Koans are stories and questions that are commonly used in the Zen tradition in order to trigger a particular insight into the nature of the mind. They are paradoxical and are not meant to be understood by rational thinking. A well-known example is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”.
The question is not whether or not there is a solution to the koan. Like we said, the koan is just a tool. Once it has done its job, there will not remain a problem to be solved or a question to be answered.
There are books that talk about solutions to koans. The goal of this post is more to try to convince the reader to actually try sitting with koans and stop thinking that they are impossible to get. When approached with an open mind, patience and good practice, koans can be extremely helpful for seeing into the nature of our minds. Although we have to admit that this practice may not be for absolute beginners.
To solve a koan, first of all a state of high equanimity is very useful. Depending on the person’s level of practice, this can be achieved in a few days of silent retreat. Then one is to sit with the koan, meaning that he or she will repeat the koan a few times and then just be quiet and sit with whatever experience comes from it. Whether it is confusion, frustration or nothing in particular. Have an open mind, let go of expectations, and be okay with not being able to solve it. The worst case is you have meditated and you might have other insights even though not the particular one you were looking for.
Trust that the koan is solvable, set an intention in your mind to solve it, and be curious, kind and receptive in your approach. One thing we can say for sure is you will not conquer it. The insight in the koan will arise by itself when the right conditions are there, some of which you can make available by following the guidelines above.
There is no time-line or recipe on how to make it work. You will know when you have got it. Maybe you will go “ha”, maybe you will smile, or maybe you’ll just start laughing.
Want to try? Try working with the last two lines of this poem:
Empty-handed I go and yet the spade is in my hands;
I walk on foot, and yet on the back of an ox I am riding:
When I pass over the bridge,
Lo, the water floweth not, but the bridge doth flow.
In the previous post we talked about combining mindfulness with simple activities that we enjoy to help improve our mood when we are particularly distressed.
Now we will go deeper into this technique and learn how to start with a small pleasure and make it grow by noticing the body sensations associated with it. The idea is based on the fact that our emotions are rooted in body sensations. By being mindful of your body sensations you can tap into the source of the emotion.
The emotion we will mainly work with is joy. Joy is felt generally in the front of the body and in the chest area and it is has qualities of spaciousness, expansiveness, glowing, bubbling and being giggly inside (Hendricks & Hendricks,1993).
Noticing these sensations trigger the generation of pleasant feelings, which in turn trigger more body sensations and so on creating a positive feedback loop. It is a powerful technique and can be very useful in disorders such as depression where one might feel joyless.
Start by doing something that you enjoy. It can be something as small as having a cup of tea or going into the sunshine. If you are particularly distressed, make a formal resolution such as “There is a lot on my mind right now but I’m going to enjoy this!”
Suppose you decided to have a cup of tea. Pay attention to the smell, taste, and the warmth of the tea. Notice them and simply allow yourself to enjoy them. As you do it keep your attention on your emotional state and look for any pleasant feelings. Once you notice even the smallest bit of pleasure or enjoyment, direct your attention to your body.
What’s happening? Try to find the pleasantness in your body. Where is it located? What does it feel like? Once you notice these pleasant sensations, stay with them, give them space and importantly allow yourself to enjoy them. This will trigger more pleasant feelings, which in turn trigger more body sensations and so on.
An important point is to keep paying attention to both your emotional state and body sensations as you apply this technique. Also keep the negative emotions in check that might arise. Notice them and make the decision to redirect your attention to the pleasant ones.
As well as improving your mood in the short term, this technique has the long term benefit of improving your overall ability to feel pleasure and joy by training your nervous system.
Finally, a similar approach can be extended to other emotions since they are all rooted in body sensations and it is no less than hacking into your mind-body.
G. Hendricks, Ph.D. & K. Hendricks Ph.D., Centering And The Art Of Intimacy Handbook, Fireside, NY, 1993.
If you started meditation to just relax, calm down and observe the nature of your mind those are perfect reasons to meditate. You are in the right place. Many people also start meditation to help deal with things in their lives that aren’t going well. These can range from everyday issues to disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Mindfulness meditation is a great tool in those cases as well. But it is only one piece of the puzzle. From the mindfulness perspective we are instructed to just observe whatever is going on. But what if you are feeling really bad?
In those times it might be better to do something proactively to change your mood. When combined with mindfulness, something as small as having a cup of tea or going into the sunshine can make a significant impact on your mood. We will talk more about this in the second part of this post.
It is also important to remember that our internal and external worlds are tightly connected. Meditation focuses on the internal but don’t neglect what’s on the outside. Put yourself in good environments and be proactive to the best of your ability. Eat well, go out, exercise, be in good company. Try activities like Yoga or Qigong. If you are dealing with the disorders mentioned above seek professional help. And try alternative approaches such as Somatic Experiencing.
You can try the two techniques below to quiet your mind at the beginning of your session. If you want you can make them your whole sit as well. Both techniques make use of the mental attitude of listening. Listening is emphasized in a wide variety of traditions and it is basically what we do in meditation. We listen to our experience. The attitude of listening has in it the attentiveness, receptiveness and the non-judgement that we want to cultivate.
Listening to the sounds
Pay attention to the sounds around you. Maybe you hear a car driving by the street, or kids playing, dogs barking, your neighbors making noises or the distant hum of the city. Just listen. Notice the sounds arise and pass away one after another. Some loud, some quiet, some pleasant, some unpleasant… Treat it as music. When your mind drifts just notice it, don’t make a big deal and go back to listening.
You can also use what is called a mental note. A mental note is a short label you put on your experience. Labeling your experience keeps you on your toes in paying attention and gives your mind something to do. You can think of it like a little game. In this case aim to mentally note to yourself “Hearing” whenever you notice a sound.
Listening to your thoughts
In this technique you just ask yourself what your next thought is going to be and wait for it to pop up*. You pay close attention, focused and attentive like a cat looking at a mouse hole. But it is less about the thought you are going to catch and more about the attitude of listening we mentioned above. It is that alert presence that we are looking for.
When you catch a thought don’t get involved in it. Just notice it. “Ok here is a thought. I wonder what the next one will be”. Make a mental note such as “Thinking” and go back to waiting for the next thought to appear.
As you do this you might have an experience that makes you go, “I think this is working!”. Or maybe you have doubts and you think, “Am I doing this right?” Don’t get caught up in the content of these questions and the mental commentary. They are the thoughts you were waiting to catch!!
*This technique is from Eckhart Tolle’s book Be Here Now.
– Sit down comfortably either on the floor or on a chair. Keep your back straight and close your eyes.
– Take a few deep breaths and settle in your seat.
– Now allow your breath to be natural and stay with with the experience of breathing. You might feel it more in the nostrils, the abdomen, the chest, in the sound of the breath, or your whole body. Find which works for you.
– After each exhale count one. That is; inhale, exhale, 1, inhale, exhale, 2, and so on. When you get to ten, count back to one. Repeat this process up to ten and back to one during the course of your sit.
– When your mind wanders, just notice it and gently bring your attention back to the breath. If you lose count, go back to one.
– Similarly, whatever feeling, emotion or sensation arises, good or bad, just notice them and redirect your attention to the breath.
A FEW NOTES:
1. Observe each breath with a sense of curiosity. Is it long, short, shallow, or deep? How long is the pause between breaths? Every individual breath is unique. Think about that. Can you figure out what is different in each one? Make it a game.
2. Let go of your expectations of what meditation should be and what you want from it. Even if it feels like all you are doing is bringing your attention back to the breath without anything “happening”, you are doing it right.
3. Treat each breath as its own meditation. Assume your meditation ends with each breath and starts again with the next one.
4. Make the breath your main focus. The counting is only there the help keep track.
5. And finally, the simple instructions above can be made even simpler:
Forget about meditation. You are just sitting there, breathing, and knowing that you are breathing. That is all.