Everyday life—alarm clock, toothbrush and toaster; transport and time clock and boss; working, hacking, yelling, juggling a life with harried others—everyday life in America.
A thousand years ago, a Chinese Zen master wrote:
carrying water . . .
What has this to do with us? Where is magic today, and action to marvel over? In our magic and marvelous machines? No—say these four editors of New Age ]ournal. The magic is still where it always was, in our own lives and actions, properly considered and properly done.
And so they have produced a book to help contemporary westerners clear a path in the chaotic jungle of our civilization. The title poem suggests one of the keys: simplicity. We are not all in a position to chop wood and carry water, but each of our daily actions—even if embedded in a complex web—can help us see and serve the grand design. The result: from mindfulness, service and meaning.
This is not an extensive philosophical text but rather a compilation of short reflections and tactics for would-be travelers on the path called Tao. There are chapters on the obvious themes: relationships and sex, family, work, money and play, tuning the body and healing. Then, looking outward from self and family, technology, the earth and social action. The authors begin with the beginner (and who is not a beginner?) and speak encouragingly about beginnings and the process of learning. And they return, finally, to where they began—the individual quest, inner resources and, finally, the perils of the path.
This last chapter is a worthwhile reflection on a new chaos which the book itself could represent: the ever-growing “spiritual supermarket” —open twenty-four hours a day for your enlightenment pleasure. We want results, and fast, and there are those who are willing to sell us anything we want. And so “cutting through spiritual materialism” is an apt theme with which to close a wise and—for all its reach—fundamentally modest book. Beware, say the authors, of those who have all the answers.
Beside the main body of the text, Chop Wood Carry Water has two features which make it especially attractive. The wide margins are sprinkled with aphorisms like gorgeous and surprising flowers along the side of the road. Any one of the hundreds of these may be worth the whole price of the book—for who can put a price on gems that glow forever in the memory? Bravo for a remarkable collection! And then, each chapter closes with a short and excellent annotated bibliography of recommended reading, and a list of organizational resources for further involvement.
In sum, Chop Wood Carry Water is a short but rich sifting of the gifts the “New Age” has made available as antidote to the late twentieth century. It speaks to everyone—not just to spiritual devotees—about how everyday lives can become “paths,” transforming self and world into
carrying water . . .