How To Work
With A Koan
If a koan has grabbed your attention, or you’ve received one from a teacher, let yourself be open to it at first. Maybe you understand it immediately. Good. What else is there for you? How does it enter your life? Maybe you want to take it deeper. Sit with a koan in your meditation and also let it accompany you wherever you go and whatever you do.
Here are some ways to keep company with a koan:
Let the koan come to you. Reaching for it too much can push it away. Have you noticed that when you let a sound–the sound of rain, the sound of a siren, the sound of conversation in the grocery store line–come to you, the world comes alive. In the same way when a koan comes to you it can make the world sparkle and seem more interesting.
Think of the koan as a loyal, friendly pet. Let it curl up on the sofa next to you. Take it for a walk.
Enjoy the connection with the koan. Is your heart open when you meditate with the koan? Is it agitated? Let the koan into your body and keep company with your breathing. Let it get into your toes. You can become one with it, and then you might say that the koan walks about and goes to work and lies down to sleep at night.
If new or unexpected states of mind appear, or even if you are bored, think of these responses as belonging to the world of the koan, not necessarily to you. Notice when you are judging yourself. Notice how that feels. A koan will never judge you, but it can show you how much you judge yourself. It can show what you care about, too.
Notice the images and sensations that the koan brings up for you. If your koan is about a stone at the bottom of the sea, there may be weight, cold, water, depth, light far above you. If your koan is about peach blossoms, what is blossoming for you? Koan practice differs from mindfulness practice in its open embrace of the rich possibilities of our minds. The emphasis is not on cutting out, an austerity regime for your attention, but on opening, simultaneity, creativity.
Take the koan to bed at night. See what happens in your dreams. See if you can be curious about whatever shows up.
Whatever situation confronts you, let the koan interact with it. So if your koan is Peach Blossoms, what’s happening will be Peach Blossoms. If the koan is Original Face, then what’s happening will be Original Face. If you’re stuck in an airplane, there is the koan. If you’re sick in bed, there is the koan. If you’re ranting on Facebook, or someone is ranting at you, there is the koan. With the koan by your side, you might notice that your thoughts don’t close up around a situation so swiftly. The koan might offer an alternative, or a way through.
Be patient with the koan, the way you would be with a friend or a trusted guide, and find out what the koan has to teach. Be patient with yourself, too. You will find your way.