Before enlightment: chop wood, carry water
After enlightment: chop wood, carry water
A common misconception is that an enlightened person simply drops out of everyday life and has no more need to engage in daily life activities, such as eating, maintaining household chores, or working. It seems that there is an inherent conflict between spiritual life and worldly existence, but this may not be the case. In Be As You Are: the Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, a seeker inquires about engagement in worldly life where they inquire, “Is it possible to enjoy Samadhi while busy in worldly work?” Maharshi replies:
The feeling ‘I work’ is a hindrance. Ask yourself ‘Who works?’ Remember who you are. Then the work will not bind you, it will go on automatically. Make no effort either to work or to renounce; it is your effort which is the bondage. What is destined to happen will happen. If you are destined not to work, work cannot be had even if you hunt for it. If you are destined to work, you will not be able to avoid it and you will be forced to engage yourself in it. So, leave it to the higher power; you cannot renounce or retain as you choose.
So what is work and service then? As Maharshi reminds us, all is the Self, therefore, all is a modification of God, and the perceived separation from worldly life and a spiritual one is imaginary. If engaged in worldly life tasks, such as a part-time job, service to the Self may still be engaged here though it may not be apparent to the untrained seeker. The duty to work and make a living to sustain the body-mind may be there simply as a lesson of discipline for the ego, thus acting as a necessary tool for learning in order to eventually become free from this condition. However, I am not stating that all activity is God-like, because anything that is done for purely selfish (egoic) motivations isn’t God. The ego, paradoxically, is God and at the same time it isn’t; as it is there to teach us exactly what isn’t God through pain and suffering so that one can eventually become free from it.
So, going back to our proverbial enlightened person who continues chopping wood and carrying water: what is the deeper meaning here? Why would one carry on in engaging in menial life activities after understanding something as profound as God? What would be the point after the fear of death is gone in continuing to engage in activities that serve to maintain the body-mind? Actually dis-engaging from these worldly activities would again be falsely perceiving one as a separate self, because as Maharshi puts it, not attending to work still means identifying with ego. He explains that, “Attending to the Self means attending to work. Because you identify with the body you think that the work is done by you. But the body and its activities, including that work, are not apart from the Self.” So neglecting work would be neglecting a part of oneself through the action of falsely identifying work as separate from the higher Self. The key is to engage in work without preferences and without selfish motivations, not to avoid such activities an individual may dislike altogether, for our higher Self has no likes or dislikes.
So the difference now with our proverbial enlightened person is that while they may still engage in life activities, they are now happy doing this work, accepting it as God’s will and therefore work as well. Without personal motivations and desires, work becomes duty and service to the Self.
Maharshi, Sri Ramana. Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, edited by D. Godman. London, England: Penguin Arkana, 1985.