Last week I invoked the Zen parable that says, “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” What I forget to mention is that chopping wood and carrying water is heavy work in any case.
Sometimes, life is weighty and cumbersome and difficult to carry — whether or not we’re “enlightened” about it, whether or not our hearts are full of love, whether or not we’ve got a positive attitude and deep faith. In fact, oftentimes compassion and connection makes it all feel even heavier.
This is not to suggest that we’re better off in ignorance and apathy, not at all. By all means, let’s love fiercely, be mindful and aware, practicing ever-widening circles of care. That’s how we fill our lives with meaning and purpose, and ultimately how we create together the beautiful world we want to live in. I’m just acknowledging that sometimes, often even, this is danged hard.
I’ve shared with you before that I grew up in a family of workaholics where every day was like a competition to see who could drag across the finish line the most exhausted and wrecked. If one of us mentioned fatigue, my mother would marvel, “You think you’re tired?!” She’d then proceed to itemize the unspeakably ambitious to-do list her day had entailed, all that she’d accomplished along with everything that remained to be done. We were forced to concede that she’d won the hard-work, heavy-lifting game, and we’d pin a medal on her for having the most punishing life.
I know I’ve still got some of that in me. The thought of a crossed-off to-do list makes me salivate. I do know that this isn’t always the healthiest way to approach every day. Even if it encourages productivity, I don’t really believe that the point of it all is to work ourselves to death.
So for decades now I’ve been searching for something like “spiritual ease.” I want at last to attain the understanding that can make life seem lighter, breezier, and less demanding of struggle and martyrdom. Or, better yet, what I really want is the secret to having it not just seem lighter but actually making it be lighter. I want to be super-productive and impressively high-achieving, while at the same time feeling heroically effortless and peaceful about it.
I’ve prayed for ease. I’ve meditated with the intention of letting life’s ups and downs flow through me unobstructed like water. I’ve scrutinized every thought and belief, and exercised my creative consciousness to untangle this boundlessly soaring spirit of mine from all mental burden and limitation.
And I’ve discovered that while, indeed, I’m able to recognize and release some habitual ways of being that create extra hardship (because unconsciously I value suffering, or because I fear I haven’t really earned my place on the planet, or whatever). But I’ve also discovered that no matter what I think and believe, life still includes plenty of hard work — physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. We’re still charged to slog through tough times with broken hearts carrying heavy burdens.
Considering this, I’ve gotten some titles and phrases stuck in my head. Frankly, they’re bugging the shit out of me this week: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (And It’s All Small Stuff); All You Need Is Love; He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.
Of course, each of these aphorisms has something true and sweet to offer. Unnecessary worry and stress don’t do anybody any good. However — AND — I find myself arguing with these one by one:
- Don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff? Yeah, well, that small stuff is my freakin’ life. And when I get caught up thinking that the goal is to master it all with a breezy nonchalance, that can lead to more buried pressure, self-denial, and repression. I don’t mean to dismiss Richard Carlson and his book as advocating internalizing stress. Honestly, I never read Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and I’m pretty sure it offers wonderful helpful & healthy stress-management tools. It’s really just the title that pisses me off. Because I do think that a lot of personal-empowerment and positive-spirituality gurus oversimplify life with slogans like this — in a way that minimizes and diminishes real hardship. “Never let ‘em see you sweat,” is shitty counsel for someone who’s sweating. That’s some actual advice that I got in ministerial school. But you know what? This sweat is my ministry, damn it.
- All you need is love? Okay, come on. Yes, Love is a straightforward starting place, and a nice clean finish, too. But in between, it opens up a world of care and heartache and grief and concern and heavy work. Again, I don’t think John Lennon himself meant to minimize life’s challenges. But plenty of people who quote him act like Love is some all-purpose answer to make every problem just float away. Like hell.
- He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother? My relationship with my brother is one of the heaviest in my life. I love him, and that’s precisely what makes it feel like a ton of bricks sometimes. If we expand this to include our sisterhood and brotherhood with the entirety of humanity — it’s downright silly to think that those gazillion pieces of connectedness don’t amount to the weight of the entire world. That’s what we’re carrying: the weight of the world. Of course it’s heavy!
I’m trying to figure out how to make this uplifting and inspiring. What I’m landing on is: maybe the matter isn’t whether or not it’s heavy, whether or not it’s hard, but rather the fact that heavy and hard don’t need to leave us stressed, broken, and defeated.
Let’s not slip back into the elevation of suffering and work for the sake of suffering and work — like my parents or the Puritans. When we can help it, let’s try not make things any harder than they need to be.
But if we are able to acknowledge freely our heavy concerns and responsibilities, then at least we can relieve ourselves of the burden of having to prove how evolved we are by how effortlessly we appear to carry it.
And maybe if we allow that humanity inevitably includes sweat and hardship, and we let ourselves be human, then we can see that we’re really not in it alone. We are sharing in all of this. It’s plenty heavy, but if we lift together, we can do it.
I can’t wait to be with you this Sunday, February 9. I love you guys. XO, Drew
© 2020 Drew Groves