A Koan That Keeps My Overwhelmed Brain In Check
I’m the type of person who juggles too many things at once. I’m an author, journalist, professor, and speaker. At any given moment I might have a book I’m working on, article I have to post on Medium or send into one of the magazines I write for, lecture I have to prepare, and speech I have to dial in.
Some weeks this shit builds on itself, becoming a giant wave that feels like it’s about to break on top of me. I start to think that all my work is going to be awful, how I’ll be judged for it, how the work will stop coming, and … you get the point.
In times like those, I’m lucky when I remember one of my favorite Koans.
The setup is this: the Buddhist philosopher Fayan is going on a pilgrimage from monastery to monastery. That, he’s heard, is what a Buddhist philosopher does to become enlightened. As he’s leaving one monastery to go another, he encounters Zen Master Dizang. And so, the koan:
Master Dizang asked the visiting Buddhist philosopher Fayan, “Where are you going now?
Fayan answered, “I am resuming my pilgrimage.
Dizang asked, “Why do you go on pilgrimage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
Hearing these words, Fayan had an opening experience.
When Dizang asks Fayan why he goes on pilgrimage, Fayan has a moment of deep reflection where he realizes that he’s just sort of abiding by some social narrative about what Buddhist philosophers do — which is to go on pilgrimage. Fayan’s mind clears and he realizes he’s actually not truly sure why he’s on pilgrimage. With a clear mind — in Dizang’s words, the “not knowing” — he achieves enlightenment.
This koan reminds me that the stress I put on myself is driven by what I think I know. By the tales I tell myself about what I need to achieve and when and in relation to who. The truth is that I’m better off when I forget all that stuff and just do the work how I’d like to do it.
This koan doesn’t do my work for me. But it does buy me a lot of space.