The Power of Koans to Destroy Conceptual Thinking and Provoke Enlightenment


According to Zen philosophy, there are two sides of reality: the phenomenal one and the essential one.

Our phenomenal reality is the one we are most familiar with. It consists of everything that we sense (what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell) and everything that we think (our concepts and beliefs about the world). It is fundamentally a world of duality that begins with our distinction between “self” and “other.”

The distinction between “self” and “other” is the birthplace of consciousness itself. And in this phenomenal reality, we experience the world as something different and separate from it. We experience that stubborn ego (“me” or “I”).

Our essential reality is a recognition of our “Oneness” or interconnectedness with everything. It transcends the duality of senses and thought – and it transcends the duality between “self” and “other.” It is a reality beyond concepts that can only be realized through direct experience with it.

The experience of this “essential reality” is the ultimate goal of Zen. It’s enlightenment itself. But in order to experience it, we must be able to destroy our conceptual and dualistic thinking that stands between the phenomenal and the essential.

One popular tool Zen monks practice to provoke enlightenment is the use of koans. These are short anecdotes, paradoxes, or riddles that are designed to get one’s mind beyond dualistic and conceptual thinking.

The Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koans is one of the most influential collection of koans. It shares 48 koans that were originally compiled in the 13th century by Chinese Zen master Mumon Ekai. Each koan is designed by itself to create an experience of enlightenment.

On the surface, koans are often purposefully illogical and nonsensical. This is because the function of koans is to help the student break through the phenomenal world and into the essential world. If one approaches a koan from a phenomenal perspective, it will be impossible to understand it.

It’s common for zen masters to provoke through paradoxes, irrational thinking, and misdirection. These are done intentionally to help students break through their desire for logic and reason and thus become more open to enlightenment.

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Existential Silliness: A Refreshing Perspective on Depression and Life’s Absurdities

existential silliness

Life is too complicated and too confusing for any one mind to fully grasp it.

It’s even more complicated and confusing if you suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, or mood disorders – which often make you feel that you have even less control over your life than the average person.

It often seems that reality does what it wants to do and we are just here for the ride. There’s no sense in trying to control it. There’s no sense in trying to explain it. There’s no sense in trying to find meaning in it. It just is what it is.

The philosophy of existentialism tells us that there’s no inherent meaning in the universe or life itself, thus it’s up to us to create our own meaning. There’s a branch known as “absurdism” that takes this idea to an extreme: because life has no inherent meaning and it’s impossible to explain why anything happens, we have no choice but to embrace the absurdity of life itself.

At times, I think it’s healthy to embrace the absurdity of life too. There’s so much of it that we can’t explain and can’t control, so why not step back, observe it, and think to ourselves, “Wow, what the hell is really happening here?”

In fact, I find the absurdness of life to be a great source of entertainment and humor when it’s properly embraced – I like to call it “existential silliness.”

There’s a popular chapter in Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms… where Allie Brosh describes her own experiences with depression. Many people say it’s one of the best things they’ve ever read on the subject, and I think she perfectly hits on the value of embracing “absurdity” and “existential silliness,” especially in the face of debilitating depression.

For those unfamiliar with her style, she’s known for making comics with a very simple and crude Microsoft Paint-type feel to them. They are often super silly and funny, but they also have some amazing kernels of truth and insight.

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The “Five Whys” Exercise: How to Recalibrate Yourself During Periods of Turbulence

five whys

Life is more chaotic than we’d like to believe. It’s comforting to think we are in control of everything, especially the course of our own life, but we often can’t predict the “ups” and “downs” that will inevitably come in our future.

Preparing for the randomness of life can be important. It teaches you not to concern yourself too much with planning everything to a tee and always leaving yourself some room for the unpredictable.

The book Disrupt Yourself shows you how you can use this randomness to your advantage. When our life is disrupted in a major way – losing a job or going through a divorce – we are given a chance to embrace new avenues of life, and we don’t necessarily know where those new avenues are going to take us. That can be exciting, but also frightening.

When life disrupts our current course, it can very frustrating and depressing. But it also gives an opportunity to reflect on our lives and make a clearer decision going into the future. We get to choose a new course, and there can be a great power to that.

The winds of life will always change speed, direction, and intensity, but we can better fly through this turbulence when we take a moment to step back and reconfigure our settings.

One bit of advice shared in the book is an exercise called the “Five Whys” technique, which is a great method of reevaluating your current position in life and what’s most important to you moving forward.

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Effective Altruism vs. Feel Good Altruism: How to Make a Bigger Difference in the World

effective altruism

Many of us have a desire to do good in the world but we don’t quite know how to do it.

If a charity advocate comes to your door or approaches you on the street, you may be compelled to donate some money to them (even if it’s just a few dollars). Or if you find out a percent of a product’s sales go to a certain charity, you may be more compelled to buy that product over another brand.

These small acts of altruism can often make us “feel good” and lead us to believe that we’re making a bit of a difference. But how effective are they really? And are they the best ways to make the world a better place?

In Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference, William MacAskill warns us that many times when we act altruistically we are motivated by our emotions and not our reason.

The book describes an emerging concept called effective altruism that applies a more scientific approach to how we choose to donate and volunteer our time to helping others. According to MacAskill, we must learn to use both our “heart” as well as our “head” when trying to make the world a better place.

If someone approached you on the street trying to sell you a TV, you likely wouldn’t want to buy it. Instead you’d want to first do your research into the product, compare it to different options, and figure out where the best deal was before you made a decision.

Yet we don’t typically apply this rigorous analysis to how we donate or volunteer, perhaps because it seems too “cold” or “calculating” – and that hurts the spirit of what we normally think of as altruistic and kind.

However, if we want to help others and make the biggest difference we possibly can, it’s important we put in some time and effort to do research on where we donate, how the money is spent, and whether it’s having the positive impact that it intends to have.

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The Origin of Us: Campfires As The Bedrock of Human Civilization


If you want to understand who we are as human beings, a good question to ask yourself is “Where did we come from?”

And to begin to find an answer to this big and daunting question, it’s helpful to discover more about our history and past, especially the evolutionary origin of our species and civilization as a whole.

In The Social Conquest of Earth, legendary scientist Edward O. Wilson provides us an intriguing glimpse into the story of where we came from, what shaped us into who we are today, and what natural forces contributed to our advancements in society and civilization.

Like many familiar stories of our origin, it begins with our ability to create fire and control it.

The first use of fire was likely from lightning strikes, which were helpful to flush and trap prey who’d run away from ground fires. Many animals would become cooked by these fires which likely sparked our interest in cooking meats and vegetables. This was also an easy way to get bones that could later be fashioned into tools.

However, once we learned how to create fire and control it on our own, this led to the development of campfires and campsites, which – as I will try to explain – was likely the first step toward how our civilization evolved into what it is today.

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