Life May Itself Be A Koan

Rachel Naomi Remen

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Awakin FeatureConsider the Zen practice of the koan, the question or problem proposed by Zen masters to each other or by masters to students. The koan is a dilemma, a mystery which the rational mind cannot solve. The key to the resolution of a koan is a shift in the being of the student which allows for a new understanding of the question itself. 

In presenting a koan, the teacher engages the student with mystery in a highly personal way. By putting the habitual mind into a place of stuckness, a sort of fruitful darkness, we may inadvertently step back into that fertile and pregnant place of not-knowing called in Zen "beginner's mind". [...]

The resolution of a koan requires a certain trust of mystery, a faith that there is an answer which will come in time. When the answer and the seeker have grown toward one another the answer seems to emerge by itself. The resolution of a koan is usually obvious; it has been staring us in the face all along, but we have never seen it before. Once glimpsed, it is difficult to believe that we ever saw things another way, and indeed we will never see things in the old way again. Our eyes have been changed by the way in which we have met with the unknown. 

Like good science, the resolution of a koan requires a trust in the larger pattern which underlies the happening that the mind does not understand, and the understanding which is gained is often accompanied by a deep appreciation of the elegance of that pattern, the intelligence of the nature of things. A sense of wonder. An appreciation of the very mystery which has frustrated us. A sense of belonging to it. 

Many of the problems Life poses us are seemingly without solutions, much like the koans the Zen teacher presents to the student. Yet meaning and wisdom emerge from one of Life's stories much in the way that the resolution of a koan emerges. Awaiting this meaning is almost like awaiting a birth. After we live a story or hear a story we become pregnant with its meaning. Sometimes the pregnancy may take weeks or even years. Often over time, pregnant with one story, we may give birth to many meanings, each one deeper than the one before. Most of the best stories I have ever lived or been told are like this. 

Certainly suffering and illness are koans. Life may itself be a koan. Those people who are able to meet with life the way a Zen student meets with a koan will be moved along a spiritual trajectory by events which reduce others to bitterness and defeat. Not only their physical body but the quality of their soul may be changed in the encounter. 

Rachel Naomi Remen is a pioneer of Relationship Centered Care and Integrative Medicine. Her groundbreaking curriculumn, the Healer’s Art is now taught yearly in more than half of American medical schools and in medical schools in seven countries abroad.  Excerpt above from 'Kitchen Table Wisdom'.

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to the notion of being pregnant with a story and giving birth to many meanings? Can you share a personal story of a time you were able to meet with life the way a Zen student meets with a koan? What helps you develop a deep appreciation for the intelligence of the nature of things?

Add Your Reflection:

26 Previous Reflections:

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    On May 6, 2020 Diane wrote:
    And a Koan is another way of saying: Trust in God.

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    On May 6, 2020 Bodhi wrote:
    Rachel Remen is one of my heroes. Blessed I AM to live this life in this world illuminated by her presence in it. 💗💗💗

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    On May 6, 2020 Nancy minix wrote:
    I knew that coming back into the hair world at 40 was something of a changing path that I was supposed to follow after being in the corparate world. But now I get it, as I have a studio at my house, I'm using organic and natural products, it is peaceful and beautiful where I practice now. Clients love it. The comments they make about it being peaceful and healing. That is it. It's about the healing. The healing of the heart and soul is what beauty is. I always said"its all about the healing or it won't work" by Nancy L. Minix Nancy Lee's Hair Art. Now I know.

    1 reply: Yazmin | Post Your Reply
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    On May 6, 2020 Ruth wrote:
    This delightful insight about...pondering the possibility of Life as Being a Koan... is illuminating my way ofbeing tocontinue... staying present with the inquiry. Fortunately, I've had insightful experiences to instill the courage to continue. Today, it seems to offer the essence of what needs to shift individually and collectively. As I move through this pandemic, I will stay with the inquiry of...what is the beneficial purpose and benefit of this whole world's shared wellbeing and pain?

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    On May 6, 2020 Patrick wrote:
    I love the notion of the koan for it is ultimate truth that requires our holy surrender. It is often in this surrender to the unknown that things become known, that truth reveals itself. But we must put striving aside to come to it.

    Einstein noted that problems can not be solved with the same mindset that created them. My son, an astrophysicist and professor, likes to say, "Things are impossible until they're not."

    }:- a.m. (anonemoose monk)

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    On May 6, 2020 Shuddhachittananda wrote:
    There are stories that I tell myself in order to sell myself to rent and buy what the self-conscious mind 'needs' to survive. Most of the time, I am renting, but several years ago I stopped buying what the unhealthy projecting mind was selling. Iwas given my first koan to work on, or do. What I realized in my first confirmed kensho (nondual-conscious mind) was a freedom or liberty to see reality, as it is. Unreality is what I tell myself in order to sell myself. Reality is when I drop the sales pitch and simply tuneinto what is happening below these collar bones, so as to move from my head to my body and subtle heart. Only with my wholeheartedness and embodiedfocused attention was I able to 'do' this first koan I encountered.It cracked me open. It actually 'did' me or 'did' my self-conscious mind in and I had no purchasing power left in my account to buy or even rent this unreality. So, I was emptied of all currency and left holding only what was there. ... [View Full Comment] There are stories that I tell myself in order to sell myself to rent and buy what the self-conscious mind 'needs' to survive. Most of the time, I am renting, but several years ago I stopped buying what the unhealthy projecting mind was selling. Iwas given my first koan to work on, or do. What I realized in my first confirmed kensho (nondual-conscious mind) was a freedom or liberty to see reality, as it is. Unreality is what I tell myself in order to sell myself. Reality is when I drop the sales pitch and simply tuneinto what is happening below these collar bones, so as to move from my head to my body and subtle heart. Only with my wholeheartedness and embodiedfocused attention was I able to 'do' this first koan I encountered.It cracked me open. It actually 'did' me or 'did' my self-conscious mind in and I had no purchasing power left in my account to buy or even rent this unreality. So, I was emptied of all currency and left holding only what was there. Pure mind. Pure consciousness. Naked reality.[Hide Full Comment]

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    On Apr 3, 2020 Charles Hicks wrote:
    I participated (w/o voice and picture) in the Awaking Group Session (last week
    for the first time) - "Life Itself May Be A Koan".

    Found the exercise that was offered for us to engage in to have been very stimulating.
    It prompted me to do a life review and identify the various Koans that surfaced during
    my various life stages. The one that I will share pertinent to our current times projects
    a reflection of what we are now experiencing on the national landscape - The Koan of
    Humanity vs. The Economy!

    Thank you very much!
    Peace and Wellness!

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    On Mar 31, 2020 Mary Thomson wrote:
    Just reading this was like meeting the koan of life- that the purpose of life may well be a koan. I doubt I will look at life the same now that I've read this. I love Rachel Naomi Remen's writing. Kitchen table wisdom is one of my favourite books.

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    On Mar 26, 2020 Web Design wrote:
    That's a posting full of insight, Thanks for sharing the article!
    Are you looking for the best web design and development companies in Delhi? If yes, then we have a professional team for the best web design. There are many website development companies in this industry, which is the cheapest service provider at affordable prices.

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    On Mar 25, 2020 Rajat Mishra wrote:
    Patience is the key to solve life's problems. This title 'Life itself is a Koan' reminds us to find Koan in our life's challenges. One must wait for the answer with immense trust that the answer is going to emerge from life's challenges. It gives us a new outlook, a freshness in the approach as a child curious to seek answers, totally unafraid of the outcome.

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    On Mar 24, 2020 maria wrote:
    The image for me is seeing a split, one being fear the other love.
    yet I also see it as two teams partaking in something beautiful and bringing together the birth of a whole new self. Something new and fresh is to be born. Each contraction maybe painful and fearful and just when it reaches the peak, the mother and baby meet and see each other for the first time. Yet they have always been together. We are all partaking in this change, the new birth, all teams having a part to play. The observers who hold space and keep calm and those who allow the fear to come up, be exposed and let go. Nothing is separate although it may look like on the surface.
    we have created something together, in agreement of our fuller potential and higher vibrational loving energy, to be with Mother Earth and experience the knowing of our connection.

    2 replies: Mary, Charles | Post Your Reply
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    On Mar 24, 2020 Samm wrote:
    There is nothing I can add to'just notice'.
    How the light changes as this day shifts towards evening.
    That is my story today, wrapped in shadow & light.

    1 reply: Aryae | Post Your Reply
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    On Mar 24, 2020 Varsha wrote:
    There are times that a puzzle swirls in my head, it is there in the back and surfaces now and then when I am in a quiet reflective mode, walking or cooking. It is usually during a mechanical repetitive task that the movement seems automatic and yet the mind gets into this joining the dots, and times when the aah moment arrives after days or weeks or even months.There is growth and sometimes it is just clearing some cobwebs/fluff around a subject and revealing a clearer understanding.

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    On Mar 24, 2020 Tyler wrote:
    Thank you for this beautiful post! I love this analogy of being pregnant with a story. It is easiest for me to relate my own actual pregnancies! (I've had 3, one ending in miscarriage). All have been so incredibly meaningful and each, my greatest teachers! My 2 sons have taught me more about life, myself and God than anything else. They have challenged me and given me indescribable joy. My miscarriage taught me how to let go and grieve well. My oldest son is a 2 time cancer survivor and his journey has been the bedrock of my faith. And my younger son has been the role model of steadiness and temperance for me. I lost both of my children while in rehab for alcoholism. Losing them taught me that I don't own anything in this life. It is all a gift! Gratefully, they have returned to my life and I'm able to enjoy them as young men;observing, delighting and rejoicing in them as beautiful souls that call me, Mom. Love and Light to All as we experience the unfolding of this moment ... [View Full Comment] Thank you for this beautiful post! I love this analogy of being pregnant with a story. It is easiest for me to relate my own actual pregnancies! (I've had 3, one ending in miscarriage). All have been so incredibly meaningful and each, my greatest teachers! My 2 sons have taught me more about life, myself and God than anything else. They have challenged me and given me indescribable joy. My miscarriage taught me how to let go and grieve well. My oldest son is a 2 time cancer survivor and his journey has been the bedrock of my faith. And my younger son has been the role model of steadiness and temperance for me. I lost both of my children while in rehab for alcoholism. Losing them taught me that I don't own anything in this life. It is all a gift! Gratefully, they have returned to my life and I'm able to enjoy them as young men;observing, delighting and rejoicing in them as beautiful souls that call me, Mom. Love and Light to All as we experience the unfolding of this moment in time with wonder and compassion. 💗🙏🏻[Hide Full Comment]

    2 replies: David, Bernard | Post Your Reply
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    On Mar 23, 2020 Sunil Mor wrote:
    Lockdown is for the physical body but not for the soul.Meditate. Let the soul fly. Practice to Transcend from body consciousness to soul consciousness helps. The more one can remain in the soul world the better.

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    On Mar 23, 2020 Mariette wrote:
    Yesterday, I got back from Thailand, after my 3-month Peace Fellowship was cut short by the US's "do not travel" requirement to return to the US or stay for an unforeseen amount of time where ever we'd be allowed to stay. A day into my self-imposed self-quarantine (as Thailand is actually significantly safer than the US right now), I feel the ocean air coming through the windows and realize that there's a lot more cleaning to be done than simply unpacking the suitcases. Tiny moments - as small as not remembering which cupboard holds the tea - remind me of the distance that's been carved in me since I was last in this "home." Experiences change us but it's only upon the return that we realize just how much has shifted and transformed. All this transformation can be squashed by a non-appreciation of it. I sit in the reflection, realization, exploration and awe of it all.

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    On Mar 21, 2020 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    A tree is born in the womb of a seed. The seed is invisible though it is there in a dormant state. So is the life. Our life is pregnant with unseen and unknown meanings. We need to relate to this dimension of our life with open mind and open heart, open eyes and open ears to see and hear and feel the wonder and awe of life. Our life gets nourished, enriched and expanded by embracing the manifestation of beauty, wonder and awe. I will always remember the experience I had in a Zen retreat. While doing sitingMindfulness Meditation I saw myself flying in the open sky with my feet firmly planted in the solid ground of the Mother Earth. This experience taught me not to confine myself to the limited and narrow mindset and heart set I was used to. I realized the meaning, value and the power of the "beginner's mind." The mind that is not bound by preconceived notions, opinions and assumptions. It is not attached to and bound by the chains of the past and lost in the worries of the... [View Full Comment] A tree is born in the womb of a seed. The seed is invisible though it is there in a dormant state. So is the life. Our life is pregnant with unseen and unknown meanings. We need to relate to this dimension of our life with open mind and open heart, open eyes and open ears to see and hear and feel the wonder and awe of life. Our life gets nourished, enriched and expanded by embracing the manifestation of beauty, wonder and awe.
    I will always remember the experience I had in a Zen retreat. While doing sitingMindfulness Meditation I saw myself flying in the open sky with my feet
    firmly planted in the solid ground of the Mother Earth. This experience taught me not to confine myself to the limited and narrow mindset and heart set I was used to. I realized the meaning, value and the power of the "beginner's mind." The mind that is not bound by preconceived notions, opinions and assumptions. It is not attached to and bound by the chains of the past and lost in the worries of the future. The present moment is free from the right and the wrong. It is an open meeting space in which life blossoms and offers gifts of love, joy, compassion, and kindness to others.
    I am very grateful to the gifts of naturethat I receive everyday in my life. I watch the sun rising and setting, smell the fragrance of flowers, birds chirping, rain falling and the earth keeping me grounded. Sadly, how often we take the gifts of nature granted and miss offering our gratitude to nature.
    Namaste!
    Jagdish P Dave'









    [Hide Full Comment]

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    On Mar 21, 2020 David Doane wrote:
    I think that being pregnant with a story and giving birth to many meanings means that life including the life of each person is pregnant with new energy, new possibilities, new meanings, and new life now. Each life is pregnant with choices to be made that will author the story of a life. I think I meet life the way a Zen student meets a koan when I have a beginner's mind free of preconceived notions and expectations, open to see outside the box, and open to see and respond to life as it is, a mystery and wonder, beyond reason and logic. Such times are pregnant, alive, awesome, satisfying. To me, that is the meaning of and answer to life. What helps me develop a deep appreciation for the intelligence of the nature of things is knowing that there is intelligence in every cell of every being of nature, and it's to my benefit to listen and learn.

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    On Mar 20, 2020 susan schaller wrote:
    I began a journey to Germany on March second, but the journey, as almost always, was not the one I planned. After a beyond-imagination week, I have finally arrived home to my woods in N. Idaho. The glimpse of the unknown, unknowable was given me over and over the last few days. I was able to breathe, smile and keep moving. And everyone seemed beautiful. Almost everyone smiled and gave of themselves. The CDC screener in Dulles airport, with mask, gloves gave me my instructions and said, "I am giving you a gift. Everything is a gift." I am now quarantined in a room, but the universe is all here. I will breathe, smile and keep moving in love, the glimpse of the glue that holds us all.

    1 reply: David | Post Your Reply

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