A Good Woodcutter Needs a Sharp Axe

Imagine you’re walking through a forest and happen upon a lumberjack – a woodcutter. You catch him sitting on an old stump with his axe in his lap, calmly and steadily stroking the cutting edge of his axe with another piece of steel. You watch him do this for the next twenty or thirty minutes. And wonder what in the world is he doing? A lumberjack’s job is cutting trees. It’s what he gets paid for. The more trees he cuts, the greater his reward. But there he is, apparently wasting time, because no trees are being cut while he sits there.

Of course, most of us know what he’s really doing. He’s spending a bit of time sharpening his axe. And, with a sharp axe, he’ll be able to cut more trees with less effort for the remainder of the day. In other words, he’s making a small investment of his time, that will pay big dividends later.

This, of course, is a powerful metaphor for how we go through life and how Mindfulness fits into that picture. Consider the trees in the story to represent the challenges that confront us as we go through our lives – the setbacks, the responsibilities, the mistakes, the losses, and so on. Imagine our path through life like walking through a forest.  And often, the forest of our lives appears enveloped by a thick fog – at times we can’t see too far into the future. Branches and saplings and at times, big trees suddenly appear out of the thick mist to get in our way, or to block our progress altogether. Just like, at times, big, bad things happen to us that we hadn’t planned on or anticipated. And we have to deal with them – like the woodcutter who has to cut through the forest to make progress.

If you’re a woodcutter, you know that having a very sharp axe can be a very helpful tool in allowing you to continue on your journey. If the axe is dull, you can, at times, flail away for a long time. Even small saplings can prove quite difficult. It takes a lot of time, a lot of energy, it can wear you out. And what about the bigger trees? There, no matter how hard or long you swing away, they’re just too much to handle, and stop you dead in your tracks.

As we go through life, we encounter many obstacles – from little inconveniences, to bigger disappointments, calamities, even disasters. They happen on a daily basis. No matter how hard we try, the world often does not cooperate with our agenda. And while we may be able to side step some of them, many we cannot. We have to deal with them.

What tools do we have to deal with the obstacles in our life? What does our ‘axe’ look like? Our ‘axe’ consists of two  fundamental skills – awareness and equanimity. These are the two fundamental life skills that we have with which to deal with all experiences. Awareness (focus, concentration, perception, etc.) is the ability to accurately assess the situation. To see things as they truly are – undistorted by our fear or desire. If you can’t perceive the problem or situation accurately, you are not likely to attend to it in a good way.

Equanimity is the second skill. It is the ability to remain calm – to be OK with the way things are. It is the ability to release tension from you body – to let go of stress. If you are stressed out, that stress will distort your perception of the situation. As one Mindfulness teacher says, “If you can’t sit like a mountain, and breathe like a flower, you can’t change the situation.” The practice of Mindfulness is the training of these two fundamental life skills. The practice of Mindfulness is like the woodcutter taking time to sharpen his axe. As awareness and equanimity grow, your ability to deal with life’s challenges gets better and better. The results are greater happiness, less stress, improved health, enhanced productivity and creativity, and peace.