Friday, November 23, 2007

Zen and the Art of Wood Cutting




As I end up doing most Thanksgiving weekends, I helped my dad in the yard. He was getting his firewood collection ready for the winter. He used to tell us when you were little: "You can never have enough of two things: money, and firewood." I thought it was kind of a bizarre maxim. When we were little, he used to have a mighty pile. Now, sixteen years later, he was left with the damp dregs of what would probably be the last cord burned. I'm sure he will make do.

The wood still needed to be split, though, and we alternated with the work. The trees had exploded in the backyard and the rainbow confetti lay everywhere on the grass like the remains of a ticker-tape parade. I thought about my journey to faith and to the Catholic Church: those trees were just saplings my dad had planted when we had moved to this new house. Now, whenever I come home to visit, I will notice how much bigger they are and how they have transformed the backyard into a lush, shady place in the summer and a picturesque space in the fall. Had they already been planted when I was a baby, I may just have assumed they were always there. But I remember the bristly, scorched brown grass in the summer before they were planted, trees with branches that you could count on one hand. It makes me appreciate them that much more when I am outside chopping wood in their midst.

These particular pieces were not the easiest to split. They were damp and knotty and tinged green inside. It was tricky business getting the wedge in far enough so that it would stay up long enough so that you could hit it. Of course, if you didn't hit the wedge flat on the head it would fall off or fly out and you had to set it up again. Always trying to find a shortcut, I did this for a number of rounds before I realized it would be worth focusing on getting one solid hit, rather than a bunch of half-assed knicks.

It reminded me of little league, the coach admonishing us: "Don't take your eyes off the ball." He made it sound pretty straightforward: as long as you keep your eye on the ball, there is no way you will not hit it. When you try it and end up hitting the thing it is this dumbstruck moment of enlightenment, like "holy shit. this stuff really works." That stuff being Zen, of course. Sometimes the little tykes are so mystified at this force they had momentarily aquired that they forget to run, and it's very cute, and makes for good home video footage.

I guess at its deepest level, Zen is the realization that there is no 'you' or 'me,' no 'this' or 'that,' no disassociation between one thing and another. The dualistic mind has been locked out of its house. It will find its way back in eventually, but in the meantime a moment of two of respite from the relentless chatter and activity is like an oasis in the desert. I experience this when I am hiking and run (rather than walk) down a rock-strewn mountain trail. You are moving too quickly to rely on your mind to tell you where to put your feet--you have to let go of that part of your mind and turn it over to instinct--natural and effortless flow of action. If you stop to think, you bite it.

So, as in Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery, chopping wood (as with everything else) is best done mindfully so as to 'hit the mark.' I tried to concentrate on the One Thing as I held the sledgehammer: Strike One. Strike Two. And then...crack! I felt like I had just parted the Red Sea. That was easy!

Strangely enough, riding my bike over to Lenape to play football this afternoon I witnessed a head-on collision, right in front of me. A man was driving one way through an intersection, a woman was driving the other way, and then BAM, both of their cars are crumpled like a couple of smashed Twinkies. The woman looked like she wasn't hurt. I biked over and asked the guy if he was alright. He looked angry and didn't say anything, so I rolled out. I wasn't going to tell him about my Zen experience that morning; though it did seem like a little mindfulness would have gone a long way there.

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