Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Life, the Ultimate Koan

A koan is a paradoxical statement or question used in Zen Buddhism to confound logical thinking and facilitate enlightenment. For example, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Our brains like to identify, categorize, explain, and evaluate. When they are not able to do this, they get agitated and start scanning more anxiously for the relief of certainty. Certainty gives us a false sense of security and control. A koan is intended to break through this illusion and deliver us into, as an anonymous Christian mystic wrote, “the cloud of unknowing” where we meet God.

When this year began, I started praying a prayer every morning, asking for liberation. It’s a prayer that arose from the longing in my soul for awakening, and a commitment to focus on that as my absolute priority. I’ve prayed some version of this prayer for years, always promising “whatever it takes,” but always with the added caveat “and please help me mean it.” This year I dropped the caveat and stopped with “whatever it takes.” Period. Because I did mean it.

Apparently, that set the wheels in motion and the Universe responded. Big time. And not in the way I had imagined. I had visions of sitting by the creek at my forest cabin, one with all creation, resting in peace. Nope. Maybe it’s that way for some, but my path to liberation, so far at least, has been intense, stormy, at times brutal, at times shattering, and yes, at times blissful, joyful, even transcendent.

Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy and compassion, my companion for decades, heard my prayer and called in her sister goddess Kali, badass spiritual warrior, fearless destroyer of illusion, fierce mother dragging her beloved, self-deluded children kicking and screaming into enlightenment. Once Kali is called to the scene, she does not back down until her mission is accomplished. I’ve described it as riding the most gigantic roller coaster without a safety bar. Once that ride pulls away from the station there is no getting off.

Fierce grace has taken on a whole new meaning. No matter what I try to control or figure out, life steps in to wag a finger and say, “No, not that.” Until … until what? Until I surrender to what is, embracing it all, loving it all, blessing it all, grateful for it all. Embracing and loving even the moments when I am still struggling, still afraid, still quietly trying to figure it all out, still secretly hoping for a particular outcome. So sweetly human.

In the midst of all this, I questioned whether I wanted to continue praying my prayer every morning. Do I still mean whatever it takes? Yes, I decided. I do. Because no matter what, it’s all perfect, and it’s a glorious ride.

The ground beneath our feet
That we think strong
Is but an icy crust
Lightning cracks race
Pop and thunder
We dare not move
It matters not
We will fall through
Into our destiny
And remember once again
That what dies
Was never real
And we are

10 thoughts on “Life, the Ultimate Koan”

    1. Thanks, Brian. I’ve come to love Kali very much and to be grateful for her fierce grace.

  1. Deirdre Nauman

    What a bold, fierce and embracing person you are! You inspire me and make me braver. 🙏🏻

  2. I love this post. It speaks directly to me as I ponder what is happening around me, the world I thought I knew, and the world of my body as it ages and changes. You are an inspiration, dear friend. Keep these posts coming!

    1. Thank you, DJan, for the kind words. I am so pleased this post resonates with you. (And I appreciate the extra steps you took to leave a comment.)

  3. Hi Galen! Ah…”fierce grace.” I am both deeply attracted to that idea and poised to run for the hills!!! I can only suspect at what it asks of us. The optimistic side of me craves the adventure of it all, while the timid little girl in me shakes her head and backs away. As you say, isn’t that “sweetly human?” Which will win out? Probably both!! And such is Is-ness! Your post reminds me of one of my favorite quotes that is attributed to the Buddha which is in my words, “Act as if the future of the world depends on your actions while laughing at yourself for thinking you could ever make a difference.” Keep laughing my friend. ~Kathy

    1. I can relate to your sweetly human ambivalence, Kathy. One moral of this post might be “be careful what you pray for.” Ha! Oh my gosh, I love that quote. Made me laugh. So perfect. Thank you for sharing that. PS–Bob and Betty are here visiting. Having fun and definitely wish you were here.

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