Whatever we may think of various ways of reflecting on the future — turning up a card, consulting a celestial chart, or lighting a candle with a prayer — the fact that one is focused on the future is a tenuous practice. Focusing on the future works for practicalities, like appointments and due dates and business plans, but in resolving life’s true dilemmas, the future does not exist. We must gauge the sensibilities of the present, not predict the sensibilities of the future. The goal must be based on a realistic now, on the path’s first step, not on the endpoint. But too often the present is an emotional cloud, and we are prevented from being very effective concerning either the present or the future.
The koan has the ability to break through both these foggy states of present and future. Rather than try to assess the present fog and fight through it to the equally foggy future, the koan snaps us out of (or, rather, into) the present altogether. The koan does not give an answer or even hint at one as such. Rather, it is a tool for – to invent a verb – “presenting.” The koan is an honest shout of “Hey!” to the universe, and to one’s own morose ambivalence, demanding a new look, a fresh perspective, and not even an answer to the koan’s question. The koan is akin to modern notions of asymmetrical association in psychology, where something startles us out of our preoccupations with the non-existent future and the dissipated present to make this moment worth it.