There’s a popular Zen saying in the self-awareness circles. “Before enlightenment, chop wood carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood carry water.” As with most Zen concepts, it seems like a simple idea on the surface. And as with most Zen concepts, it isn’t simple. It encapsulates so many challenges in my own life.
While I do my best to stay conscious as I move through my life, it is hard work. So, I find myself going through the motions. I wake up every morning and make breakfast for the twins. I make their lunches while they eat their breakfast. I drop them off at school. I write. I pick them up from school. I take them to activities. I make dinner. I put them to bed, clean the kitchen, do laundry and get ready to do it the next day.
I find myself asking if this is what life is about.
And of course the answer is no. Life is not about what we are doing. Life is about our state of mind while we do it. Life is about our presence, our joy, our recognition of the abundance around us. But as an abuse survivor, most of that perspective was stolen from me at a very young age. It can be very hard to recognize the good when my early life has been filled with so much bad.
You may be thinking that doesn’t make sense. My life today, compared with my life as a child, is like heaven on Earth. And intellectually, I understand that. And sometimes, I am lucky enough to understand that at a deeper level. I do have moments like that. They keep me going.
I’ve tried to convince myself of the obvious. I focus on how beautiful my life is. I focus on the blessings. I have every item I could ever want because at one time, I thought that was the key to happiness. I have savings that allows me to do what I am passionate about (for a while). I have two healthy children who have an exuberance that astounds me. I have friends who care about me. And most importantly, I am no longer living in an abusive environment.
There are plenty of messages in our society about how we need to “appreciate what we have”. There are many songs about how “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. Even in self-awareness circles, the messages about abundance are everywhere. It is clear that we must embrace our current situation before we can invite new beauty in to our lives. I know this to be true. I have seen it play out in my own life many times. Just as I learn to accept my current world, it shifts to something I was previously longing for.
While I know my life is abundant, trauma runs deep. My trauma doesn’t care about my intellectual understanding. My trauma is not logical. My trauma grabs hold of me and won’t let go. It isn’t a simple decision to embrace my world. It is a matter of emotional healing. If my old emotions are still unfelt, those emotions cloud the reality of my situation. They take away my presence and my rational perspective. Most importantly, they keep my life’s meaning from rising to the surface. I lose sight of what matters in the moment.
And I can’t ignore what sits below the surface. If I repress the negative emotions, I won’t heal. If I deny the feelings of futility and push through my life in my willful way, it will work for a while. But eventually, it will catch up to me and I will have to put everything on hold while I recover from a physical illness or a deep bought with depression. Unfortunately, if I want to experience this abundant life to the fullest, I must allow myself to experience the earlier life, the life without abundance, love or hope. If I run from that life, I can’t have the new life, the abundant, beautiful life. It might be there on the surface, but I won’t be able to connect with it.
So, I have to acknowledge the old feelings while at the same time, remembering that I am not living in that world today. I have to hold that place of pain and grief for my old life while allowing myself to embrace the new life. It is as if I will live two lifetimes during my short time on Earth. And I have to find a way to balance those two lifetimes. I can’t lose one to gain the other. I must find a balance that brings the healing and the abundance in to the present moment. And that is hard work. But doing this work will give me what I have always dreamed of, which is not money, success or stuff. The hard work will give me what every person wants … peace, happiness in the moment and an appreciation of the abundance of life.
And I won’t give up because if I do, what is the point of chopping wood and carrying water?