Our Koan

We have explored turning our heart towards practice in grateful recognition of our immeasurable good fortune to find a path and be able to pursue it. Last week I shared my own experience of how the path can naturally appear before of us like an invisible thread if we heed our yearning and curiosity.

Today I would like to mention something we don’t often hear about, but whose relevance I have come to see in my own life and in guiding others. For lack of a better phrase, I’ll call it the koan of our life. Some schools of thought might refer it as our soul’s lesson, what we are particularly to learn in this unique life circumstance.

The koan could be experienced as a conundrum we encounter over and over as our life unfolds. It may show up as a wall we keep hitting, or some situation we are faced with at various times throughout our life that causes dis-ease and doubt. And it feels so familiar . . . like, here we are again! Or, I thought I handled this, why is this here again, I spent ten years in therapy on this? A life koan steers (or at times forces) us towards the inner place of work and challenge that holds when solved – the possibility of greater self-coherency, sovereignty of our Self. The koan may be asking us to resolve opposites within ourselves, such as autonomy vs. connection, responsibility vs. light-heartedness, tradition vs. innovation, etc. The koan is a hidden plot in our life, continuously appearing again and again until we “get it.”

An understanding of our koan might come in a dream, by a deep resonance with a fairy tale or story, or simply as the gradual emergence of self-understanding that can arrive through a process of therapy or healing. Deducing our koan is powerful. We could even say it’s a game changer, for now we see more clearly the shape of our life story. With this, like all true understanding, comes freedom of choice, since we are no longer determined by the koan’s subterranean influence. We become the author of our life, not just a character in a karmic plot.

Personally, I have several koans. The principle one was revealed to me in a dream shortly after my initiation into Sufism, before I knew anything about the path and its allegories and stages such as those laid out in Sufi treatises like “Conference of the Birds.”

In the dream I was traveling by elevator up through the seven levels of a building. At each level, I got out and entered that floor to do the “task” of that floor. I was zipping along without delay and arrived at the 7th floor. The elevator doors opened and there was a foyer with an immense double-paneled door before me. On each side of the door stood a large man with arms folded across his chest, giving the impression of guarding the entrance. Without hesitation, as I had been successful on all the other floors, I reached out for the handle to open the door and commence the task required of the 7th floor. Immediately, the men came forward and said, “Stop! You can not enter this floor.” Upon hearing these authoritative words, I turned and hunched in deep shame, and the words arose within me, “Who do you think you are, assuming you could enter this room?”

And then I heard them speak: “You just failed the test. The entrance to this floor is knowing that it is yours.” The lesson that I had not yet learned was that I needed to find and occupy my own inner authority, not calibrate to others’ thwarting voices. That is what allows passage to this ultimate floor of self. There it was, laid out so clearly.

I have grappled with this dream for 50 years. It is my koan in the sense that to grow out of my conditioning, I had to own my own authority. This may sound like a very self-help, New Age cliché, but I can assure you it’s been a lifelong struggle to trust myself foremost, having taken in ancestral family values, societal rules for a successful life, and the codes and expectations of my spiritual community. In the process of entering the 7th floor, individuating from the collective internalized voices, I often found myself alone. But I found that the feeling of aloneness is a necessary doorway to finding the authentic self.

As we understand and do the necessary work our koan calls us to, there is a feeling of amazement and completion, a quiet triumph, the victory of coming home to our True Self.

Do you recognize a koan in your life story?

What do you know about it?

Do you see the maturity that has arisen from your engagement with it?

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