This koan points to a counterintuitive recommendation of action that can ultimately make us happier and more successful. That is, instead of avoiding circumstances that make us uncomfortable, we should turn toward them. Face them and walk right into and through them. Consider what might happen if you turned toward your discomfort, rather than avoiding it?
Another wording of the last line in this classic koan is, “When it is cold, let the cold kill you. When it is hot, let the heat kill you.” This does not imply that we walk into fire and burn to death, nor plunge into ice and die from hypothermia. It is trying to take you beyond the words; beyond the concepts; beyond the description that you have applied to your self and your circumstances.
The heat and cold in this koan represent the troubles and challenges we face in life. Our discomforts. Obviously, if we can easily escape, we do. But life sometimes presents problems that can’t be escaped. So, is there a place where there is no trouble? Tozan says there is.
That place is the place we arrive at when we become one with the discomfort or trouble that presents. When we do so, we emerge as the master, rather than the victim. This principle is the point of “being thoroughly cold” or “hot through and through.” This is how cold or heat will kill you and you will be happy about it. It will kill you when you forget about how cold or how hot you are; when you stop complaining about it and stop trying to avoid it. You will just do what you’re doing and be hot; be cold.
The “killing” is in the forgetting.
You will forget when you accept what is before you and take action. Instead of spending hours worrying about why something is happening to you or how you’re going to deal with what is happening to you, you will take action by accepting it. According to Gregg Krech of the ToDo Institute (http://www.todoinstitute.org/), who wrote the book The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology, taking action is “doing what needs to be done when it need to be done in response to the needs of the situation.”
Pretty simple, isn’t it? This “secret” derives from a model of psychology referred to as Morita Therapy. It is a therapy based in Zen and an Eastern worldview. Morita Therapy has four key elements:
1) Acceptance. When we are in situations that make us physically or emotionally uncomfortable, the first thing we do is to try to change or manipulate the circumstances. We find a way to escape. We escape through avoidance, resignation, and complaining, rather than accepting what is.
2) Avoidance. This is a strategy based on resistance, rather than acceptance. The problem with this strategy is that resistance, too, causes discomfort by our preoccupation with how to avoid and what we are avoiding.
3) Resignation. This sounds like acceptance—and it is what most of us with a Western worldview think of as acceptance. Resignation is a passive acceptance or depressed acceptance. It is the languishing in our negative feelings or procrastination.
4) Complaining. Complaining perpetuates our discomforts. As Gregg Krech wrote: “Who is hotter—a person who constantly complains throughout the day about how hot it is or a person who doesn’t complain?” Complaining reminds us, and those around us, of our discomfort, rather than helping us to focus on something else.
I worked with a client who told me a story about how she turned into her discomfort, her trouble, in a situation most of us would try to avoid, resign, or complain about. At the time of the story, my client was a department director at a major corporation. I will refer to her department as marketing and the corporation as a financial services leader. The marketing department had become very successful since she headed it. She was exceeding all goals and objectives and, at the same time, earning industry awards for innovative programs she developed and instituted.
A new COO moved in and wanted to institute Lean Six Sigma projects to identify where ROI could be improved across the corporation. He wanted to start with my client’s department as the initial Six Sigma pilot program. Now, my client’s first reaction, of course, was to feel unappreciated. Here she was, the most successful leader in the corporation bringing all sorts of good press and market visibility to the corporation, and he wanted to pick her operation apart.
Yet, my client was very wise. Instead of complaining, avoiding, or resentfully resigning, she embraced the program. She dove into Six Sigma methodology and steered the pilot to complete success. It was so successful that, not only did the ROI of her department’s programs improve, she became the corporation’s “go-to” for Six Sigma leadership and, ultimately, a highly visible and in-demand presenter on Six Sigma in marketing and Six Sigma in the financial services industry.
This brings us back to acceptance. As my Sensei, Rev. Koyo Kubose teaches, “Acceptance IS transcendence.” The only way to transcend your discomfort is by actively accepting things as they are. This is NOT resignation! The word for this is arugamama, meaning “to accept things as they are.”
When we accept things as they are, we stop wasting time wishing things were some other way … wishing the people around us were different … wishing we were different … wishing our boss was different or our job was different. This state of arugamama is the same quality of non-resistance taught in marital arts. When an opposing force is strong, direct resistance is ineffective, but if you don’t resist, the force flows through us and back to its source.
When you’re unhappy, anxious, or worried, accept and move forward. We can move forward now because we aren’t trapped by our thoughts. We have forgotten ourselves (“killed” ourselves) and moved on to the task at hand. Gregg Krech writes that “acceptance—of our internal human condition as well as external conditions— is at the very heart of action.”
Koans for Everyday Life: Living Clearly, Simply, and Directly for Happiness and Success
On January 1, 2016, I began a practice for the new year: Reading, reflecting, and meditating on a Zen koan each day. I am using the book Zen Koans, by Rev. Gyomay Kubose, the father of my teacher, Rev. Koyo Kubose, and the founder of our school and center, The Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism.
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.