A koan is a word, phrase or story used in Zen practice to bring about an awakening. Contemplating the question or phrase, given to you by your teacher, leads you beyond the dualistic mind to a sense of completeness.
On the 8-week ‘Mindfulness for Insight’ course, we introduce you to koan practice, by encouraging you to sit in meditation asking the question “Who am I?” You simply sit, being aware of the breath and each time you breath out, silently asking the question to yourself.
You are not trying to find a logical solution to the question, but to just fully be with the question, until you move beyond a feeling of separation to a place that is one, complete and free.
My teacher Julian Daizan Skinner writes in his book ‘Practical Zen, Meditation and Beyond‘:
“A question or koan of this type is not a riddle or intellection conundrum; it is a tool to bring forth your non-dualistic understanding, the place where you find a happiness that is not reliant on any external circumstances.”
“We resolve a koan by becoming one with a koan. The world of separation, of duality, is thus transcended and we find this other realm, the delightful place that is not split or alienated.”
Another koan question we use in Zen is “What is this?”, with this question we can just explore, notice and be curious, we don’t have to worry about finding the answers, but just see what comes up. Be playful, enjoy the question, bring it into your day, in any activity and see where it takes you.
Tricycle explains more about this koan, it suggests we should develop a sense of openness, of wonderment, when exploring the question.
“You are giving yourself over entirely to the question. It’s like diving into a pool: the whole body is engaged in the act, and the whole body and mind are refreshed.”
“By repeatedly questioning with the energy and interest of someone who has just discovered she has lost something, you evoke a brightness in your whole being.”