Three Zen Koans

On Patience, Habits and Surrender

Koans are paradoxical riddles/stories used by Zen masters to help students calm the monkey mind, open up to mindfulness, intuition and wisdom.

Too much mind/logic, too little intuition/wisdom leads to an imbalanced society, as I wrote a couple weeks ago. Balance returns by each one of us returning to balance within.

So let’s all enjoy more koans, more poetry, more art, more simplicity, more being.

And less worry about productivity, progress and missing out.

(Ironically, this is also how we unleash radical progress and productivity).

1) Patience

A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.”

The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.”

Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice every day, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”

The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”

Corporate world, meet impatient student. You both have a very similar ethos.

We’ve been brainwashed to think we need to work harder / more hours to get to the prize faster - whether a successful raise/exit for a startup, product success in the market or hitting goalposts in one’s career.

Go for the prize but don’t have such a tight grip on it. This just makes it harder.

Instead, loosen that grip, relax in the knowledge you are worthy of the prize.

You may still go hard but it’ll no longer be from a fear of missing out. It’ll be for joy. And that makes all the difference.

Being calmer / more joyful also keeps one open to recognize new opportunities and serendipitous detours along the journey that may redirect you to an even bigger prize.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
— Lao Tzu

2) Habits

A horse suddenly came galloping quickly down the road. It seemed as though the man had somewhere important to go.

Another man, who was standing alongside the road, shouted, "Where are you going?" and the man on the horse replied,

"I don't know! Ask the horse!"

I was once the man on the horse. I got on the horse because that’s what everyone did.

Galloping at full speed through a whirlwind of career and education milestones without the faintest idea of why I was doing any of it (beyond the usual motivations - house, car, money, status, etc.).

Until I finally stepped back and recognized the unconscious habits/conditioning that were leading/controlling me, completely independent of what I really wanted (freedom of time for me).

What horse are you on? Are you in control or are you being led by your unconscious habits/conditioning? If the latter, ask why and tune in to how you feel. You may not like the answers but that’s how you finally take back control.

3) Surrender

A man went to a Buddhist monastery for a silent retreat. After he finished, he felt better, calmer, stronger, but something was missing. The teacher said he could talk to one of the monks before he left.

The man thought for a while, then asked: “How do you find peace?”

The monk said: “I say yes. To everything that happens, I say yes.”

When the man returned home, he was enlightened.

I once read an analogy for life being like a river flowing downstream. In each second, we get to choose how we swim with the river - either flow effortlessly downstream, or struggle upstream against the current.

Flowing downstream sounds simple, but isn’t always easy as life is full of obstacles, twists and turns. Hence our natural inclination to say no and swim upstream when this happens.

Saying yes is surrender. Not giving up, but accepting what-is. An active surrender. You still take action, but don’t waste energy bemoaning/resisting a situation.

You can’t force a yes either. We need to be mindful and aware of when the no arises (erupts) within us. By mindfully accepting the no, we gradually let go of the resistance and get to yes.

Happy flowing,


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