Monday, November 23, 2009

Real Life Tao - Against the Grain

I'm sure almost everyone is familiar with the saying "going against the grain." Its meaning is derived from the idea that planing a piece of wood against its grain leaves a ragged finish and is far more labor-intensive that planing with the grain. When used these days, it fits in nicely with Taoist thought because it is commonly utilized to indicate that someone is going against their own nature.

I think I can best illustrate this concept by showing how it manifests itself in the splitting of wood.

This year my wife and I were able to purchase a cord of seasoned firewood for our fireplace. The wood is from timber blown down during our December 2007 hurricane-like storm. It's composed of western hemlock, douglas fir, silver fir and alder. Most of the logs have been split once, but since we have a smaller than average fireplace, this necessitates the need to further split the vast majority of pieces in the cord.

While many people split wood using an axe, I have chosen to do so with a maul (a sledgehammer with a wedged cutting edge). In my experience, a maul is far more effective than an axe because the latter tends to get stuck in the wood far more often.

I split the wood in our basement. This keeps my sometimes fragile body out of the elements, but it also means I can't raise the maul over my head, lest I hit the ceiling! The technique for splitting the most wood with the least amount of energy is to split it along the grain. When I am successful in determining the direction of the grain, a half-swing tends to cause the wood to fly apart.

Sometimes, however, I'll take a whack and barely a dent is made in the top of the wood. I usually give it a second whack and, if I meet with a similar result, I reposition the wood so that I will strike it at a different entry point. In most cases, this repositioning is all that is needed and the piece flies apart.

The point here is that, when I strike the wood against its grain, it offers much resistance and it takes far more effort to get the job done. However, when I strike the wood WITH the grain, it splits easily.

There have been times -- back when I was a young and ignorant lad -- when I would struggle with a large log for several minutes because I knew nothing about the grain of wood. I'd hack and whack and hack, yet I seemed to make little progress. If only I had known then what I know now, I would have saved myself a lot of energy...and aggravation.

Whether we're speaking of splitting wood or any other human endeavor, the lesson is the same. When we ignorantly go against or own internal nature or the flow of any given situation, we immediately encounter resistance which makes the activity more stressful and difficult. We expend a lot of energy for results we aren't satisfied with.

This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.


  1. I used to love splitting wood. It's a lot like swordplay.

  2. I totally get what you're saying here. But, for me, "going against the grain" has a positive connotation for me.... Going against the grain means not taking the path that everyone else is taking just because everyone else is taking it. Sometimes this is the more difficult external path, but it definitely is an easier internal path....
    Know what I mean?

  3. Baroness,
    I too love to split wood...but my body doesn't like it half as well. I can't do it every day and it's imperative that I limit the amount of time for each day I do it. Too many days in a row and my fibro gives me utter fits -- like right now!

    Yes, the phrase (like many phrases) has more than one meaning. I've spent my life going against the grain of society.


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