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Chop Wood

There’s a Zen proverb that has sort of rattled around in my head ever since I first heard it:

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

It’s something I think about a lot, not because I’m actively seeking enlightenment (and certainly not because I’ve achieved it), but because it seems like a versatile piece of wisdom.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that whatever you’re working on is so important that you need to put life on hold. Whether it’s a piece of art you’re creating, or a different sort of life goal you’re striving toward, you still need to live. You still need to get out of bed in the morning. You still need to shower. You still need to eat, and maintain relationships, and earn enough money to live. You still need to do The Work. You still need to chop wood and carry water.

All I’ve wanted for the longest time was to be a published author. I’m sure in the back of most people’s minds there is a little voice saying “Once I have/do x, then I’ll finally be happy/complete.” But my depression didn’t magically disappear when I was published, and if anything I’ve now got more things to be anxious about than I had before (these tend to fall into the category of ‘Good Problems to Have’, but that doesn’t make the anxiety any less palpable).

I still need to work on my mental health. I still need to work my day job. I still need to make time for my friends. I still need to make time for myself. I still need to chop wood and carry water. And that’s a good thing. You and your art are never so grand that you are above the work of simply living. Thinking otherwise is hubris.

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