Koans are riddles or paradoxes used for contemplative meditation. Their purpose is to invite a profound shift in one’s experience of the world. A well known example is “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Koans do not have answers nor make logical sense, and that is the point of them: to boggle the mind. Sometimes the problems of everyday life have a koan-like effect: they tend to entangle the mind in the search for logical solutions which cannot be figured out.
In Zen practice , engaging with a koan involves sitting with, being with, and repeatedly asking the question as a means of inviting a profound change of heart or inner transformation. A koan creates a kind of mental slope which inclines the mind in a different direction than it might otherwise go – off the beaten track of familiar mental patterns and towards creative discovery which lies outside the box.
In psychological terms, while there may be no way around reality, there may yet be a way through. It’s like running up against a door that opens inward: no matter how hard you push against it, it won’t open. And yet, when you can pause and consider other options, the door may open and you can pass through.
When we can ask the right questions and tackle them with a mind which is steady, focused, and receptive, we can best discover what we need to do next.