The dictionary defines a koan as:
a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment.
In the third part of East Coker, the second of TS Eliot's Four Quartets, Eliot writes:
“To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.”
I have often found Eliot's words supportive and healing even if I am not entirely sure what they mean. At the same time, I am not completely baffled by his poetic puzzle. We so often find ourselves in a fearful place where the mind struggles to understand the components of the discomfort and to suggest remedies, all the while compounding our pain by berating ourselves for being unable to find any solution. But perhaps, as Eliot suggests, the mind is not the tool with which we can affect a cure. Perhaps the solution is in the dissolving and we must have the courage to not know, to stand in that place of no answers in order to find ourselves.
In the Old Testament, the Lord asks Job, who has suffered inordinately and cannot understand why, a series of questions which point to the fact that it is great hubris on Job's part to imagine that he is in a position to understand.
'Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if thou hast understanding,' asks the Lord.
But of course Job can't declare. He says: I 'understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not... I … repent in dust and ashes.'
God is pleased with Job and rewards him (although had Job been looking for a reward, his understanding would have been less than complete).
As Eliot said, 'In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance...
And what you do not know is the only thing you know...'
To relinquish control of the known is a pretty frightening idea. If I don't know, if I don't determine my actions based on some pre-supposed notion of cause and effect, who or what will be there to act in my place. To relinquish control is to affirm a 'something else' and trust in the benevolence of that 'something else.'
The German-American existentialist philospher of the first part of the 20th c, Paul Tillich, wrote, in his seminal work, The Courage to Be, of fear, anxiety and courage. He spoke movingly of that mysterious basis of our lives, Being, which he defined as a living creativity, eternally present and the ground of everything. It is this very Being, he says, that is the source of our courage. The negation of Being, he says, is anxiety which, he explains, has no object, is in fact the negation of every object and negates participation, struggle and love.
I think it must be the universal condition that we feel most alive when, forgetting ourselves and our petty analyses, judgements and reactions, we completely engage – with another, with nature, with a poem or a song or a dance, with a shadow cast by a tree on the path or the smell of coffee in the morning. It is in the participation, the encounter, the 'space between' as another great 20th c philosopher, Martin Buber would have it, where we can find ourselves. It is when we are not there – because we are so fully engaged that we have lost the petty sense of 'I' – that were are really there.
Vaslav Nijinsky, the Polish Russian dancer who collaborated with Sergei Diaghelev and his Ballet Russe in Paris to create some of the most astonishing and innovative performances in the history of ballet was once asked, 'Mr Nijinsky, how do you leap so high?'
His answer was this: 'I don't do it. It's when Nijinsky's not there that it happens.'