The Taoist tale of the Woodcarver is a beautiful metaphor for the work of mindfulness in action. Even reading the tale creates a quality of spaciousness that is often missing in our fast paced lives. I invite you to take the time to read and contemplate what the poem evokes for you.

The Woodcarver

A Taoist Tale by Chuang Tzu

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.

After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
and begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work

Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

Below are four ways for you to practice mindfulness at work in order to experience flow and effortless creativity in all you do.

I. Creating space…

“I guarded my spirit, did not expend it on trifles that were not to the point.” The work of mindfulness is about fiercely guarding our mind and hearts to create the space for us to reflect and grow as humans. The fast paced lives and endless lists can leave us doing and focusing on external goals and others with no time for being. The Woodcarver is reminding us to stop and create space to do the inner work before we embark on the new project, or even the next important conversation or connection.

Even if you only stop for a couple of minutes before embarking on that next important task, pause and reflect – is your mind, body and heart open and spacious? You can use your breath as a guide to navigate your inner space and let go of what is not needed. Soften all that is rigid within you.    

II. A diet that nourishes the mind, body and heart…

“I fasted in order to set my heart at rest.”

The Woodcarver prepares to do the inner work by fasting. Fasting in our context may not mean abstaining from eating, albeit there are known benefits to doing that. I see fasting more as bringing attention to what we are feeding ourselves to create the sacred space from which the work will emerge. What we feed ourselves includes everything we absorb using our five senses – sight, sounds, smells, taste, and touch.

Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us to “ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society.” His diet for a mindful society not only includes foods that are energizing and nurturing to the mind and body but also encourages us to only take in conversations, media, books and magazines that are wholesome. We are what we consume.

You can take a moment to close your eyes to check in what is the quality of your mind, body and heart. Do you feel energized or dull, rested or tired, calm or restless? What do you need to nurture your mind, body and heart today?

III. Letting go…

By this time all thought of your Highness and of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work had vanished
Doing the work to create spaciousness and feeding a wholesome diet leaves the mind, body and heart ready and able to take on the work without any distractions and desires of reaching any goal. The subtlest of desires to impress or reach a certain outcome can take us away from being fully present and showing up fully in this moment. The Woodcarver reminds us to let go of all that is holding us back from acting from a place of presence and integrity. In order to allow the work to flow through us in all its beauty and magnificence, we have to get out of our own way.

Before embarking on any task, take a moment to notice where are you coming from. What is the motivation to take on the task? Can you see and then let go of any extrinsic motivators and allow for an alignment of yourself with your highest potential to be of greatest service to all involved.

IV. Allowing for emergence…

“My own collected thought encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work.”

Once your mind, body and heart are spacious, your attention is stabilized and you are in alignment with the creative potential that wants to move through you, you will find that the work flows effortlessly. Whether it is meeting the right person or opportunity, writing a book or your next invention, when you work with mindfulness, you are fully awake and engaged. From this live encounter with life as it unfolds, work flows effortlessly.

Creating space before any task clears the way for your best work to emerge.

How do you create space and nourish you mind, body and heart?

To be part of growing community in Western Mass committed to creating space for practicing mindfulness and exploring topics related to mindfulness in action, check out our bi-monthly meetings at Downtown Mindfulness.