It requires a certain rhythm of effort and rest, like meditation.
“Sometimes, I rest,” she says. “But mostly I give attention to what I’m doing”—cutting, chopping, and stacking wood. Feeling the heft of the ax in the hands, the sweat on the brow, the bunching of muscles, the thwack of the blade on the chopping block, shifting the center of gravity from foot to foot, like walking meditation.
Just as we attend to the rhythm of the breath in sitting meditation, noticing when the mind wanders from the object of meditation and gently returning, over and over, so also does the poet return to her chosen meditation in daily life. Call it “chopping meditation.”
In Zen, this is known as samu or “working meditation.” Just do what you’re doing, with complete awareness. One thing at a time. Voilà! You’re meditating. No cushion required.
There is a Zen saying: “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.” I’m not sure what enlightenment is, but I can chop wood and carry water with care and awareness. Some say that is enlightenment. I don’t know.
All I know is that when I engage fully with whatever is happening in the moment, doing one thing at a time, whether I am sitting or jogging or chopping wood with my whole heart, life feels different in subtle ways. More vivid. Meaningful. Fun, in fact. Oliver concurs: “I have a good time.”
Given the unusually snowy spring we’ve been experiencing, I am reminded of poet Billy Collins making his way down the driveway, shoveling snow with the Buddha—“one shovelful at a time” (Sailing Alone Around the Room, 2001).
Ever the chatterbox—like the mind in meditation—Collins can’t keep his mouth shut, commenting on his experience, observing how glorious it is to “toss the light powder into the clear air,” to “feel the cold mist on our faces,” and so on, ad nauseum. The Buddha, meanwhile, is too busy to hear. All morning, he throws himself into shoveling snow “as if it were the purpose of existence,” just as Oliver made the woodshed the center of the universe. This is serious stuff.
After working side by side for hours, finally the Buddha breaks the silence. His mind actually wanders from the task at hand, drifting dreamily into the future. I like that. “After this, he asks, can we go inside and play cards?” Collins, of course, jumps on it, runs with it, starts fantasizing about hot chocolate and shuffling a deck of cards, getting lost in a tangle of thought. Like I do, every time I meditate.
The Buddha, however, pauses only for a moment, then plunges his shovel back into the snow. Call it “shoveling meditation.”
Not all objects of meditation are self-chosen. Some present themselves, like unwanted teachers. If we are awake, we realize it’s time to shift our attention from this—whatever we’re doing—to that, without whining. Even if it’s a distraction. We can still do one thing at a time.
Here, then, is David Whyte, trying to write a poem while the boys stack wood outside (“The Task at Hand,” Where Many Rivers Meet, 1990). He hears the sound of “split rounds thrown into an empty barrow,” dropped on the ground, picked up, thrown again—a sort of rhythm, I suppose, like the breath, just ragged. He hears music on the radio, muttered conversation and, suddenly, an “entirely appropriate four-letter word” as the wheelbarrow crashes down the steps, scattering all the logs.
Whyte responds with amusing mindfulness. “Faced with this,” he writes, “the page should remain blank and by God, after much effort, it does.” He turns the distraction into the task at hand, transforming a tense moment into something, well, poetic.
I want to live like that. But, oops, I just wandered into the future.
Look at what my fingers are doing on this lovely keyboard, wrist bones resting on the laptop, the clever clicking of the keys, the sun slanting through the window. Shall we call it “typing meditation”? Sure, why not.
Are we having fun yet?
—Jay E. Valusek