There are various ways of working with kōans. Traditionally, Zen teachers assigned a specific kōan to each student, with instructions to meditate on it, or “walk with” it throughout the day. Students were not expected to achieve a particular correct answer, but rather were judged on their overall approach. After weeks, months, or even years, the student presented a reply to their teacher, who guided them in turn using approval, disapproval, or terse further instructions. Thus, the student proceeded through a series of kōans, with the intent of reshaping their mind and triggering a spiritual awakening.

These days, the traditional Zen method might not be suitable for everyone, especially westerners. It’s not easy to dedicate huge parts of one’s life to practice. As westerners, we are more used to bite size meditation, making our spiritual search one of a number of important activities in our lives, as opposed to dedicating every moment to it. If you’re seeking to explore this path, with a more limited commitment, you might want to practice either by reading a list of kōans or a practice book, or by listening to specific guided meditations that delve into kōan practice.

You may also wish to explore couples exercises such as “Who is in?”To do this, sit facing one another. One partner looks into the other’s eyes and asks, “Who are you?”The other answers with whatever comes to mind. The first partner then repeats the question, whereupon the second voices another answer, and so on. The purpose of this exercise is not to cling to these answers, but rather to see them as endless false attempts to answer an unanswerable question. Behind the false answers lies valuable non-verbal insight into the truth behind the words.