Some Helpful Suggestions on Working with the “What is this?” Koan

Steve Goodheart Essay

Recently, I have been focusing on working with the Zen koan, “What is this?” This is not really a question to be answered with the conceptual mind or mental analysis, but more of a way of being with things with an openness and inquisitiveness into “what is.”

This “What is this?” path or practice is the essence of “ahimsa,” or non-violence.  As thoughts, feelings, and experiences arise—however “good” or “bad,” painful or pleasurable—we don’t fight that arising, but instead just remain in mindful awareness of what shows up, as best we can. As Tibetan teacher Pema Chodron likes to say, we learn to “stay” —like patiently working with a puppy!

As with puppies, this staying with “what is” is a practice, for most of us!  As things arise, we will typically find our minds grasping them, fighting them, or else trying to manage and control them.  First comes sense contact, and then the cascade of feelings, emotions, and sense of self that we take to be our individual “story line.”  Usually, we instantly react—almost without any conscious thought at all. We know our “story lines” so well!  After all, our “story line,” and all the thoughts, feelings, memories, and bodily sensations that we associate with it includes, are exactly who we think we are!

Our resistance to “what is” is actually the ego fighting for itself, pushing away and separating itself from “the other” in order to preserve itself.  And  this resistance and reaction are the essence of violence—violence toward our experience, violence toward ourselves, and inevitably, violence toward others.  Working patiently and compassionately with the “What is this?” koan is a very skillful way to start loosening up the tight grip of the ego on our lives.  The awareness that the koan points to helps to break down the walls that we think are protecting us, but which really separate us from the vastness of our life and our interconnection with others.

One of the great things about the “What is this?” koan (or any koan, or any skillful means that reminds us that we need to to “show up” and pay attention) is that we can use it anytime, anywhere.  Working with a koan is a kind of mindfulness practice and isn’t limited to times of formal meditation practice “on the cushion” or in walking meditation.  The koan can be especially helpful when we notice we are stressed out, or in pain, or bored, or angry, or even very happy and filled with joy.  These all can be signals to stop, and just look and ask: “What is this?” No judgment, no discursive, mind, no rational analysis, no explanation—just stopping, centering, noticing: What is this?

Sometimes, if I am working through difficult emotional stuff, or find myself especially scattered,  I will put up sticky notes in my work area, and around the house, with “What is this?” on them as an aid to awareness.  And I sometimes use computer alarms that pop up periodically, with the question, “What is this?”  These physical aides can be helpful, but I found that as I went deeper into the practice, I needed them less.  What matters, finally, is what works for you, and there’s nothing intrinsically unskillful about using aids to mindfulness.

When we bring our mental train to a full-stop, we can notice what “shows up” as we get in touch with our breath and perhaps widen our sphere of awareness.  Be inquisitive!  What is in the space around us?  What do we see?  What do we hear?  What do we feel?  What is present?  Especially note: what is my body feeling?  What sensations are present and what happens when we notice them?  Do we flinch away?  When we notice some pain or discomfort, do we instantly start up some story line about who or what we are—thoughts like, “My life is so miserable” or “Why does this always happen to me?”

The “What is this?” koan simply invites us to be aware—not to try to fix or change anything but just look into what is.  With practice and attention, we learn that we can actually hold painful feelings—mental or bodily—in awareness with compassion and non-resistance.  Again, no judgment, no story lines, no views about “shoulds” or “oughts”— just opening up to a gentle, mindful presence and awareness:  What is this?   This kind of non-violent, non-resisting awareness is tremendously healing.  It transforms and releases tied-up energies and helps loosen mental and emotional knots.

I think you will find, as I have, that as you work with “What is this?” and learn to pay attention and be more mindful of “what is”—with compassionate non-violence and non-resistance—you will find your mind and heart opening up in amazing ways.  You will find that you are less reactive in difficult situations.  You will find yourself quicker to recover when your mind and emotions do run off, as they inevitably will.  (No problem! Just come back to “What is this?“)

As your heart opens up, you will find yourself far, far less judgmental of yourself, because you are finally making friends with yourself.  And this in turn will make you far less judgmental of others.  You will find your interest in life and your natural inquisitiveness about the world and others grow.  And maybe most wonderful of all, you will begin to feel that your heart and great heart of the universe are none other than the same thing, and that Being is being love itself.

The simple koan “What is this?” can be a tremendous aid in unbinding and opening up our hearts.  I hope these comments are helpful, and  I wish you great success in your practice!


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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

6 Responses to “Some Helpful Suggestions on Working with the “What is this?” Koan”

  1. Whenever I originally commented I clicked the Notify me any time new comments are added checkbox and now every time a remark is added I get four email messages with the same comment.

  2. Namaste Steven. You never cease to be inspirational. Thank you for your pearls of wisdom. This really connects with my mindfulness course. Om shanti xx

  3. Thank you so much for this Steven. It ties in really well with my mindfulness course.


    Ruth xx


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