Overview: Based on a listener’s timely and meaningful email, this episode (Ep 143) revisits a focus of building a path of purpose one step at a time by applying the Zen philosophy of chopping wood and carrying water. Originally from Ep 101: Humanitou creator Adam Williams digs into some thoughts, resources and ideas about recognizing life purpose and cultivating success through the Zen Buddhist koan, “chop wood, carry water.” Along the way, he dips into the wisdom of sages like Jedi master Yoda and Michael Jordan, Baba Ram Dass and Pablo Picasso, an 8th century Buddhist poet and the lightbulb inventor Thomas Edison. Adam also shares the simplest of three-step action plans to create lasting success in your life. (Re-released on the Humanitou podcast on Apr. 5, 2023)
EP 143 SHOW NOTES, LINKS & TRANSCRIPT
Podcast cover art: Adam Williams
Title photo: Markus Spiske
Layman P’ang on Wikipedia
Austin Kleon, “Keep Going“
Jessica Patterson on Humanitou (Ep 87)
Star Wars V : Yoda and Luke Skywalker scene (video)
“Bhagavad Gita” on Wikipedia
Baba Ram Dass: ramdass.org
Outro: “Tupac Lives” by John Bartmann | freemusicarchive.org
Hey, welcome to Humanitou. I’m Adam Williams, the creator and host of this podcast series that shines light on humanness and creativity. Yours. Mine. Ours.
Today, in this solo episode, I’m sharing some thoughts, resources and ideas about building a path of purpose and finding success in approaching our work and life practices one step at a time.
Now, sometimes that feels boring, and lacking a certain sense of urgency. It can feel a bit like watching for the water kettle to boil. We want to fulfill our big life purpose — and do it right now, right? And for many of us, we go through periods of doubting that we even have one or whether we’re capable of figuring out what it is.
Whatever it is, we want to fire it up, launch it, and make life deeply and meaningfully awesome, right?
In doing that, in worrying about it, overthinking it, I often find myself seizing up, doubting, questioning, getting anxious, trying to solve the whole journey right now.
It hurts to think I’m failing in my purpose or that I don’t even know what it is, that I’m spinning my wheels in the mud, and getting further and further behind wherever I think I’m supposed to be, and wherever I think everyone who’s figured it out is.
And then I have those moments of Zen, of calm, of sanity and groundedness, and I find reinforcements.
Today, I’m going to get into some of that with the help of wise old sages like an 8th century Buddhist, Thomas Edison, Michael Jordan and the Jedi master, Yoda. Among others.
To lead us into this flow, I’m going to share something I wrote several months ago that was meant only as a reminder for myself at the time. But I recently picked it up again, and it turns out that it’s worth sharing here and now.
So I’m going to read it and then catch my breath while the music rolls. I’ll catch you again on the other side. Here it is:
“Create to create. To give, to shine light. For the sake of the work. Allowing longevity and wholeness of the work to be the story of where I placed my energy, purpose, value, heart … Leaving behind a collection of all the me I saw as vessel and conduit of the sacred, divine, and yet, impermanent.”
Hey, alright. Here we are again. In this episode, I’m keeping on with a bit of a thing that’s returned to my mind and my life practices of late. And with that in mind, I’m trying to re-focus on metaphorically chopping wood and carrying water. Every day.
If you’re not familiar with the phrase, “chop wood, carry water,” it comes from a poem written around 1,200 years ago by a Chinese Ch’an Buddhist devotee named P’ang (paing).
P’ang was a layman. He traveled with his daughter, Ling-chao, to various monasteries to deepen his understanding with Buddhist masters, yet he preferred to maintain his status as a layman.
Here is the short poem that gave image and meaning to a philosophical life approach that continues to be used around the world more than a millennium later, and is the heart of this episode on Humanitou. P’ang wrote:
My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing.
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
My supernatural power and marvelous activity:
Drawing water and chopping wood.
This simple poem eventually led to a Zen Buddhist koan which gives us the streamlined phrasing for “chop wood, carry water.” Zen, by the way, developed from the Ch’an Buddhism of P’ang’s day. And the Zen koan often is some version of this:
A novice says to the master, “What does one do before enlightenment?”
“Chop wood. Carry water,” replies the teacher.
The novice asks, “What then does one do after enlightenment?”
“Chop wood. Carry water.”
And not to belabor this idea, but there’s another commonly shared story that I think adds a little more nuance, a little more imagery, and will help us to land in a useful place, as we move forward here. I’ll go through it quickly:
A young boy became a monk. He dreamed of enlightenment and of learning great things. When he got to the monastery he was told that each morning he had to chop wood for the monks’ fires, and then carry water up to the monastery for washing and for the kitchen. He attended prayers and meditation, but the direct teaching he was given was limited.
One day he was told to take some tea to the abbot in his chambers. He did. And the abbot saw he looked sad and he asked him why.
The boy said, “Every day all I do is chop wood and carry water. I want to learn. I want to understand things. I want to be great one day, like you.”
The abbot gestured to the scrolls on shelves lining the walls. He said, “When I started I was like you. Every day I would chop wood and carry water. I understood that someone had to do these things, but like you I wanted to move forward.
“Eventually I did. I read all of the scrolls, I met with Kings and gave counsel. I became the abbot. Now, I understand that the key to everything is that everything is ‘chopping wood and carrying water,’ and that if one does everything mindfully then it’s all the same.”
Like how my spiritual teacher, friend and mentor, who I occasionally mention on this podcast, Jessica Patterson, talks about this philosophy, it’s more about how we go about the work we do, the intentions we put into it, the why we’re doing it, much more than it is about what we’re doing.
She teaches it like this, “Why we do anything will inform how we do it. And, in the end, that will determine what we actually did.”
So, why and how do we go about the chopping wood and carry water in our lives? The Zen abbot in the story above says all our work is this. Whatever the what is. The work is in the why and how.
And that’s been on my mind lately. A broken record. A bit of an earworm, like that song melody or lyric that plays in your head and you can’t shake it out.
When I’m feeling too much ego in wanting to make something bigger and specialer happen with Humanitou, with wanting to make a bigger positive impact, when wanting to move faster, I’ve been coming back, periodically, to this line about chopping and carrying, about putting in the humble, conscious, consistent work, and knowing that is the thing.
All in all, there’s plenty of room for interpretation of what this Zen koan to chop wood, carry water means. My point with it here today is to stick with what resonates for me right now, and maybe that’s something that resonates with you.
So, I’ve been thinking of this, of “chop wood, carry water,” in terms of a few things:
One. How we live daily life. How we go about feeling grounded in our work, or even just in our breathing, our capacity for relaxed, content existence.
Two. How I personally go about living creative practices, the process and progress. And what it means to be successful in those, and through those, as tools for living.
And Three. How I do the same simple and humble work in my spiritual practices, which tie together numbers one and two: daily breathing and living — that is, in my case, parenting and husbanding, and living the minutiae that makes a day happen, makes thriving and continuing as an individual and household happen — and creating and being in public with that creative life.
The spiritual leader Ram Dass said, “Instead of saying, ‘I can’t do spiritual practices because I have children,’ you say, ‘My children are my spiritual practice.’ If you’re traveling a lot, your traveling becomes your yoga. You start to use your life as your curriculum for coming to God.”
Or I’ll interject here, because the concept of God can be challenging for some, for many, including myself, I’ll interject the concept of Self-awareness, or consciousness: so, using your life as your curriculum for coming to consciousness.
And Ram Dass continued, “You use the things that are on your plate, that are presented to you. So that relationships, economics, psychodynamics — all of these become grist for the mill of awakening. They all are part of your curriculum.”
In that, I read chop wood, carry water. I use it like a mantra, a reminder to bring my focus back to the basics, to the day-by-day processes of life, to move step-by-step, or pade pade, as some yogis and other spiritual practitioners say.
Because when I don’t, when I’m like that novice monk that wanted to jump right to knowing all the things to know, to being his idea of monkness — which I’ve attempted many, many times with things — then I forget what it takes and what it means to be that thing, to be anything.
Occasionally, I get caught going down a rabbit hole of comparison, like when we envision another person’s success as where we want to go, what we want to know, or where we think we ought to be. The novice monk, wanting to just get to enlightenment already, without being patient enough to recognize the work and focus attention there.
Especially in the age of information overload and social media, we can get caught looking at other creative people or anyone who has what we think we want: a shiny career, stacks of seemingly easy money, the just-right house, the offspring that listen and follow what they’re told or asked to do every time.
If we enter parenthood with preconceived notions, if we enter the creative life or retirement or work, or whatever experience, with preconceived notions of what we’ll accomplish — or think we ought to accomplish — we tend to envision the crowning moment, the shining spotlight, the arrival at something.
We tend to skip past the work and the learnings, the drudge- and trenchwork, as it may be, that make having that life possible.
Thomas Edison was unsuccessful in 1,000 attempts to invent the lightbulb. When asked what it felt like to fail 1,000 times, he said, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
Had any of those 1,000 steps been skipped or abandoned or avoided, Edison might not have come to the result he came to. All of it was needed. All the basic work, and the stamina to stay focused on it, and keep at it.
Likewise, it’s easy to dream that Pablo Picasso was born a genius talent with paints and brushes, with Cubist and Surrealist inventions preformed in his mind. We skip the facts that he was one of the most prolific artists ever. Meaning, he put in the work to develop his ideas and skills that led to his renowned place in art history.
If we abuse ourselves with fantastic stories of how someone else achieved so easily, or by luck of birth, or whatever shortcut, and tell ourselves that we’re such failures for not having that, or for not having what we perceive to be the dream, the pinnacle, then we dishonor ourselves — and those we’re comparing to.
A more contemporary example, one from the time of my childhood: I remind my sons that Michael Jordan was not born the GOAT, the greatest of all time. And that no one is, ever.
To assume that, dishonors the work they’ve put in and the struggles they’ve overcome. It dishonors their willingness to stay focused on the step-by-step of chopping wood and carrying water.
Jordan got to be the greatest by taking the steps needed, one at a time. Pade pade. He chopped wood and carried water. He put in the work. He shot 10,000 practice shots a day, among all the other work he did. First one in the gym, last one out.
And after he won the NBA championship, he chopped wood and carried water. And after he won six of them? You know what he did? You know what he did. Chopped, carried.
And to be like that novice monk, for me, is to get lost in the common habit of thinking life is an all-or-nothing deal. I spent years of my life wishing I could be an artist, wishing I could show in art galleries. I spent many years wishing I could be a writer, be a photographer, be confident in using my voice, and accept having an outlet where I could use it.
I would attempt to look from the starting point of an idea all the way to completion, and the dream of great success at the end of that road. And if I couldn’t see the whole road, the whole path to success, how to get there, every step, I typically would abandon the idea. I saw, frankly, only great odds of failure, if I couldn’t see that full path of success. I did not yet understand that the path is built as we go.
And to be a photographer, a writer, a poet and artist. To be a podcaster, all I had to do was pick up the necessary tools — be it a pen, a camera, a microphone, a recorder — and start doing something with it. I only had to enter the arena and be willing to sweat, to get dusty, get a bit battered and bloodied by the process. To stand fearlessly against the inner voices of shame and smallness — and take action.
The path is built as we go. Could we ask for much more? That means it’s up to us to shape our path to the terrain as we encounter it, and to be willing and able to adjust and adapt and flex, as needed. And it means that success is not only possible, but possibly even inevitable, if we just keep going.
Speaking of keeping going, Austin Kleon, self-described as the writer who draws, wrote a series of books on the creative life. His most recent is called, “Keep Going.” Here’s a nugget from that book by Kleon:
“Truly prolific artists … have all identified what they want to spend their time on, and they work at it every day. No matter what. Whether their latest thing is universally rejected, ignored, or acclaimed, they know they’ll still get up tomorrow and do their work.
“We have so little control over our lives. The only thing we can really control is what we spend our days on. What we work on and how hard we work on it.”
I’ve been doing this work of Humanitou, for example, for more than three years. Sometimes I’m surprised it’s been going for as long as it has, and I think I don’t know how it’s happened. But at the bottom of it all is that I keep going.
Some days that’s because of my wife Becca’s encouragement. Some days it’s because of the encouraging comments I get from you and other listeners. And some days it’s because I know this simple fact: There is no middle ground. I either keep going or I don’t.
Which brings to mind a Star Wars scene, of all things. I’m thinking of Yoda, the wise old, wrinkly, green Jedi master. This might be a bit of an odd digression for me, because I’m not really a sci-fi follower, but I do remember this meme-worthy tidbit of wisdom from Yoda.
In Star Wars Episode V — or The Empire Strikes Back, as we knew it back when I was a kid — there’s a poignant and often cited scene where Yoda gets exasperated with his young protege, Luke Skywalker.
As Yoda bows his head, shaking it slowly in frustration, he says to the young Jedi warrior, “Always with you what cannot be done.”
Then Yoda raises his head, looks at Luke, and says, “Hear you nothing that I say? You must unlearn what you have learned.”
Luke nods, turns away from Yoda and flippantly says, “Alright, I’ll give it a try.”
“No!” Yoda snaps back. “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
It’s about taking action. So many sources tell us this. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to come to them, to come to this realization. To stop worrying about how long and scary a road of success is — or isn’t — and trying to think my way to perfect plans. And to just follow my heart into action.
In the spiritual text that long predates the making of Yoda and Star Wars, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells the warrior Arjuna he must take action, that there is no alternative. Even inaction is, in fact, an action. Avoidance of making decisions and taking action are, in fact, decisions and actions.
Julia Cameron, an author I’ve mentioned numerous times on Humanitou because of her influential book, The Artist’s Way, inspires to action. Nike, the shoe and clothing company with the slogan, “Just do it.” It’s about taking action.
Pick your leading light there. And/or from others too.
The plan, the process, in life and in creativity, gets boiled down to this:
Step One: Take action. Small, consistent, focused action.
Step Two: Repeat.
Step Three: Keep going.
There’s thousands of years of this teaching from countless sources. Anyone who is achieving what we wish and dream we could achieve has figured this out: take consistent action.
If we go back to the Buddhist poet that started us off here in this episode, Layman P’ang, let your “supernatural power and marvelous activity” lie in the simple and the useful, even in the seemingly mundane: chop wood, carry water.
You can start now.
You can take a pen and a piece of paper, and write down one thing you’d like to accomplish, however big or small the accomplishment might seem from where you’re sitting today.
Then write one action you can take. Just one step in the direction of making that accomplishment a reality. After you’ve taken that action, write down the next step you can take.
Thanks for being here with me today, as I talk about these thoughts, and I lay out some resources and ideas for how we can find success and purpose in our lives, and in our creative practices, just one step at a time. By focusing on the basics: chop wood, carry water.
If you’d like to help keep the good going here at Humanitou, then I’d appreciate your leaving a rating or review at Apple Podcasts, iTunes or wherever else you can. Maybe you subscribe to the Humanitou newsletter at the website, humanitou.com.
I also welcome your feedback, or topical suggestions for future episodes that I tackle myself. You can send me an email at adam @ humanitou.com, or by Instagram DM @humanitou.
So, until the next episode …
I’m Adam Williams, creator and host of the Humanitou podcast.
Thanks for being here.