Chopping wood and carrying water. For me these are the most powerful words in all of Ram Dass’s iconic, groundbreaking book Be Here Now.It’s an apt metaphor for how best to travel the spiritual path. Why?
First, what does Ram Dass mean by chopping wood and carrying water? In older, more primitive societies these would be two of the most basic, daily activities. Essential tasks done every day. Wood for fire. Fire for warmth, cooking and smithing. Water to drink, wash clothes and bathe in.
It’s the little things
How does that translate to the spiritual path? Because growth comes from doing the little things that are no less essential, in a spiritual sense, than food and water. And we do them over and over again. Every day of every week of every month of every year.
What little things? What are the spiritual equivalents of chopping wood and carrying water?
-Noticing that your attention has wandered off into thought and bringing it back to the here and now. While driving on the road, brushing your teeth, participating in a meeting. Whenever and wherever you wander off. Do it twenty times a day. Thirty times a day. Whatever it takes. Split logs and haul water.
-Noticing when something has upset you. It could be something someone said. Or texted. Or it could just be a disturbing thought about your past or future that popped into your head. The chopping wood and carrying water of it is noticing something upsetting has happened, then leaning away from it to give it some space, relaxing your body and then releasing that feeling. Over and over.
-Meditation. Not to reach sublime levels of spiritual nirvana. Just to come back to yourself. Back to home base. To the presence and stillness that is you. Nothing fancy. Just sitting in your chair or on your cushion and chopping wood. Every day.
Flashy doesn’t work
The reason this is important to comment on is that many people focus on the “bigger,” flashier aspects of the path. For example, instead of a consistent, moderate meditation practice, many will opt to do a one or two week meditation retreat. And it will be mind-blowing. But a month later life settles back in and the wood pile goes untouched.
Or people read every spiritual book from Be Here Now to Full Catastrophe Living to The Power of Now. But no wood and no water.
Hit thousands of balls
It doesn’t work. The spiritual path is no different than any other path. If you want to be a good golfer, you go to the driving range and hit thousands of balls, putt thousands of balls and chip thousands of balls. Day after day, year after year. That’s how one masters golf.
Same with basketball. And piano. And writing. And learning French. You chop the wood and carry the water.
And what is most necessary to master these things? Is it talent? No, but talent will get you there faster.
Most necessary is WILL. And discipline. There aren’t any shortcuts.
Use your free will
How does free will manifest on the spiritual path? It’s simple. It means bearing down and committing to becoming aware when your attention gets hijacked by your voracious mind. That takes energy and discipline.
It also manifests in getting your butt in the chair (or cushion) to meditate on a regular basis. The good news is that all of that gets easier and less onerous the more you do it. And the more you do this spiritual wood chopping and water carrying, the more awake, happier and better adjusted you become.
Which is why I say there is no more important area to exercise your free will and discipline than in traveling the spiritual path. Because chopping the wood and carrying the water will make you a better parent, friend and overall human being, all of which our world desperately needs now more than ever.