Chop Wood Carry Water

There is a Zen saying, “Before Enlightenment chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment chop wood, carry water.” And, as with any Zen saying, there are multiple interpretations. I have always interpreted it to mean, “You must do the daily work, regardless of any attainments.” Sell your most expensive and most complicated piece, do the daily work; reach another level in overall sales, do daily the work; win a nationally-recognized award, do the daily work; have a piece accessioned into a major permanent collection, do the daily work. Artists do the daily work.

This was reinforced recently by two posts that appeared on Brain Pickings, one about the creative ideas of Ray Bradbury, and one about the creative ideas of Leonard Cohen. These are two radically different artists, but no one can deny that they are/were complex, prolific, and worthy of respect both for their work and for their influence on other artists. In these posts, they both discuss failure; neither man seems to regard failure as a negative thing.

But what—to me—is more interesting is what they have to say about work. In discussing his training in the Montreal School of Poetry Cohen says, “There were no prizes, as I said, no rewards other than the work itself.” Chopping wood and carrying water is its own reward.

Much has been written on the Buddhist notion of work, but it seems to come down to losing oneself in the work and working with “a spirit of joy and magnanimity.” It is considered a significant part of life, so regardless of age or station or the level of enlightenment, attainment, or fame, the real engagement is in the process of work, which is, in the case of the artist, the creative process. Cohen talks about the difficulty of this work; Bradbury talks about the differences between “made work…to keep from being bored,” working for money, and meaningful work, which he calls “true creativity.” He even suggests that we redefine the word work—meaningful work—as love.

Without that love of creative process, very few artists could continue; the work is too demanding and never-ending and informs the entire life of the artist. Cohen says, “We would read each other[‘s] poems. We were passionately involved with poems and our lives were involved with this occupation…” And that involvement has continued. Even though he talks about “hard labor,” Cohen continues with that labor. “So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.”

If you really love the work you’re doing and you are capable of doing it and that work is meaningful, why would you even consider retiring? Most artists are far more interested in the current project or planning the next one than in taking it easy, no matter what age they might be. Remember Stephen King’s retirement? Even the rumor was short-lived.

And so, artists, real artists, do the work. They may garner applause, money, awards, fame, but they do the work and they continue to do the work until they are no longer mentally or physically capable. There is, after all, meaningfulness and renewal in the process of chopping wood and carrying water.

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Date: Sunday, 27. July 2014 22:45
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