Zen masters, when they teach meditation, occasionally give their pupils something they call a “Koan”. A koan is a puzzle which, prior to long hours of meditation, appears ridiculous, an expression of rare paradox or of something that appears as pure nonsense. For example, a Zen master might ask a student: “You know the sound made by two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Recently, I made a retreat directed by Richard Rohr. In one of his final talks, he gave a series of aphorisms. He called these “five messages” that people in the Western world today need to hear and more deeply appropriate. They aren’t exactly koans, except perhaps for the last one, but, meditated upon, they can function in the same way. I share them with you:
1) Life is hard.
That might sound obvious, except for the fact that almost everything in our culture invites us to believe the opposite; or at least believe that if our own lives are hard we are doing something wrong. So much around us suggests that life should not be hard, but comfortable, devoid of pain, frustration, illness, and loneliness.
But life is intrinsically hard and all the efforts we make will not make it easy. If we could accept this fact we would be a lot less self-centred, impatient, and angry with our situation. When we are baptized we are signed with the cross to teach us precisely this.
2) You are going to die.
Again, this sounds so obvious that it appears nonsensical to say it, but it is not so obvious at all. Even though all of us know, theoretically, that we are someday going to die, we rarely live in the face of that mortality, that is, we seldom take the horizon provided by our own mortality, own impending death, as a perspective within which to live, love, work, and make our peace with what’s around us.
Most previous generations were better at this than we are. They felt more vulnerable before death than does our generation and that realization, that knowledge that their lives were so circumscribed and that they were so mortal, gave them both a wisdom and an adulthood that we often lack. Simply put, until we accept, really existentially accept, that we are going to die we will never fully sort out what’s ultimately important in life, we will never fully appreciate the lives we actually have, and we will never really grow up. Anyone who has ever been clinically dead and then revived will tell you exactly that.
3) You are not that important.
Understood correctly, this is not a statement that puts us down, but one which helps us to situate ourselves correctly within the universe and within human community.
As long as I understand myself to be the centre of the universe, the centre of importance, the one whom life is really about, all my efforts, even my spiritual ones, will ultimately be about self-aggrandizement, about my own successes, and about my own attempts to stand out from others. Conversely, when I accept that what is really special about me is not where I am different from others but where I am the same, then my efforts will not be to stand out, but to serve, to build up others, to melt ever more deeply into community.
4) You are not in control.
As long as I still think that I am in control of my life, I am living a great and a dangerous illusion. The mystery which I am part of – God, others, the cosmic world, my real self, love, sexuality, birth, creativity, meaning, joy, death, rebirth – is beyond me and beyond my control. I need to give myself over to it, learn its dance, deeply respect its rhythms, accept its limits, thank it for its joys, go where it asks me, and demand nothing more than it gives me. To let go is biblical faith.
5) Your life is not about you.
You are just an instant of what is everywhere happening. That is not a Zen koan. It’s adult, biblical, wisdom. Life is not about you. You are about life and your job is to listen, obey, and adore. Knowing this will help you give up the crippling illusion of private wholeness and private terribleness.