Psychologically speaking, koans are a unique way to inoculate a human mind to the anxiety of uncertainty. When we encounter uncertainty, we are stumped. Uncertainty frustrates us with its enigmatic nonsense. Koans, in their unanswerable quality, effectively simulate such moments of uncertainty.
Author Hee-Jin Kim explains: the koans are “realized, not solved” (1975, 101). Admittedly, this explanation is a bit of a puzzle itself. But here’s how I make sense of it. A koan, once again, is an unanswerable puzzle. If we take it on, we begin banging our dualistic head against the nondual wall of the unknown . At some point, we realize that there is no solution, and we settle into a don’t-know mind.
This realization, of course, comes up pretty early in the koan work. And it serves as the true beginning, not the end of the process. Knowing in advance that you are working with an unanswerable question, you accept your limitations. No longer trying to know the unknowable, you calmly remain with the question in a state of not knowing. Knowingly, you keep chasing the tail of not knowing in a process that, I believe, very much parallels the day-to-day mystery of life.
Thus, the potential therapeutic value of koan work as a kind of one-question-therapy that can help soothe the perfectionistic thirst for answers.
Here are a few of the koans [from the Present Perfect book] that I developed to challenge perfectionistic thinking for my clients and my readers:
What color is approval?
What is your mind full of when you are a success?
What is your mind full of when you are a failure?
How much would you pay for a pound of certainty?
How do you add to what already is?
How perfect are you when you sleep?
When you think “I am not good enough,” who thinks that? (and when you think “I think that,” who thinks that?)
Here’s some Buddhist guidance on answering questions of this kind:
“There are […] four ways of answering questions. Which four? There are questions that should be answered categorically [straightforwardly yes, no, this, that]. There are questions that …
Before too long, historically speaking, there might be more phone trees than actual trees. Modern-day life (particularly of the urban kind) is a virtual jungle, a series of pseudo-encounters with pseudo-reality – conversations in parallel with texting, etc. If this is the space that we have “evolved” to inhabit it stands to reason that we might need to learn to hug a phone tree – with love, with patience, with acceptance. Press 1 for Oneness.
Fear neither abandonment nor abandon.
Both states teach you about you:
In abandonment, you learn to love your own company – that’s a lesson of solitude.
In abandon, you learn to leave behind your conditioned mind – that’s a lesson of ecstasy.
There is an article on CNN on the high rates of suicide among lawyers (trailing fourth after dentists, pharmacists and physicians).
Over the years I have seen a number of lawyers in my practice – typically, very very bright, perfectionistic, dysthymic (“walking cases of depression”), with a touch of OCPD, and a bit of anger. I don’t claim to be intimately familiar with this profession but I have long felt that life of a lawyer, particularly, a trial lawyer, is one of the most existentially charged vocational paths.
So, as I read about the high rate of suicides among lawyers, it all makes very good and very sad sense to me:
Competitive Perfectionism + Ethical Dilemmas = Existential Crisis
On a broader note, it occurs to me that bright minds have a particularly dark way of suffering…
You are not a thing, you are a process.
You are not a fixed entity, you are change itself.
You both are and aren’t.
Interpreting poetry is a dirty business. Understanding why it affected you is not so bad. Here’s another verse that woke me up the other day.
Korean Zen preceptor Naong (1320-1376):
With the true emptiness of nonaction,
I nap on a stone pillow among rocks.
Do you ask me what is my power?
A single tattered robe through life.
What is about these four lines? What did I see in this? A couple of thoughts:
1. We are restless creatures. We keep optimizing. We keep trying to get comfortable. But here, a fellow mind naps on a stone pillow among rocks. How is this possible? How can you be comfortable amidst such discomfort? By realizing that “with the true emptiness of nonaction” discomfort passes on its own. By realizing that there is neither the sleeper nor the stone pillow to sleep on. By realizing that all solidity is a dream.
2. We seek power. We aggrandize ourselves. We accrue. But here’s a fellow mind pursuing a different path, living a life in which “a single tattered robe” is enough. There is a different kind of power in this: a power of letting go, a power of non-attachment.
ref: Anthology of Korean Literature, by Peter H. Lee
November 6th, 2012: the day we vote on economy… the year of apocalyptic partisanship… the year of promises of new economy…
I usually don’t mess with economics. The last time I spoke on the topic was when I re-phrased the all-too-familiar “It’s economy, stupid!” meme into “It’s psychology, stupid!” in my 2009 Huffington Post blog.
My question is this:
What kind of economy are we trying to build?
The kind of economy where everyone who wants to work can work?
Or the kind of economy that works by itself without the need to work?
Or the kind of economy where work doesn’t feel like work?
These are all very different questions and the answers to these questions range from industrial age pragmatism to utopian fantasies.
But I am looking for something in the middle, for an economy of the Middle Way for the middle class…
Is there such a beast?
Turns out there is and it’s called Buddhist Economics as described (in the 1970s) by E. F. Schumacher in “Small is Beautiful” (a must read!).
A couple of excerpts and a few points.
“There is universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labor. Now, the modern economists have been brought up to consider “labor” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, [labor] is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum… say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, [labor/work] is a “disutility;” to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.”
Exactly: that’s what I, as an immigrant to this country, have witnessed over the past 20 years – employers try to get rid of employees and the working public keeps dreaming the American dream of early retirement.
I am a big fan of the television show …
The West is in a constant war with reality: perpetually dissatisfied with what is, we are desperately trying to perfect it. This one and only reality seems never enough and we feel ever entitled to more: bigger houses, bigger (hybrid) cars, bigger (Anime-sized) eyes, bigger market shares, bigger tax deductions, bigger incomes, bigger bonuses, bigger breasts, bigger penises, bigger egos, and bigger wars. We have been culturally programmed to endlessly optimize and supersize, and to constantly perfect ourselves and everyone else around us.
Our appetite for more has been kindled to the level of insatiability. No wonder we feel psychologically starved and existentially empty.
We have been taught to chase the unattainable: to be more than what we are at any given point in time. We are a culture of idealistically naive strivers unable to be content with what is if only for a moment. This absurdly unrealistic goal (to be more than what we are at any given point in time) comes with the high cost of psychological dependence. Feeling chronically imperfect, we sell out for reassurance, validation and approval. Feeling chronically incomplete, we compete in consumption and stuff ourselves beyond measure.
This chronic deficit of self-acceptance becomes a matter of national deficit and undermines the socio-political independence of our society. Long-term sovereignty of a nation rests with psychological independence of its constituents. A nation of psychologically insecure denizens is at war with itself, and is, thus, divided.
There is a bumble bee in my basement, “attacking” the fluorescent lighting tubes. He (she?) doesn’t understand that this light is not day-light. He (she?) doesn’t understand that he (she?) is in my basement and not outside. The bumble bee bangs and bangs against the light, needing something from it, perhaps, the navigation guidance of the sunlight, I don’t know.
What I do know is that the bee cannot and will not understand the nature of this mystery. He (she?) is mesmerized, befuddled, exasperated. I’ve seen flies do the same, when trapped inside, they bang against the transparent – and, therefore, theoretically, open “space” of the window pane. “Why can’t I fly through?” must think the fly. “Why isn’t this dumb light working as the sunlight should?” must wonder the bee.
I open the basement door, it’s dark outside, I turn on the outside light and wait – in hope – for the bee to fly out, thinking that I fooled it. It keeps bomb-diving at the fluorescent tubes in the basement, seemingly unaware of the escape option. I turn off the basement light, just leaving the outside light on. The contrast works: the bee instantly flies out, following its instinct for the light.
Problem solved, but not the mystery.
“Yam gruel is a gruel made by boiling slices of yam in a soup of sweet arrow-root. […] It was regarded as the supreme delicacy. […] Accordingly, such lower officials as Goi could taste it only once a year when they were invited as […] guests to the Regent’s Palace. […] On such occasion they could eat no more of it than barely enough to moisten their lips. So it had been [Goi’s] long-cherished desire to satiate himself with yam gruel. Of course, he himself did not confide his desire to anyone. He himself might not have been clearly aware that it had been his life-long wish. But as a matter of fact, it would hardly be too much to say that he lived for this purpose. A man sometimes devotes his life to a desire which he is not sure will ever be fulfilled. Those who laugh at this folly are, after all, no more than mere spectators of life.”
I have but one question for you today, but I’ll state it thrice:
Are you aware of what drives you and why?
What yam gruel are you still chasing?
Have you had a taste of life yet?
Note to Mere Spectators of Life: if you happen to have the wisdom of merely noticing “what is,” without chasing it, I salute your equanimity!
Reference: Rashomon & Other Stories, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa