Chop Wood

Updated: Jan 20

"Before enlightenment, chop wood. After enlightenment, chop wood." --Zen proverb

This quote didn't mean much to me when I first read it written across a piece of wood situated on a shelf in my friend Devyn's studio in Costa Mesa.

I asked her what it meant, and she said something that went right over my head, which is where most things Devyn says go for me. I think she said something about putting in the work mentally and then after reaching the ah-ha moment, putting in more work.

I've thought about this quote a few times since the first time I read it about three or so years ago, each time thinking, what did that really mean?

It wasn't until yesterday as I was painting the new gate in my front yard that the quote suddenly made sense to me.

Rewind a little, to a couple of weeks ago, when after deciding to pursue writing and photography from a journalistic perspective, I had also decided that I would begin taking one week off of work each month to pursue story-telling.

I picked the second week of each month, and during those weeks my plan was to find a story in addition to writing, reading, researching, and actively not doing any other work during that time period.

Yesterday marked the first day of the first week in that pursuit of finding The Story.

Halfway through the day, however, I realized I was stalling on getting started.

I haven't written anything (other than blogs and Instagram posts) in years, so I was feeling a little intimidated by the whole prospect of diving in head first and writing my first story.

So I did what any other procrastinator would do, and I decided I needed to paint the new gate instead of write, because that project needed to be finished before I could start another.

My wife and I had found the pile of white, wooden pallets we used to construct the gate in an alley in Mission Beach a few days before. Neither of us had ever built anything like this, but it didn't seem too hard, and we knew we weren't picky about the outcome. It just needed to work. Something to keep the neighborhood dogs out of our yard and our dog in it.

After we had built the gate with our bare hands, a saw we had never used before, and a mixture of screws we had lying around the house, our work of art was done.

So anyway, yesterday, I'm painting, and it's taking me a long time, and I'm starting to get a little annoyed because I want to go read or write something, but because the wood is just some cheap, non-sanded pine, it's soaking up all the paint and barely spreading it around.

What ended up taking me three hours should have taken me one.

The silver lining to my impatience was that something happened in my brain while I was getting annoyed with my paint job. I started thinking about that quote...

"Before enlightenment, chop wood. After enlightenment, chop wood."

...and I finally had an interpretation for the proverb:

Before clarity, I move. After clarity, I move.

The "movement" is never done. Life is a rhythm. A pattern. The only way to finish is to die, so we keep moving.

And by "moving" I mean, "living."

Whatever it is we want to accomplish in life, there is only one way to get it accomplished, and that is to keep moving toward our goal.

We all know, however, that we are by nature never satisfied. We are always on a never-ending quest for more. More progress. More success. More money. More to-dos. More time. More wisdom.

I think this can seem like a negative thing, but if you really think about it, it's quite beautiful.

Because of our human need to move forward, we are constantly accomplishing things. Sure, in the moment, it may not feel like we're getting anything done, but look back 10 years ago. What were your goals then? What did you want?

A better-paying job? An espresso machine? To get a haircut? To finish a class? To read a book? To spend more time with your family? To break-up with your lazy boyfriend? To get through the work-week?

Confession: I didn't end up writing at all yesterday, but I did finish painting that gate.

In the moment, we all have gates that need painting. But if we look back at how many gates we've already painted, it's a pretty impressive number.

Before & After

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