A Trip to the Woodpile

Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus

In the last few months I’ve spent more time going back to the basics — how I see myself, how I connect. Some of the “inside” work involves dealing with unresolved issues. And I’m finding situations where I act without fully attending to what I’m doing.

All this stuff reminded me of one of my favorite spiritual metaphors, “chop wood, carry water.” The phrase is a core Zen teaching for mindfulness. The wood and water phrasing harkens back to life at Zen monasteries hundreds of years ago, back when daily chores involved actual manual labor. What’s that all about, anyway?

The core element of the aphorism (for me at least) is to attend to one’s daily chores in a mindful way. Kinda like someone in front of you who can’t see the stop light is green because he’s on his cell or the edgy guy at work who thinks he’s a “brilliant” multi-tasker and sends out unreadable emails.

For me, the problem is, I do the chore as a chore, as something to be gotten through quickly because it’s not much fun. Doing the dishes. Taking out the garbage. Driving the 405. Of course the Zen chore, chopping wood, seems kinda cool in a Mysteries of the East kinda way. But then, the only wood I ever chopped was for 20 minutes on a visit to Aunt Barb and Uncle Ben’s farm. That was enough.

Now, I’m sure some of my Internet minions are thinking, “Zen, Mindfulness, The Now, why make a big deal out of chores anyway?” And it’s a response that deserves to be gone into.

Actually, the fact that a chore is so minor a part of our day-to-day life is what makes it important. The hassle factor is the key. Because during these little moments of hassle or anxiety, we turn off parts of the brain. It’s like the computer switches off the main CPU and goes into backup mode. And the thing is, it’s easier to turn off parts of the inner computer than getting it back to full capacity.

I think maybe we have these psychological screens we put up when something comes along that’s boring: “BORING ALERT… Screens Up.” That feeling of “I’ll do this as quick as possible, just to get it over with.” And instead of doing the task at hand and doing it well, we put part of the brain, the part that’s capable of being Present, into suspension. The deeper mind is thinking, get it over, get it over, get it over.

Over time, the part of the brain that handles avoidance starts to grow. I let that Boredom Avoider kick in whenever a cloud of boredom floats into my life. After a while, it becomes a regular member of the team — Process Improvement Meeting, I’m checked out; Bug Review, checked out; required writing project, do I have to? In the end, this attitude can taint even stuff I would otherwise enjoy.

I’ve noticed this Boredom Avoider in the past. At Cars.com, tech roadblocks were a fact of life, part of any new business idea.  Typically, my response would be to talk to a programmer rather than try to figure it out on my own.

I realized that my techie friends didn’t always know the answer themselves. They had to go into research mode just as I could have done. Often I had a decent grasp on the issue once I noodled around for a bit. But first I had to turn off my Tech Issue Avoidance System.

The techie chores that I’ve tried to avoid are another example of me not being Present. And since I’ve tried to avoid that chore for most of my adult life, well, that can be a tough one to break out of.

I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one who’s made avoidance a go-to strategy.  I know a lot of guys have a similar avoidance approach when it comes to talking about relationships. Their brains just don’t grasp the subtleties of being emotionally open and caring — at least not at the level a wife or girlfriend expects. So when she says the dreaded words, “Let’s talk,” a part of his soul goes screaming into the night.

With some folks, the avoidance trigger isn’t boredom — it’s about anxiety or maybe conflict avoidance. Oops, that person is getting frustrated, I better shut up. And the issue gets swept under the table again and again.

In a way, this Chop Wood metaphor also relates to all these deeper avoidance issues. Because my lifelong avoidance of tech issues means I haven’t been going out to that woodpile for a long time. And guess what, the pile gets larger and your baggage regarding that issue grows.

On the other hand, whenever I make the choice and tackle a Problem, I can usually kick my game up a notch and make a breakthrough. As soon as the mind drops the Avoidance Screen, solutions start to become apparent. I can take a class or talk to an expert or ask Siri the answer (maybe not that).

Not all issues are equally easy to tackle, of course. It takes time for someone to improve their ability to share feelings or decode the cues that the opposite sex gives. But the brain has an uncanny ability to make up for lost time — as long as the person stays in the moment.

That’s the real test, to acknowledge where we are at that moment. I have to stop treating something like a chore. I have to accept whatever baggage I’ve gathered regarding that issue.

But the very act of choosing to be Present, to be Mindful, changes everything. It allows me to do that simple task well, allows me to work on a skill I’ve avoided, allows me to enjoy the subtleties that underly every aspect of life. Chop Wood.

Most of us have a woodshed of stuff we’ve avoided. And from the outside, that pile of wood can seem impossibly hard to start work on. OK. I accept that. But that’s what’s at hand.

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