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Chop Wood, Carry Water


When the mind is not crowded
By imaginary things,
It is the best season of your life.


I just chopped twelve hundred needless words from this article, which is fitting, because the point of all that blathering was to warn against getting lost in abstractions.

I think too much. Virtually all of us do, it’s no secret. Anyone who even once experiments with meditation discovers in seconds how difficult it is just to sit and experience the physical only. We don’t think our thoughts so much as they outright assault us, so it’s no wonder we have a tendency to fall into resonance with our thoughts and lose sight of our physical experience.

You can take a ten-minute walk to the grocery store, and spend the whole walk with your attention completely hijacked by a line of thought that has nothing do to with walking or groceries. A foreign war, a past relationship, or an internal dialogue about fuel prices easily becomes more demanding of your attention than the boulevards, birdsongs and urban infrastructure that actually comprise the experience of a ten-minute walk.

This seems to be the default for modern humans, to let one’s attention settle on abstract things that consist only of thought: situations, worldviews, predictions, worries, beliefs, regrets, analyses, mental positions and opinions. These are the “imaginary things” in Kabir’s verse.

They are ghosts, all of them. A whole lot of eerie noise and moving air, but no substance, and rarely any consequence. To have your attention captured by one of these formless, imaginary constructs is an altogether different experience than to have your attention firmly captured by a voice or a face, for example. There is something so beautiful and truthful about the concrete — skies and walls and artwork and sunshine — that is utterly absent whenever you’re dealing with thought alone.

When you are able to experience the concrete without the interference of imaginary things, it creates an effortless, lackless pleasure. We are very much drawn to it, whether we realize it or not. The pleasures people seek — food, music, sex, movies, travel, drugs, sport — all of them are so appealing because they have the power to wrest our attention from our mental preoccupations and hook it onto an actual, concrete sensation. They all achieve the same thing. They crystallize our attention. And they can do it because they are real. Sensations are exacting and unambiguous — the opposite of the free-associating soup of unchecked thought.

Think of going to the movies. We pay to sit in a room where all the distractions are darkened out, people are asked not to speak, and bright, loud story is played out on the screen in front of us, with such physical intensity that our attention would have a difficult time wandering anywhere else.

And it works. Unless you dislike the movie and get lost in your internal dialogue about its derivative writing and vapid actors, it is effortless and gratifying. When’s the last time you were lost in your thoughts at a decent concert?

As I travel, I’m constantly planning and adjusting, wondering and worrying a little about how the next day or week or month is going to shape up. I think about my budget, possible employment scenarios, what I’m going to do with myself when I return home — anything that is unresolved, which is everything.

Sometimes those abstract considerations really begin to shoulder in on the enjoyment of my trip. I’ll be overlooking a spectacular valley or standing on a magnificent beach, physically right there where I’ve been aching to be for months, yet I’m being pulled from it by a nagging thought about money, or keeping adequate touch with people at home, or maintaining my blog.

All of those considerations are peripheral and could only possibly be useful if I act on them right there. If I stop in the middle of my walk to the store to physically whip out my notepad to plan or decide something, then the thoughts have actually served me, but otherwise, they only steal. They buzz around like bees and wedge themselves between you and direct contact with the moment as it really is.

The simplest remedy I’ve ever heard for that familiar conundrum is to remember to chop wood, carry water. In other words, when in doubt, put your attention on the physical. Where should your hands be? What should your body do about this? How should you spend your energy here, physically? Put it in motion.

A physical response gets the world turning again and brings you out of the realm of thought. Trying to fend of thoughts by thinking about them is something like trying to shoo flies away with other flies.

Shoe Lessons

An example: my only pair of shoes, through either defect or mistreatment, or some combination, have become unusable. The heels have worn out and exposed an abrasive bit of plastic that cuts into my skin. A five day walk in them would be murder, so today I went out to find some wearable outdoor shoes that won’t cost an arm and a leg.

I’d poked around in stores before, and found that footwear can be incredibly expensive in New Zealand. Shoes that might be 150 dollars in Canada might be 300 or 500 dollars here. During the entire walk to the shoe store I was thinking about the economic reasons behind how they could possibly be so expensive. I know it’s an island nation, but I reasoned that a shipping container could hold thousands of pairs of shoes, so the cost of it would presumably be distributed thousands of ways. The cost of shipping couldn’t add hundreds of dollars to each pair, so how could the cost of getting them here double the end-consumer price over Canada’s price? I figured there is some middle man out there making himself rich at my expense, which triggered minor worries about other unexpected expenses and so on.

Of course I know nothing about shipping or economics or even shoes for that matter, but my brain sure thought it was worth spending some serious time and energy analysing it. So it obliged, only because I forgot to tell it not to bother.

When I arrived at the outdoors store, I was already vaguely angry at it, for conspiring with the secret shipping middlemen in order to shrink the amount of money I have for traveling. Thoughts of traveling led to thoughts of the life I left at home, which happened to contain an image of my refrigerator, which happened to sport a note I wrote to myself months ago: Chop wood, carry water.

So I did. I dropped the whole swirling mass of imaginary things and walked in. I picked the shoes up, felt them. Tried on a few pair. Looked at the prices, regarded the figures unemotionally. Walked around the aisles a bit, asked what my feet said. They said “Buy these ones.” I did, and they were 50% off. One hundred dollars.

I had built a whole teetering mess of thought on top of my afternoon, and in that one moment of clarity I blew it away like a dandelion puff. I lost nothing for it. It was all imaginary. If I’d continued the internal rant about shoes being so hideously expensive, I probably never would have even considered the inexpensive pair.

Those teetering messes grow so easily, in my life anyway. Luckily they come with a red flag: the telltale sign of unease. If you notice enjoyment has given way to an ambiguous unease, chances are a network of imaginary things has drifted in. They are very needy, always demanding your attention.

Concentrate on the body’s role in the moment and bring your attention back to it whenever you notice it is playing with imaginary things. It really is nothing more than meditation in action, but without the formality of a proper sitting session.

It won’t solve your problems for you, but it may remind you not to bother with problems unless you are actually sitting down to bother with a solution.

Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don’t go off somewhere else!

Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of
imaginary things,
and stand firm in that which you are.



From December 23 to December 28, I will be hiking the Abel Tasman Coast Track here in New Zealand, which means I will not be online at all during that time. I can’t respond to your comments or emails until I return but I hope that won’t stop you from leaving them. Enjoy the holidays.

Photo by Anemone Nemorosa

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Jay Schryer December 21, 2009 at 4:35 pm

if i were the kind of man that would assign a moral lesson to random circumstances, I would say that your shoes fell apart because you weren’t paying attention to the walking you were doing. Your shoes fell apart, and you had to buy new ones, which focused your mind on the lesson you’ve shared with us today.

In other words…

Enjoy your hike, David, and don’t worry about the blog :)
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..A Christmas Story =-.

David December 21, 2009 at 8:34 pm

Thanks Jay, and you’re right. My shoes did fall apart because I kept slipping them off without untying them. My mind was on the next step, so I tried to fly past the untying stage. Never again!

Darren December 21, 2009 at 5:04 pm

As various eastern philosophers would say, our mind is our own worst enemy; and Shakespeare wrote that “there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. Have a wonderful Xmas and New Year’s!

David December 21, 2009 at 8:35 pm

Completely agree. Thinking is awful. Down with thinking!

Merry Christmas to you too :)

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) December 22, 2009 at 4:46 am

if we’re not thinking how are we finding our way to remember to just chop the wood..?

my teetering mess has become ridiculous, so I am accepting time out. lucky for me the rains are coming and the landlord lazy, so I have meditative carrying of coconuts to make walls from dug trenches.

the hike sounds exciting…~

David December 25, 2009 at 3:19 pm

I don’t suggest you stop thinking, not that it’s ever really a choice. But you can certainly recognize when your mind is dissecting the imaginary, and let it all drift away unsupervised as you pick up an axe…

Lisis December 22, 2009 at 8:32 am

I love Jay’s comment, and completely agree with your conclusions here. Whenever I’m plagued with my imaginary demons (lovely though some of them are), the only thing that gets me back to reality is focusing on the physical tasks before me: wash the dishes, check the mail, prepare the meal, play a board game with Hunter, that kind of thing… literally THE PRESENT MOMENT.

In the present, all the imaginary troubles, wishes, fantasies, what have you, no longer exist.

Don’t worry one bit about your blog during your Festivus hike. It’s time to focus on your Feats of Strength. ;)

David December 25, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Haha… Festivus was excellent, though not quites as I pictured it. My feets actually were not that strengthful; unbroken-in shoes wreaked havoc on them. So I chose to spend it with my new friends back in the village instead of out on the trail. ‘Twas the right decision.

Happy Festivus! I will see you at the Airing of Grievances.

Ian | Quantum Learning December 22, 2009 at 9:07 am

I so recognise this. Filling my head with thoughts until they take on a reality of their own that bears no resemblance to what’s actually in front of me. I used to do it a lot more than I do now – especially with people. Coming to the realisation that my thoughts about someone (or things) can never be even close to who they really are is incredibly liberating!
.-= Ian | Quantum Learning´s last blog ..Surviving Christmas =-.

David December 25, 2009 at 3:25 pm

Ian, good to hear from you. Yes, extremely liberating, especially with people. People seem to trigger the mind’s most presumptuous parts.

Daphne December 22, 2009 at 9:20 am

It’s amazing how our tasks can take on a life of their own when we overthink them. You were able to change your perspective and that made all the difference. Wonderful blog post. Thank you for sharing it. Have a wonderful time away – we’ll be here when you get back.
.-= Daphne´s last blog ..My First Blog Award =-.

David December 25, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Thank you Daphne. I hope to be ‘back’ in the online community before I’m back in North America, but we’ll see how it all shapes up.

Erin December 22, 2009 at 1:55 pm

Mark Twain is credited with saying, “If I’d had more time, I would have written less.” In the book “Letter’s To the Earth”, he makes fun of the style of writing of James Finnemore Cooper in an excerpt from the Pathfinder. Cooper writes sentences that run on for an entire paragraph with floral descriptions and language of the day. Twain boils it down to one brief sentence.

All of us do write lengthy blogs, probably hoping to give our readers a sense that we have something worthwhile to say. We do over think and over write things. Some of the posts I enjoy most and remember best are the ones that are short and to the point. The idea is distilled down to it’s purest form.

As far as your shoes go, it is better to wear out, than rust out. Keep on walking, and sharing your wonderful journey with us. Be blessed.
.-= Erin´s last blog ..Relationships =-.

David December 25, 2009 at 3:29 pm

I would love to have a coffee with Mark Twain. He has a playful contempt about him.

I believe I am the king of overwritten blog posts. I end up with 1500, 2000 words, then a reader sums it up in two sentences in a comment. Happens all the time.

David December 22, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Great comments everyone! I’m moments away from leaving on my trip (and my internet time is ticking away all too quickly.) I just want to wish you all an excellent Christmas, Holiday Season, or End of December, not just the people who have commented here, but all of my gracious readers. Raptitude’s readership has been the best gift I’ve received all year. Thank you so much.

There will be no post Thursday, so enjoy the week, and I will talk to you all soon
.-= David´s last blog ..Chop Wood, Carry Water =-.

Brenda (betaphi) December 22, 2009 at 6:53 pm

Worn at the tip of the toe, the wearer will see woe,
Worn at the side, the wearer will meet his bride,
Worn on the ball, it’s best not to buy at all,
Worn at the heel, the wearer will make a wise deal.

So your heels were worn out and you got a new pair for half price. What a deal! You are wise beyond your years. :)
.-= Brenda (betaphi)´s last blog ..Merry Christmas! =-.

David December 25, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Haha hadn’t heard that one. I think I lucked out; it definitely wasn’t wisdom that led me there.

Iva December 23, 2009 at 6:08 am

Haha, great article, David! Your description of constant blabber that goes on in our heads made me laugh. We humans seem to be creatures of paradox. What is our biggest advantage – our brain- is at the same time our biggest shortcoming.

You also made me wonder – it seems we are used to having some sort of safety net made out of our expectations. Knowing where we are going to go tomorow or which shoes we’ll wear makes us feel safe. And although we know that it is totally illusionary, we cannot stop clinging to that, and we seem to cling to it even more when times are uncertain (speaking from personal experience).

For some reason, the zen proverb “Jump and the net will appear” hangs in my head after reading your article. Probably because it is an antidote to too much thinking.

Anyways, I wish you great hinking, all the best for Christmas, and also more shoes and less expectations in the New Year (to all of us :).
.-= Iva´s last blog ..U potrazi za ljubavlju =-.

David December 25, 2009 at 3:36 pm

Hi Iva. You are right on with that. Our brains have enabled an incredible quality of life, which they also spoil.

Thoughts involving security and safety do seem to be the strongest attachements we have, and therefore cause the greatest suffering. It’s a powerful but cruel bit of evolution: we worry so intensely that survival is almost automatic, and so is suffering.

chas R August 8, 2013 at 4:30 pm

The idea presented is that we are obsessed with imaginary things which “rarely have any consequence”. But that’s the thing right? Being aware of, tuned in and vigilant when a thing of rare consequence presents itself? What does it matter what actually transpires around us when the most interesting thing is the exceptional moments and the actionable occurences? Are we not gods?

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