A Zen koan is, in essence, a problem that can’t be solved by the intellect. In trying to understand it, you run up against the limitations of thought and, hopefully, tap into a direct and non-verbal awareness of reality. Koans plumb a dimension deeper than the five senses that keep us attached to things, conditions, and concepts—preventing us from being aware and resilient in the face of challenge and change.
We typically intellectualize and conceptualize our life—both personally and professionally. When we do that, we shackle ourselves to concepts. Concepts seem so real that our mind gets confused about whether it’s a concept or an absolute. These concepts harden like concrete, keeping our minds trapped and our forward momentum stuck.
We may classify or conceptualize certain people as “trouble” or “wrong” or “bad.” We may categorize a task or activity as “beneath us” or “too hard.” We may look to escape our job because the company our department is “behind the times.” Once that concept has repeated in our thoughts long enough, then that person IS trouble for us … the project impossible … and the company useless and of no value, even though we receive our paycheck from them.
Our minds have become victims to those perspectives and we freeze that person into a characterization, a concept, rather than a living being capable of change. And no task is beneath us, really. If a task that is a part of our job or our family life and it needs doing, then it is our responsibility to life to do it. Is a company or organization really not capable of change? Or did we make it not capable by giving up and looking to get out—essentially abandoning any help we can offer.
As part of my practice, I thought I would repackage and share a few of the koans, as brief blog posts offering a different way for you to view and respond to your professional life. Sometimes a new way of looking at things can help you solve a work problem, overcome a challenge with a co-worker, be more productive, or—if you’re a job seeker—bring a new, more positive energy to the challenge.
I was intrigued from the first moment I read the bold claim accredited to Socrates that "the unexamined life is not worth living" and it has been a touchstone throughout my life. And, through the power of hindsight, I see its influence powering many of my career choices and life activities.