Chop Wood, Carry Water: Zen and Coping with Bereavement

I know what I am talking about is almost too personal to be articulated properly and also something that everyone either has or will have gone through at some time in their lives.

Recently I have been persistently thinking of the Zen saying, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water”.

I don’t mean that I have become enlightened, far from it! But I have recently experienced what I could call a “life-splitting event” — a death that brings with it grief for many other deaths, that brings endings of all kinds, let’s just say the end of the world as I knew it. It is the kind of loss I could not fully grasp or even imagine before, although mentally, throughout my mother’s cruelly brief and cruelly long terminal illness, I certainly knew it was on its way. Emotionally too I felt some kind of premonitions of what it might be like, life afterwards.

So, I am faced with a new world. What can I do in it? Abstract thinking and concentration are difficult. But as far as everyday life is concerned, as far as chopping wood and carrying water is concerned, I do exactly the same as I did before. Everything is totally different, and everything is exactly the same.

Maybe that is something like the experience of enlightenment, suddenly being awake, and only then realising that you had been asleep. A few months ago I was chopping carrots, and I was not conscious of the preciousness of life, and how short it is, and how much I need the people I love. I knew all that, of course, but I was not aware, I was not entirely awake. Now I chop carrots and I am painfully aware. In a sense it is horrific, that I was so stupid, that I wasted so much time; it even seems somehow horrible that there should still be carrots in the world after such a disaster. At the same time it is soothing, comforting to be doing a familiar thing, that the carrots need chopping whoever lives or dies, and it is also a kind of relief that while I am chopping the carrots I am required to do exactly this, no more, and no less.

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I am laughing now because I don’t chop carrots much at all. Nor do I do a lot of chopping wood or carrying water. But although I don’t know why I chose the carrots, I know I have had exactly this experience while doing something or other, while loading the washing machine, or cleaning my teeth. I know what I am talking about is almost too personal to be articulated properly and also something that everyone either has or will have gone through at some time in their lives.

In a way we are all totally powerless, we cannot keep ourselves or anybody else from death. In another way we are always active, always doing something, keeping ourselves and each other going. We are separate and yet completely interlinked, and somewhere hidden within this there is something that we might call meaning, or we might call hope, something which may one day hit us like enlightenment when we realise that it was we who were hiding it all along.

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