Melissa Myozen Blacker teaches the Koan practice of asking again and again, “Who am I?” Every time an answer arises set it aside. Eventually, answers stops coming, replaced by a feeling of profound wonder.

Photo by Matteo Di Iorio.

Do you ever ask yourself about the meaning of life? Do you sometimes look around at this burning world and say, “WTF?” Maybe you have asked your parents, teachers, or clergy for guidance, and then felt frustrated by their answers. Perhaps you continue to have seemingly unanswerable questions that preoccupy you.

In Zen Buddhism, this type of questioning is not a problem. In fact, it’s a prerequisite for the practice of koan inquiry.

Do you ever ask yourself about the meaning of life? Do you sometimes look around at this burning world and say, “WTF?”

There are thousands of traditional Zen koans, but they all stem from two fundamental inquiries: “Who am I?” and “What is reality?” Other versions of these questions are: “What is this?” “Who is breathing, or hearing, or seeing?” “What is your original face before your parents were born?”

Although formal koan inquiry is always done with a trained teacher, you can experiment with incorporating the spirit of koan practice into your meditation.

Choose a question that speaks most deeply to your longing. Sitting in an upright posture, settling in to your breath and body, breathe your question in. You can ask, for example, “Who am I?” And then breathe out, “Who am I?” However you frame your inquiry, stay with it. If your mind wanders, gently return to your question.

The discursive mind, our companion ever since we developed the capacity for language, enjoys being in charge of everything, and will rush in to give obvious answers: “I’m a woman, I’m Melissa, I’m sixty years old, I’m a teacher, a parent, a wife. I’m horrible, I’m wonderful.” 

Every time one of these answers arises simply set it aside and ask again. Eventually, this kind of answer stops coming, and may be replaced by a feeling of profound wonder. This feeling, sometimes called “great doubt,” is highly valued in Zen. If you are not working with a teacher, at this point in your practice you must be your own Zen master. Patiently and firmly redirect yourself away from intellectual understanding and toward immediate and intimate experience. Don’t settle for anything that doesn’t completely satisfy your longing.

In this state of great doubt, something surprising might reveal itself to you. As you continue to set aside all your conventional answers, you also set aside all of your expectations and explanations. The mind will want to turn your experience into theories and memories. Don’t let anything turn solid.

Keep asking and don’t give up. Eventually you will learn to live a new kind of life—one that is continually surprising, profoundly ordinary, and full of wonder. 

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