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Chop Wood Carry Water: Cultivating Love in Our Labor

Growing up in an ever-progressing millennium, I deeply absorbed the sentiment that I could be somebody.

As the previous few generations had slaved away for our stability and security, I now had the opportunity, nay the duty, to forge ahead to embody my ultimate self. For the vast majority of my life, I misconstrued this gift as an obligation to attain success in my professional field.

This obligation consequently plagued my life with the tension of adhering to an ideal that continuously evaded my reach.

Transitioning out of a scholastic experience into the ‘real world’, I felt disconcerted to land in an entry-level administrative job that I resented. For years I struggled to identify myself as an artist while making ends meet, by means that seemed below me and that felt soul sucking. After dedication to a productive spiritual practice and some humbling time without employment, I have since learned to reorient my privileged expectations to the understanding that work spans a broader scope than I had ever previously conceived. I began to question the extremes I had limited myself to as either a dissatisfied, mindless automaton or a fulfilled, praised master. It became increasingly clear that these categories existed as a limited, two-dimensional approach to work.

I have come to find my work is not my J.O.B.; my work is not the tasks for which I am paid. My work is to be of service to the best of my capacity and gifts. The amazing thing is, I can do that work just as well in a daily routine as I can with my creative talents. I am here on this planet to refine myself so that I can be kind, and giving and good-hearted to everyone I encounter. I am here to evolve into a realized, integrated being in harmony with her nature. I do that work every day, all day, whether I am being paid for it or whether I am out with my friends or am alone at home. I do that work because it reflects the progress I make with my inner balance.

A popular concept from Zen Buddhism notes, “Before enlightenment, chop wood carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood carry water.” This prescription implies that the physical work, the mundane, continues in tandem with our spiritual work. I am struck by the simplicity and routine the saying offers.

The bottom line is that we have one very basic need that we can readily provide for ourselves: nourishment. While how we nourish ourselves manifests in various ways in terms of what we intake and surround ourselves with, and as we grow in personal integrity, the unnecessary continually sheds. And as the inclination towards a specific and preconceived outcome wanes, simplicity offers a rewarding alternative. I have found surprising satisfaction in the duty of providing for myself and of bringing joy and ease to all the logistical aspects that life entails.

Another humbling perspective came from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, which coincidentally showed up on my doorstep last year in a particularly stagnant period. The section On Work sunk right to the core:

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labor a misfortune.

But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,

And in keeping yourself with labor you are in truth loving life,

And to love life through labor is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.

But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.

Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “he who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is a nobler than he who ploughs the soil.

And he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of man, is more than he who makes the sandals for our feet.”

But I say, not in sleep but in the over-wakefulness of noontide that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass;

And he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.

Work is love made visible.

I am humbled and grateful to continue unearthing the truth in these words in my daily development. The labor that I have rejected was indeed the cure to my dissatisfaction. Though it is tempting to identify with form of labor, content trumps this tendency as love infuses all activity.

The deeper my spiritual practice goes, the more my head and heart steep in subtle preoccupation. I find myself amazingly more attentive and detailed with my work, despite the immersion of my experience in spiritual reflection.

The predicament of job dissatisfaction may not be unfounded in our society, as the nature of our labor continues to change. Its cure, however, I have found to lie less in “living the dream” as much as in cultivating Reality.  Let us continue cultivating the love that makes all labor, irrespective of form, a blessed duty whereby we serve our purpose from the love it is our true heritage to cultivate.

If you enjoyed this article, you will also appreciate the awesome insights offered by Alan Watts in this amazing video and article .  

Guest Columnist: Emma Hawley
Since childhood, Emma Hawley has always asked the “million dollar questions.” She grew up in a family of thinkers and always found her comfort zone outside the box. Since graduating valedictorian of her class at UCLA,  she has found her footing in Los Angeles’  wealth of consciously oriented communities. Emma’s respite is in her daily Sahaj Marg sadhana: a form simplified of raja yoga meaning “Natural Path,” that has vastly transformed her inner world. Check out some of her musings on her personal blog, Spark in the Husk. Catch her tweets at @sparkinthehusk.