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:
Mindful eating moment # 804: “Standing on a city park bench, eating mulberries. A summer treat.”
Mindful Eating Tracker
When we love, we love the fact that we love.
We love to love.
Love is auto-telic* (self-reinforcing).
When we hate, we hate the fact that we hate.
We hate to hate.
Hate is auto-exaleiphic** (self-limiting).
Notice this distinction in yourself.***
* Auto-Telic/autotelic: auto is Greek for “self” and “telos” is Greek for “goal” = self-reinforcing, self-driven, a goal in and of itself
** Auto-Exaleiphic/autoexaleiphic: auto is Greek for “self” and “exaleipho” is Greek for “wipe out, obliterate” = self-limiting (a term that the author of this blogpost coined for the purpose of this blogpost only).
***A caveat: initially we might not mind that we hate, we might hate righteously, with or without awareness, this is a period/phase of anger, when hate is really just fear; but eventually as the limbic/affective side of hate/fear fades away, hate becomes a kind of cognitive residue. Hate turns on itself. In sum, inevitably, hate spoils itself.
Dennis Skley via Compfight
The solution to bad self-esteem is not good self-esteem.
The solution to bad self-esteem is unconditional self-acceptance.
All esteem (good or bad) is a form of situation-specific self-estimation, that is, a form of conditional self-judgment, and, as such, is psychologically self-limiting.
Self-acceptance, on the other hand, is a platform of unconditional wellbeing.
[I have proposed this idea in my 2010 book Present Perfect (Somov, New Harbinger Publications) in Chapter 9 "From Self-Esteem to Self-Acceptance." In my clinical experience, this particular shift (from self-esteem to self-acceptance) has proven to be one of the most powerful ways of breaking through the perfectionistic impasse.]