What’s Enlightenment Got To Do With It?

Just imagine if Gautama Buddha had been scrolling Instagram while he sat under the Bodhi tree...

What’s Enlightenment Got To Do With It?
Photo by Steven Kamenar / Unsplash
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

Zen Proverb

This proverb has been rattling around in my head recently, so I figured it was time to get some thoughts down here. You know, for posterity. But first a word of warning: as with any proverb, Zen or otherwise, interpretations will vary widely, and often wildly. What follows is simply the way I’ve been looking at this one, an interpretation that’s filtered through my life experiences, current situation, etc…etc…etc…

Therefore what follows are my thoughts as of this moment right here.

It’s About Being Present in the Moment

Enlightenment can be found in the mundane as readily as in the profane. I’m referring more to those flashes of insight that come at seemingly random times—in the shower, on a walk, while you do the dishes—than to the state of enlightenment in the Buddhist sense. I know, confusing to be talking about a Buddhist proverb in a non-Buddhist context…welcome to my world.

The catch is that you have to be present in the moment or you’ll most likely miss it. I mean, just imagine if Gautama Buddha had been scrolling Instagram while he sat under the Bodhi tree…

The fact that even after you reach that Buddhist state of enlightenment you still have wood to chop and water to carry is a stark reminder of the fact that despite reaching such a rarified status you must still be present in each moment to reap the benefits—because life goes on regardless.

It’s About Being Present For Every Task, Every Day

Dovetailing from that last point is the idea that we all need to bring our attention fully to whatever task we find ourselves faced with. I don’t enjoy cleaning up after my dog, but I do it to the best of my ability (and yet still manage to miss some…) because if I don’t, the yard will start to look derelict (not to mention stink) and ruin the view out of my office window. Not to mention ticking off the neighbors.

The fact that even after reaching enlightenment, one is expected to continue doing their daily tasks is heartening to those of us who know damn well we’re not heading for that state. That doesn’t mean I won’t keep doing my damnedest to ensure the crap is picked up, the dishes are done, and the garbage can is in the alley by Wednesday morning.

It’s About How You Show Up

Back during my training as a Wellness Coach, an instructor used the phrase, “It’s about how you show up.” That idea has resonated with me consistently for the last decade. I’ve heard similar sentiments in podcasts, books, and even one TEDx talk (but I’ll be damned if I can remember whose).

This one truly underlies the other two points in that if you’re not paying attention to how you show up, you’re unlikely to be able to stay focused or be all that present in the moment (you’ll be too busy trying to remember where you left your keys, let alone your A game).

Think of it like this: If you show up to work in your PJs with your hair unkempt and one slipper missing, what does that say about you and how much you value your job? What if you showed up to a date looking like that? Or to pick up your kids after school? Exactly, and an often overlooked aspect of this idea is that the same goes for your mental state and outlook on life. If you’re in a foul mood when you get to the office or a client meeting, do you honestly think that won’t impact the outcome?

Paying attention to how you show up means that when it comes time to chop that wood or carry that water, you’ll be present and ready by default. And if not—after all, we all have our off days—now you’ll be aware of the difference it makes and ready to tackle whatever is standing in the way.