greater degree every day — is changing my relationship with the hamster wheel.
What the practice is doing — gradually, to a slightly greater degree every day — is enabling me to have my thoughts and feelings and plans and anxieties… instead of them having me.
This has become one of the chief ways that I frame this practice, and one of my chief goals with it. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of being goal-oriented about a practice that’s fundamentally about self-acceptance and being in the moment. But… well, again, that’s sort of the point. I am who I am. And who I am, among many other things, is an intensely goal-oriented person. And I’m basically okay with that. Again: big part of why I am where I am today, and why I’m able to live this life and do this work that I love. And — returning to the point — one of the chief goals I have with this practice is to have my thoughts and feelings and plans and anxieties… instead of them having me.
I want to have ambition — I don’t want my ambition to control me. I want to have anger — I don’t want my anger to overwhelm me. I want to have plans — I don’t want my plans to spin me, to drown me, to constantly poke me and prod me and nag me and swamp my entire field of consciousness. I want to respond to the things that happen in life — I don’t want to react to them. I want to have lots of ideas and hopes and analyses and strategies and imaginings and desires and feelings. I don’t want them to have me.
I am who I am. I will always be who I am. Who I am is changing, of course, and I don’t know for sure how I will and won’t change. But some things about me have been pretty much constant throughout my life, and I don’t expect them to change. The hamster wheel in my head will always be chopping wood and carrying water. But as I continue to work on mindfulness, I’m finding that — gradually, to a small degree, to a very slightly greater degree every day — I’m better able to notice when my attention has drifted, and to observe it without judgment, and to return my attention to the task at hand. I’m better able to notice when I’m having strong emotions, and to observe them without judgment, and to make decisions that are informed by those emotions without being a total reflexive reaction to them. I’m better able to look at a long to-do list, and pick the next most important do-able thing on the list, and do it, without being overwhelmed and paralyzed by how much I have to do.
The hamster wheel in my head will always be chopping wood and carrying water. But as I continue to work on mindfulness, it seems that I’m becoming better able to consciously choose which wood to chop, and which water to carry.
Other pieces in this series:
On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice
Meditation and Breakfast
Meditation, and the Difference Between Theory and Practice
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety
Secular Meditation, and Doing One Thing at a Time
Secular Meditation: “Energy,” and Attention/ Awareness
Secular Meditation: How Down Time is Changing
Secular Meditation: “This is my job”