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Zen Koan Practice with Miles Kimball: ‘I Don’t Know What All This Is’

Summary:
I have heard that instruction in Zen is often hardcore. Some Zen instructors may well be like drill sergeants, but Henry Shukman’s course within Sam Harris’s “Waking Up” app is wonderful. I highly recommend it. Henry Shukman does give some instruction on proper Zen posture, but I simply ignore that, and pay attention to everything else. A Zen koan is a word, a phrase, a sentence or a little story designed to have a revelatory effect on the mind, without necessarily making any literal sense. Paradox is a way to knock the mind out of its accustomed ruts without ever needing to find a solution to the paradox. Henry

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Zen Koan Practice with Miles Kimball: 'I Don't Know What All This Is'

I have heard that instruction in Zen is often hardcore. Some Zen instructors may well be like drill sergeants, but Henry Shukman’s course within Sam Harris’s “Waking Up” app is wonderful. I highly recommend it. Henry Shukman does give some instruction on proper Zen posture, but I simply ignore that, and pay attention to everything else.

A Zen koan is a word, a phrase, a sentence or a little story designed to have a revelatory effect on the mind, without necessarily making any literal sense. Paradox is a way to knock the mind out of its accustomed ruts without ever needing to find a solution to the paradox.

Henry Shukman is great at explaining some of the principles of Zen that are reasonably easy to explain. For example, Zen encourages you to identify with your entire sensorium—everything they see, hear, taste, smell or feel at any given moment—rather than the human-shaped object within your sensorium. (“Who Am I?” is a koan that gets at that fairly directly.) That is only a fraction of what Zen reveals; that much all by it self is a great liberation. What seems to be “out there” is really inside your mind—not because there are no “things-in-themselves,” but because what you actually perceive are highly processed in-your-mind representations of those things. “Mind is nothing but the rivers, the mountains, and the whole wide earth; the sun, the moon and the stars.” Rather than being isolated Cartesian minds, our minds naturally connect us to all of the things around us that matter to us, where what matters to us (both animate and inaminate) has a long evolutionary history going back through millions of years of interaction.

Another key principle of Zen is “ordinary mind” and its emphasis on the transcendent beauty of ordinary objects. As such, Zen can easily fit within one’s regular life: whatever your days are like already, in any outward sense, there is transcendent beauty to be seen within that day.

Closely related to the principle of “ordinary mind” is the principle of “beginner’s mind.” I used to think “beginner’s mind” referred to the kind of openness I discuss in “Open Skepticism and Closed Skepticism.” It is something else. It is experiencing each moment as if it were the first time you had ever experienced anything like it. Instead of anticipating what is coming a second ahead of it’s happening and overlaying that expectation on what is happening, just see what is there. It may be much different, much more intricate and hence much more beautiful than anything you had imagined. (This might be hard to do without listening to some instruction in Zen from someone like Henry Shukman.)

“Beginner’s mind” reminds me of a principle I learned in a Landmark Education Communication Course of listening to someone like you don’t know what they are going to say. That simple practice can be surprisingly powerful.

In addition to listening to Henry Shukman’s course in the “Waking Up” app for the 3d time now, and buying one of the many collections of koans out there (I bought Entangling Vines), Henry is so clear in explaining how koans work that I feel I can invent koans of my own. Fortunately, as far as I know, Colorado has no occupational licensing laws for an upstart internet Zen master :)

The koan I have in mind today is one that works great when you are out and about doing whatever you normally do in your life. I have been using it on my daily walks, but you could use it during many other activities as well. It is an encouragement to beginner’s mind. I say to myself repeatedly:

I don’t know what all this is.

A variation on the theme of trying to see everything new that I also say to myself is:

I know what my feet should do, but I don’t know where I am.

With Zen koans, you don’t have to try to think or feel any particular way, just say the koan to yourself repeatedly and see what happens. These particular koans are intended to go along with other activities rather than to be used in any kind of sitting meditation. They are working for me, but I don’t know whether or not they will work as entry-level koans, without other koan practice first. Try them and see!

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Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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