There is a Zen saying, “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”
What this means to me is that gaining insight is not necessarily going to turn your life upside down. You are going to do a lot of the same things. But what it means to do them will be different.
AND: if you don’t keep doing those mundane things, you are probably going to lose your insight.
But I find it interesting to look at the two activities that were chosen to exemplify the mundane path to Enlightenment in this proverb: carrying water and chopping wood. There are many other activities that could have been chosen, washing dishes, folding clothes, etc. But in fact, we are instructed to carry water and chop wood to get Enlightenment.
Both of these activities are strenuous, and both require engagement of the abdomen to accomplish them. In a previous post on the band Blink-182, I called attention to certain gestures which illustrated the relationship between the abdominal core and the rest of the body:
You can see how these gestures have the same shape as chopping wood. They both involve a sharp contraction in the abdomen, followed by a lengthening and release in the rest of the body. The power generated in the core is allowed to travel up or down the spine and out the extremities.
Something analagous actually happens when you carry water, which is really just walking with a lot of weight bearing down on the collar bone, spine, and legs. In walking, as I noted in another previous post:
but you’re always falling.
With each step you fall forward slightly.
And then catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you’re falling.
And then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling
at the same time. –Laurie Anderson
Each step is launched with the power of the leg and pelvis, and the other leg and torso are allowed to “fall” forward.
So when we carry water and chop wood, we are being asked to invest physically in what we are doing at the core level. We experience the alternation of the contraction that occurs to generate the power, and the expansion that allows that power to be appropriately channeled or directed outward. The hope is that through repetition of these things, we will acquire the habit of bringing our whole selves to whatever we do, and thereby gain enlightenment.
Actors need to always be aware of their cores. This awareness is what makes us compelling. And not only do we need core awareness, but we need the whole body to stay alert to the core. When I was learning this stuff, I became aware at one point that when I would direct my attention to my core, I would unconsciously tighten up my throat. Presumably I felt the need to protect myself. But as a result of that tension, the “flow” was being blocked and so the power that lives in the core was not being allowed to travel up into my skull and animate my face.
Acting from the core is not easy. It’s why we place such a premium on naming a single visceral need that an actor can pursue in a scene. That can go a long way toward getting the core activated, but it’s no guarantee, and there are constantly blockages like the one in my throat that can arise. In particular, I see a lot of actors who work from the solar plexus area, which is more superficial and much more connected to the head, to volition and the will than the core, which is the seat of primal hungers and instinctual action. An actor whose awareness rests in the solar plexus (unfortunately, this is very common) is effectively walling off the core and skating along the surface. The habitual action of carrying water and chopping wood tends to strengthen the core, and with that strength comes greater core awareness. The hope is presumably that by living from the core, which carrying water and chopping wood pretty much require, will change the habitual seat of awareness.
There are ways to exercise the core without actually carrying water and chopping wood, as I have enumerated here.
But I think the proverb points out another important truth for actors: the need for continuous practice. Acting is a neuromuscular activity at bottom. The mind has a role to play, but the muscles and reflexes involved need to stay active and alert. So, effectively, an actor who has stopped training has stopped acting. You don’t learn to act and then no longer need to practice. In the words of acting teach John Gronbeck-Tedesco: “Athletes, dancers, and singers never outgrow their need for the basic conditioning that makes their crafts possible. Neither do actors.” Even after you get enlightenment, you still need to carry water and chop wood.
Actors whose awareness is firmly grounded in their core can actually “throw away the ladder” of action/objective apparatus, because all of that understanding now lives in their bodies. But reaching that peak is no mean feat. A lot of water will have been carried and wood chopped for that to come about.
So get going!