The Ancient Zen Proverb Every Parent Must Know

Bryan Collins

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Parenting is a lot of work.

I’ve got three kids, aged 18 months, nine, and fourteen years. I sometimes feel like I’m working at the coalface of homeschooling, cooking meals, managing playdates, and negotiating minor domestic disputes.

Our house is loud and all the more so now that we’re at home a lot more. It sometimes feels hard to avoid losing my patience and just wanting a break.

While reading one Sunday night, after they all went to bed, I came across this ancient zen proverb about the meditative nature of work:

‘Chop wood, carry water.’

Beginners, experts, and everyone in-between face daily mundane tasks that demand attention. So instead of becoming overly-analytical or emotional, focus on the task at hand.

I’m all about trees falling in the woods and wondering what they sound like. So, I tried applying this Zen proverb to parenting. And I discovered three odd lessons.

1. Parenting is Supposed to Feel a Little Like Groundhog Day

I live with my wife and three kids, in a semi-detached house in the suburbs, an hour outside Dublin. I don’t spend much time chopping wood or carrying water, but parenting is work too, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

On a good day, I try to tell myself minding small kids has a kind of meditative quality. That’s usually when they’re in bed, at school or over at their friends’ houses.

On a bad day, I tell myself to take a long deep breath and remember that I’m the supposed adult in the room, even if every day feels like the last, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Take Lego Blocks, for example. Our eighteen-month-old son enjoys stacking dozens of these blocks on top of each other until they stand like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

And then? He picks up his tower and throws it on the ground. Smash!

My wife and I gather the blocks from the kitchen floor and underneath the couch three or four times daily. It could be more. I’ve stopped counting.

We tidy the blocks away. Later on, he’ll take them back out of the toy box, build another tower and topple it over. We could put the Lego box out of reach, but stacking the blocks on top of each other keeps him busy and quiet for a while.

When you have three kids, few moments are sweeter than when they’re quiet, busy, and safely in eyesight. But a man could go mad endlessly standing on, swearing at, picking up and tidying away the same set of Lego blocks day after day.

But not me. I’ve got this mantra, you see: Chop wood, pick up Lego. Chop wood, pick up Lego. It’s either that or lose it.

2. Delayed Gratification Is an Endangered Commodity

We were sitting around the dinner table the other evening. My fourteen-year-old son was nodding his head while listening to a track on his new pair of noise-canceling headphones, freshly delivered by Jeff Bezos and his army of drones.

“You can’t even hear what we’re saying,” I said. “Take off those overpriced ear cans at the dinner table.”

I called my son’s name a few times. I tried waving. I sent up smoke signals. And nothing. So I reached over and pulled the headphones down onto his shoulders.

My son swore a little. So I explained what constitutes good table manners these days. One of the great joys of parenting a teenager is getting into a long long monologue in front of a captive, yet reluctant audience.

“You’re always on my case,” he said when I was done.

He might be right.

“Learning how to eat dinner and talking to the rest of us isn’t something you can order off Amazon Prime,” I said. “What album are you listening to anyway?”

“An album? Who has time to listen to one artist for a whole hour?”

My son like many teenagers that are ‘Generation Z’ can listen to all the music he wants and or watch the latest shows almost immediately using Spotify and Netflix.

I wanted to explain how back in my day I saved for weeks to buy the latest album, got the bus into the city center to buy it, and spent all weekend listening to Definitely Maybe and the two other albums I owned.

Like most teenagers and kids, he has an oddly selective memory. So how could I explain the concept of delayed-gratification to him when it’s something even adults struggle with?

“I’ll WhatsApp you a few albums to listen to.”

“They’re probably terrible.”

“Can you take those headphones down off your…?”

Chop wood, just breathe. Just breathe.

3. Your Work Is Never Really Done

We moved into a new house last year. The inside walls were fresh, shiny, and off-white. Everything glistened. The house looked as if someone had unwrapped the cellophane.

Our old house needed a lot of work like a fresh coat of paint, grouting the bathroom, and fixing the light fittings. I was glad to leave all of that behind. It was finally like I was free from my never-ending to-do list of chores.

We brought the kids with us too. It didn’t take long for a baby toddling around the house in a stroller, to bash into the kitchen and living room wall. The careening stroller took alarming chunks of wood out of the skirting boards.

My daughter’s friends came to visit. They marched up and down the stairs putting their hands and fingerprints all over the off-white walls.

“It’s impossible to keep these walls clean when everyone runs their hands along them,” I said to my wife after they’d left for the night.

“You just hate DIY,” said my wife.

I thought of the cordless screwdriver sitting in the attic next to a box of paints and paintbrushes, all unopened, unused and unloved.

“We’re only in the house a few months,” I said. “And the house already looks old and battered.”

The following Sunday afternoon, I got the paintbrush and touched up the handprints. I filled in a few of the holes in the skirting boards too. I even charged the cordless screwdriver.

Perhaps a house, rather than looking like the cellophane has peeled off, needs to feel lived in, with marks and scuffs that say, “People live here.”

Perhaps it’s, “Chop wood…. take your hands off my walls because I’ve just spent the past two hours painting them!”

Breathe.

It’s one thing to read about Zen on a quiet Sunday evening when the kids are asleep. It’s quite another to put it into practice and complete the same mundane tasks over and over, without complaint.

Perhaps that’s the point.

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Bryan Collins is an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work

Ireland, IN
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