I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you should have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.
For a long time, I’ve been interested in Zen koans (rhymes with Ken Cohens). In Buddhist tradition, a koan is a question or a statement that can’t be understood logically. Zen Buddhist monks meditate on koans as a way to abandon dependence on reason in their pursuit of enlightenment.
The most famous koan is probably: “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?” Here are a few of my favorites:
— Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, “The flag is moving.” The other said, “The wind is moving.” The sixth patriarch happened to pass by. He said, “Not the wind, not the flag, mind is moving.”
— If you meet the Buddha, kill him.
A koan can’t be grasped by logic, or explained in words.
My interest in koans rose dramatically when I realized that for many years, I’ve collected lines that work like koans for me, I just hadn’t thought of them as koans.
Robert Frost: “The best way out is always through.”
Francis Bacon/Heraclitus: “Dry light is ever the best.”
Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
T. S. Eliot: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.”
Mark 4:25: “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.”
Diana Vreeland: “The eye must travel.”
Each of these perplexing lines has haunted me. They float through my mind at odd times, they seem strangely relevant to widely diverse situations.
For years, I puzzled over the odd power of a line from Gertrude Stein’s brilliant The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: “I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it.” Not until I wrote my book Profane Waste did I feel that I’d begun to grasp it. The fact that I’d spent so much time thinking about that passage probably helped me grapple with the very opaque subject of that book.
The modern koan I reflect on most often, however, is a Spanish proverb quoted by Samuel Johnson in Boswell’s Life of Johnson: “He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.”
In his Journal, Henry David Thoreau echoed Johnson: “It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves…I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord, i.e. than I import into it.”
This observation has profound implications for a Happiness Project. What does it mean to say, “He who would find the happiness of the Indies must carry the happiness of the Indies with him”?
Ruminating on my koans hasn’t bring me any closer to satori (at least, not as far as I can tell), but they have a strange calming effect. If I invoke one in a moment of impatience or annoyance, it helps restore my composure.
They also spark my creativity — talk about “thinking outside the box.” Koans force me to challenge conventional lines of thought and push me into original territory.
Even the process of identifying my personal koans has enlivened my imagination. When I come to a passage that doesn’t seem to make sense in the usual way, instead of stopping in frustration or passing over it, I think, “Oh, look, another koan, this one by G. K. Chesterton. ‘It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.’”
[Two hours later]
Writing this post about koans has gotten me so worked up that I’ve started a new hobby book – which I’ve already titled! Through the Gateless Checkpoint: Koans and Paradoxes, Ancient and Modern.
The Big Girl is very interested in paradoxes, so I’ve been looking for good examples, and I’ve been interested in koans for a long time. Now I’m going to collect examples—new and old—and put them into book form. I can self-publish it for my own gratification on the fabulous Lulu.com, or maybe I can even get a publisher interested.
Before the Happiness Project, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to “waste” time doing this. But now, I have my resolutions to “Make time for projects,” “Force myself to wander,” “Follow my interests,” “Take notes without a purpose,” and “Make books.” I’m NOT wasting my time.
If you know any great examples of koans or paradoxes, send them my way!
Wikipedia has an entry on hacker koans — hilarious.
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.