There are certain questions that have no answers. Yet these questions are vital and alive. They grab and plague us daily. We meet a new person and the question pops up. We make a life-changing decision and the question shouts out. We take a step into the unknown and the question stops us cold. These questions may be called koans. The answers cannot be figured out. They are designed to push us beyond logic into a new way of living.
Usually, we think of koans as coming from the world of Zen. But koans can arise anywhere, especially from our very own lives. These koans come to remind us that life is fundamentally unknowable, truly impossible to figure out.
Life itself, of course, throws koans at us constantly. The sudden loss of someone we’ve loved stops the thinking mind. The experience leaves us stunned, hollow or shaken in the face of the great unknown. It cannot be grasped rationally. Why is this happening? we ask. What will happen next? Questions like these are deep koans.
And, of course, these questions demand to be answered. Until we respond they haunt us, affecting the quality of each moment. Whether we know it or not, much of our time is unconsciously spent seeking answers. Sometimes we even feel we’ve found it! We’re thrilled, elated, victorious. Until the answer turns into another question.
Koans alter our perspective, take us out of the prison of a fixed point of view. Attention, ideas and behaviors become frozen. Whatever is frozen is no longer alive. Koans allow frozen positions to melt and return to the flowing water of life.
Move the Mountain Without Using Your Hands
There are all kinds of mountains that appear in our lives, all kinds of situations that seem larger than we are. They feel immovable, seem to hem us in. Mountains of debt, sorrow, confusion arise, or other problems we cannot solve. Our immediate response is to try to adjust circumstances, to move things around. We want to fix this or that, to diminish the mountain. We use our hands or cunning intellect and start to maneuver. However, a strange thing happens. The more we maneuver, the more stuck we become. The more we try to alter circumstances according to our usual understanding, the more entangled they inevitably grow. This is due to the fact that functioning in our usual way, we see only part of the mountain. We don’t realize what’s just behind it, waiting for us.
When we approach the mountain as our koan though, we soon see that the mountain is much different than we imagined. Rather than analyze it and tear it apart, we make its acquaintance, become friends with the mountain. Soon we know it in a different way. Not only do we become one with the mountain, but with all of our life circumstances. As we do so, the confusion and blindness melts away and ease of mind and wisdom arrive all by themselves.
Don’t Fight the Mountain
There are many steps to work with our problems as koans. To begin, we don’t fight the mountain. Instead, we deeply experience the situation, stop interfering with it, give it room to breathe. We make space for it to reveal itself, to live. If our mountain is illness, the more we try to fight and change it, the more stressed we become. Our natural healing energies remain locked up, unable to flow. If our mountain is a terrible relationship, and we run from it prematurely, we’ll simply repeat the same relationship again.
Now it is time to stop and listen to what your problem or your mountain has to tell you. As you do this, you are not telling the mountain what to do; instead, you are letting it tell you. Then, to your amazement, the mountain will change all by itself. Or you may even see that no change is necessary at all.
We seldom face our problems as koans. Instead, we dream up all kinds of answers, search for solutions in teachers and books. We grab at secondhand explanations and cling to them desperately. But these answers belong to someone else, they’re not yet our own. We haven’t personally taken the questions into our life, engaged with them deeply. We haven’t yet allowed our problems to make us strong. From the Zen point of view, that’s a missed opportunity. Reaching for secondhand answers is a way of avoiding our life and our truth.
Naturally, when a Zen teacher, or when life itself gives us a koan, at first we resort to our usual way of operating. We continue to try to figure out the answer, create strategies, twist ourselves into knots. But as we do this, the koan will not yield. And, when we bring a contrived answer to a Zen teacher, they’ll reject us, again and again. Secondhand answers will not do.
“Keep going,” the teacher will insist. “Don’t delay. Your very life depends on it.”
Rejection Itself Is Another Kind of Koan
This rejection, of course, is itself another kind of koan. Rejection is something most of us will do anything to avoid. But what’s wrong with rejection? When we make the rejection into our koan, we will greet it differently and finally, laugh at it. Before the truth is revealed, many fantasies and false ways of being must be rejected and let go.
Your Life Depends on It
Of course the comment that our life depends on solving our koan doesn’t make sense either. But perhaps our curiosity is piqued. Some might ask why their lives depend on it? Naturally, the teacher will only smile. He/she certainly isn’t about to answer your question. A teacher is here to help you discover your own answers and show you how strange the demands you make on life are.
Rather than relying on a teacher, Zen suggests that you plunge into your koan and your life fully. Taste and express the truth for yourself. Otherwise, you will only be living an imitation life, following along. That kind of life can never be satisfying either, in the long run. So, Koan practice is active, vital, and shakes you from complacency, helping you appreciate your precious days.
When we receive our lives as a koan, nothing becomes a problem, it is simply an experience to receive, a journey or adventure to go on. Rather than get caught and battle with the endless dramas life spins, we enjoy whatever is given to us and issues resolve themselves.
Brenda Shoshanna, PhD is a psychologist, long term Zen practitioner, writer and speaker. She has presented many talks and workshops on integrating Zen with our everyday lives. Her weekly podcast is Zen Wisdom For Your Everyday Life. Brenda offers a lively, interactive online workshop Making Your Life Into A Zen Koan on Zoom. For more info: https://www.zenplay.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org . Other websites: www.brendashoshanna.com, www.zenwisdomtoday.com