Looking to refresh your meditation practice? Try incorporating Zen buddhist koans.
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Meditation is a tool that helps us to de-stress and relax. Even though the act of sitting still and focusing on your breathing doesn’t seem difficult, it can be hard to find the motivation and time to meditate, particularly if you’re dealing with a lot of stress or feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts.
If you’re in a rut with meditation, there are many ways you can change it up. One way to refresh your practice is by experimenting with traditional Zen Buddhist koans, which aim to open and expand your mind. “Koans are almost like a mental workout,” says Sam Yo, a former Buddhist monk who used koans during his time as a monk and continues to use them in his meditation practice today.
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Koans are similar to riddles and encourage people to think about different ideas and ways of seeing the world. “It’s a great way to prepare yourself for meditation and they will also help you see things from other people’s perspectives,” Sam says.
“One of the simplest koans I can think of is ‘What is the colour of the wind?’” Sam says, explaining that the ambiguity of the question is intentional as the idea is to explore lots of different answers. You can buy books of Buddhist koans or find them online.
Here, Sam shares his expertise for getting started with Buddhist koans and making them part of your meditation practice.
Treat koans as a mindful workout
Just as we do lots of different things to look after our body, it’s important we do the same for our minds. “Think of traditional meditation as cleansing your mind and koans as a workout for the mind,” Sam says. “They work to enhance your instincts and your intuition.”
If you’re already comfortable with your meditation practice, it might be a good idea to try out koans after you have meditated. However, if you find traditional meditation difficult, try practising your koans beforehand, which might make the process of meditating easier for you.
To practise koans, find a quiet space – similar to the one you do your normal meditation in – and think about the question you’re asking yourself, letting your mind wander but always trying to come back and focus on the specific koan.
You can practice koans at any time and you can ponder them for as long as you’d like. You don’t need to choose a new koan each time you meditate – you can ponder over the same koan for as long it feels productive for you.
Similar to meditation, it can be a good idea to set a time limit on how long you focus on your koan to help you ensure you spend long enough thinking about it and that you get the most out of the experience.
Don’t look for an answer from koans
Koans are intentionally ambiguous and your answers to them should be too. “They’re designed to stimulate deep thought and the more you ponder the question, the more you will become at peace with a lack of a definitive answer,” Sam says.
Try not to come to any conclusions when thinking about your koans and constantly challenge your own thoughts and ideas. Your practice isn’t finished when you find an answer but, instead, when you’ve explored many different options and perhaps feel even more unsure than when you started about which one is most accurate.
Practising koans will help you make peace with unanswered questions in the other parts of your life, which can help you to stop overthinking.
Use koans to spark creativity
If you’re in a creative rut, regularly practising koans can be a great way to deal with it. “Koans help to spark creative intuition,” Sam says, adding that they also help you trust your own instincts. “They work best for people interested in expanding their perspective.”
You could even use a journal to note down some of your thoughts when thinking about the koans to help you concentrate and explore your ideas deeply. You can come back to these notes whenever you’re doubting your own creativity.
You can find more expert tips and guides on The Curiosity Academy’s Instagram page.
Sam Yo, Peloton instructor and ex-Buddhist monk
Sam Yo is a Peloton instructor who draws his professionalism from his kaleidoscope of experiences and uses this to help others achieve their fitness and mindset potential. Having spent two decades in the entertainment industry merged with 15 years as a fitness coach, Sam combines his technical expertise from his training with his serene mindset from his time as an ordained monk in Thailand.
Images: Getty, Peloton
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