January 26, 2014

Chop Wood, Carry Water.

Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

Zen Proverb

I often have clients say to me “I’ve been through that already. I’m done with that work now!” Which always causes me to say “Think again.” Let me explain my Self.

The short answer is, the work is never done.

In terms of karma yoga (action for the sake of unification with Source) the yogi’s work is never done. This is the work of the spiritual warrior, the kshatriya. This is true for actions and the process of life; whether it be on the level of the mental body, emotional body, physical body or spiritual body.

I have come to realize that the biggest mistake we can make (or that our egos tell us) is that we have moved on and are “done” with something. I am particularly referring to our individual emotional/mental work and how we “move through things” but I do think this can be applied to other parts of our spiritual life process as well.

True. We are always moving. Moving towards. Moving away. Moving with or against. The movement is constant even if the pace shifts or the momentum waxes and wanes. We can not not move. As my guru would say, “the nature of life is to grow and progress.”

And progress we do. But some things stay the same.

We can not change our past.

We can’t change our early childhood imprinting nor the karmas we brought to this life. We can not change our past experiences. That all stays the same. This is evident from one’s jyotish birth chart (rasi). The karmas you come in with are set and do not change. These karmas created you and caused you to birth into this lila for the purpose of transformation and evolution.

What we do change is our response to these experiences.

We do change; we grow and progress. It is our karmas (actions) that allow us to walk this path of change. And it is the navamsa (a specific and particularly important divisional chart in jyotish) that shows how an individual works with their karmas and how they are able to use them for change and growth in the life process.

In jyotish terms, there are four different types of karmas as well as three levels of intensity for these karmas that we must also take into consideration when determining how hard or harsh the actions/reactions will be for an individual and how hard it will be to work with and change the karmas.

To think that you are “done with something” on an emotional/mental level, however, should require one to hit the pause button.

The process of life continues to unfold and causes one to change one’s responses to life. Mars, the planet of action, the doer, the agni of life and the transformational power planet, shows us in a jyotish chart how an individual takes their action. Mars is the ultimate warrior- for better or worse! Mars also likes conclusions, finality, endings and can take a decidedly egoic slant on finishing tasks or “getting the job done.”

Perhaps he is the one that tells us “we have finished” our emotional/mental work and have some how “moved on”?

In any case, the emotional/mental/spiritual/physical work continues. It is all part of the process of life that continues to unfold.

I come from a yogic tradition where many feel the rush to get to enlightenment. Enlightenment is the ultimate destination—for us all according to some.

I question this destination often.

The need and desire to be anywhere beyond this moment, clearly causes some issues. But this human need to have a destination, to get past a certain point, to know that you have made it to the top of the mountain so to speak, is also a metaphor for fooling ourselves into thinking we’ve “done the work already.”

But the work continues.

The chopping of wood and the carrying of water continues; even after realizing what needs to shift inside of you in order to have a more fulfilling life.

Even taking the necessary actions to make the shift. Even after no longer making the same, tired, out worn choices. The work is the same. The karmas you are working with are the same. And you have to keep walking. You keep chopping. You keep carrying. Though you may be getting different results as you change your responses.

I liken this ongoing journey to a suitcase. It’s like packing a bag for a trip. Once you’ve worn all the clothes you’ve packed, you start to get really bored with what’s in your suitcase. You begin to wear outfits in new ways, combinations that you wouldn’t normally put together. You may decide to add some new pieces to your wardrobe out of “desperation”. New options arise.

As we work with our past karmas (the suitcase that we’ve packed), we are forced out of necessity to begin to rearrange the pieces, change the combinations we put together, rearrange some things. We begin to make new choices, desire new things, add, subtract, change, cut sleeves off, buy a new pair of shoes at times, but we are still hauling around the same suitcase; don’t be fooled.

By the end of the journey, many pieces have been rearranged, changed, incorporated, shifted and moved, but we still find ourselves clinging to our favorite T-shirt or longing for the shoes we had to throw out or perhaps realizing the important lesson in giving away the sweater no longer needed.

We are all still working with the same bag we packed at the moment of our birth—the one we chose to travel with for this life time.

And so the emotional/mental work continues to evolve and shift but is based on the original map you came in with. And you must act and be in action (karma) to be alive. You must chop your wood and carry your water now, and even once you’ve walked the same ground over and over and over again there’s still more wood and more water. And every log you chop and every bucket you carry will offer a new opportunity for awareness and awakening in a new way.

Whether you had a rotten child hood or a parent die, or some other chaos and fragility, joy, pain or sadness; it all informs your life process and your actions.


And when you finally wake up and see it for what it is, there’s another layer to go. Always another layer to go. And rather than have this be daunting, I prefer to see it as comforting in some strange, endless, consistent way. The way that Saturn might encourage, or Kali, with their connection to the wheel of time.

I believe T. S. Eliot says it well:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Wikimedia commons, Angela Chambers/Pixoto, tanitta/Flickr

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