Building a Better Life

Image courtesy of the author

Recently, I fell down a rabbit hole on YouTube that has turned into a hobby. I started watching woodworking videos, and that has led me to a corner of the internet where people make furniture—chairs, tables, benches, and so on—out of construction-grade lumber.

Of course, furniture-making is nothing new. As a profession, it goes back to the dawn of human history when our caveman ancestors chose their favorite rocks to sit on during meals.  

But this is an intimidating hobby to get into. The equipment required to build high-end furniture can cost thousands of dollars. And the hardwoods that high-end furniture requires—oak, maple, mahogany, and so on—are also price-prohibitive. All of this adds up to a big initial investment that may not result in something useful.

However, hobbyists in the 2×4 furniture world overcome those hurdles by keeping things as simple and as cheap as possible. Most projects can be completed with a drill, some screws, and a circular saw. And the furniture is built from cheap softwoods—mostly pine and fir—that are normally used to build decks and frame walls. Then, even if the project goes badly, all that’s lost are a few hours and the price of an expensive meal.

For my first project, I decided to build a desk and a chair to go with it. In my hubris, I thought the work would be as simple as coming up with a design in my head and then screwing the pieces of wood together. And I was partially right.

I ended up with a functional desk that I still use. In fact, my laptop is resting upon it as I write this essay. I’m also sitting on the chair I built. It’s also functional, although neither the chair or the desk are quite up to snuff. The chair squeaks if I lean at just the right angle. And the desk rocks a bit when one of the cats jumps on it.

These problems emerged because I didn’t realize that it’s not enough to simply screw pieces of 2×4 timber together when making furniture. The screws themselves need to be correctly placed in the wood. Also, the pattern that one uses is important. There are an infinite variety of ways to build a chair. But there are relatively few ways to build a chair that doesn’t creak or groan or wobble when you sit on it.

So, I spent an inordinate amount of time poking and prodding my new furniture from different angles, studying how the joints moved and how they could be better supported. I also watched YouTube videos created by men and women who’ve been involved in this hobby for many years.

In short, I took a Buddhist approach to wood working—studying the consequences of my actions and relying on the guidance of good teachers, just as the Buddha instructed us to do 2,600 years ago.

Using this method, my projects grew progressively better until I was able to build a table for my dining room that is both beautiful and rock-solid. After that, I built a bench and a second table for the porch. And while these builds were marked improvements over my first attempts, my increasingly critical eye still found imperfections, such as screws that weren’t perfectly aligned or tiny gaps between the boards.

Thus, in woodworking, as in life, the cycle of study and experimentation is never-ending. We try, we make mistakes, and we try again. And with each cycle of test runs our skills improve, our suffering decreases, and life gets better for everyone.

This is also true of Buddhist training. The goal isn’t to live out the Dharma perfectly in every moment. Rather, we strive to make small improvements and learn from our mistakes, building our lives in the same way we might build a bench out of pieces of 2×4.

This trial-and-error approach does two things. 

First, it takes a weight off of our shoulders. We know that we’re going to make mistakes. We know that things will go wrong. And once we have this understanding, we’re able to take risks without fear because we’ve already made peace with the worst possible outcomes.

Second, it reminds us that there are times in life when “good enough” is all we need. As humans, our desires are endless. Thus, our ability to find problems in life is also endless; we always want things to be a little bit different.

But a trial-and-error approach to life reminds us that we can keep trying to improve our situation while accepting the fact that it will always be a little bit “off.”

That’s why I keep using the chair and desk from my first attempt at woodworking. Yes, the chair creaks, but it still gives me a place to sit.  The desk wiggles, but it still gives me a place to put my tea. And they both remind me that life doesn’t need to be perfect to be good.

Namu Amida Butsu

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Doing What Has to Be Done
Building a Container of Contentment
Beyond Ideas of Wrongdoing and Rightdoing: Incidents on a Building Site
The Wisdom of Grief and Anxiety – Building a Life of Meaning Outside of the Social Media Trap
Acknowledging Mistakes and Moving Forward

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