- praise and blame;
- success and failure;
- pleasure and pain;
- fame and disrepute;
By maintaining the point of view of a dispassionate observer, you are able to recognize your own automatic--or, conditioned--responses to what you encounter in each situation. For instance, you may notice your own smile forming upon someone saying "Great job!" (praise), or you may notice that you are wondering what you did wrong when you see someone frown (blame).
In many ways koan practice is similar: We gain insight into the workings of our own mind and everything it contains when it encounters a koan, revealing who we are in an instant. When we are able to maintain a certain distance from the question and observe it on different levels, we are told that we gain a bit of freedom from the autopilot, giving us an opportunity to change course.
If you are completely focused in your koan practice, in maintaining equanimity, or in whatever your practice, then every single thing you encounter throughout your day is scrutinized as a potential threat to your "maintaining your center" and is dealt with accordingly. On re-examination of each encounter, perhaps we see where we did well and congratulate ourselves (praise), or perhaps we consider where we fell short--or "fell asleep"--and vow not to repeat that mistake again (blame)...
In time we can maintain this awareness--or, threat awareness--without having to remind ourselves to "stay present" or "stay with the koan." We no longer have to recall that we are doing this to maintain our center. Before we know it, perhaps koan practice, equanimity practice, mindfulness practice, or whatever our practice, is completely integrated into our habitual being, now occurring effortlessly, in the touted state of mushin--without thought. Our center is now taking care of itself without any mention of "our center" at all.
But is this not precisely where we started? Before something caught our attention? Before something stole our center?
The importance of the advanced practitioner carefully considering this cycle simply cannot be overstated. And still, like the black belt in Aikido or your martial art of choice, the extraordinary level of achievement in gaining even partial insight into these workings is only an indicator that you are finally ready to begin the true studies, learning how to really use it...
If you don't see it yet, don't worry: Life itself will circle you back to this point again and again until you catch the meaning and are ready to join us.
We'll leave the light on.