How to Chop Wood and Carry Water Like a Zen Master

It’s not easy being mindful with simple daily tasks, but if we do it more, the benefits are worth the effort

Jim Farina


chop wood, fetch water by Cornelia Kopp

I got home late from work last night. It was about 8:45, and a favorite dinner was waiting for me. My family ordered from a Mexican place we like and had the food delivered.

My plate of carne asada (flank steak) with a modest side of rice and beans was sitting on the counter, ready to attack. And that’s exactly what I did to that steak — I attacked that piece of meat like a wild dog.

I was hungry, and the steak was juicy and delicious, slathered with fresh salsa and a generous squeeze of lime juice. I was more than halfway through masticating that fantastic piece of flesh when it occurred to me that I was barely enjoying the experience. I took a mindful pause.

I consciously tried to eat slowly, savor each mouthful and enjoy the moment for what it was. I was successful for a time, and then I realized I was reverting to that crazed dog-like behavior again. I had to take another pause.

It’s much like my walking pace. I’m a fast walker by default, and now and again, I think I need to slow down and take in the surroundings more — enjoy a leisurely stroll. Before I realize it, I’m back to my brisk pace again. Why is it so difficult for some of us to slow our pace and relish in the moment?

An old zen teaching says: Before enlightenment — chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment — chop wood, carry water.

No matter how wise we become, humans are never free of day-to-day chores and tasks. We can learn to embrace them. We can take the ordinary and turn it into something that fulfills us. We can even transform the mundane and delight in it.

Samin Nosrat is a brilliant chef and author of the James Beard Award-winning New York Times Bestselling cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat. She is also the host of a Netflix docuseries. Samin enjoys all aspects of cooking, not just the show-stopping, glamorous ones.

Samin demonstrates to us home cooks how we can and should appreciate even the most basic activities in our kitchen. Mundane tasks like peeling garlic, tending to a pot of…