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: 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 should be answered with an analytical (qualified) answer [defining or redefining the terms]. There are questions that should be answered with a counter-question. There are questions that should be put aside.” (Buddha)

The point of uncertainty training is to learn to let go of the unknown, i.e. to learn to put an unanswerable question aside.

[adapted from Present Perfect (Pavel Somov, 2010, New Harbinger Publications)]