Red Enso

Thursday August 25th, 2011

Kōan

I have been reading the book “Mindfully Green” by Stephanie Kaza (thank you Mr. Heukrath!). The book offers a Buddhism-based spiritual guide to whole earth thinking. I was struck by a concept in this book that seems to characterize my work on Blue Design. This is the Zen Buddhism concept of kōan.

In the words of Ms. Kaza, a kōan is “a continually unfolding puzzle that takes more than mental effort to answer. You live with a koan, you wrestle with it, you get stumped by it, you have sudden breakthroughs with it – all with the question burrowing itself into you like an irritating thorn…If you come to answers too quickly, you will have missed the deeper insight hidden in the questions.” Merriam Webster defines kōan as “a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.”

Some things have been swirling around in my head lately, spurred by my work on the higher purpose essay. What is the relationship of logical thinking, emotional thinking, creative thinking, and lateral thinking in creating a beautiful, prosperous, and sustainable future? Or more importantly, in living a good and rich life? It occurred to me, given this mood, that Blue Design is a kōan.

And the Blue Design research group’s work has me thinking about the definition of Blue Design. I have a half dozen elevator speeches for it (I will share some of these in a future post), depending on who I am talking to, but I have always struggled to create one, all-encompassing statement of what it is. I used to fixate on that; I felt it was some shortcoming that the philosophy could not be contained. But last winter I moved past this, with posts such as The Path and Tracks. I had begun to understand Blue Design as a kōan, although I had no word for it at the time.

Still, the fact remains, it is difficult to explore a kōan within a business environment, with an architectural firm’s ever-pressing need to find work and differentiate itself in the marketplace. These are things that demand definition and packagable answers. I feel this pressure and the need to contain Blue Design, but as a kōan it resists. Blue Design offers neither easy answers nor a clear view, and this can be disconcerting both within a business and among its clients.

In architectural design, sustainability has been consumed by logic, and I believe that both emotional and lateral thinking have unrealized potential in solving the problems we face. Logical thinking is best in the paradigm of improvement that I write about so often, first in Blue Design version two. Lateral thinking is Blue Design’s response (also contained in version two), that if logical thinking leads us to a future of extreme conservation and severe shortage (of resources), then we must “jump the tracks” using lateral thinking to interact with resources under a different paradigm, as nature does. This is also the key to overcoming peak theory’s seemingly inescapable chain of logic. And emotional thinking is what motivates us; it gives us respite from logic, gives us our personal drive, gives us the depth of what exists behind the curtain, and leads us to unexpected solutions. I can argue that sustainability can be achieved only through changes in the way each and every one of us emotionally views our world, in feeling what is wrong and making those emotions the basis for action. I believe we need more of both lateral and emotional thinking in sustainability’s implementation. How do we do that in a field preoccupied with performance metrics and short term gain? How do we convey the importance of such things to clients?

I don’t know the full answers to these questions, and probably never will. I am drawn to Blue Design as a kōan, something I can engage with for a lifetime and never answer. I feel Blue Design is a success if it draws others into its journey; I am not looking to advertise easy answers, because life and sustainability have no easy answers. Like Blue Design, they continually unfold and evolve. But a kōan teaches us to understand the act of wrestling with the questions has more value than easy answers. And it draws us below the surface of simple logical thinking.

There are products that come from wrestling with a kōan that help to resolve the connection of Blue Design to business endeavors and to sustainability’s implementation. The change in viewpoint that comes with a kōan gives us new insight to existing practices. In my firm, it resulted in deeper questions about passive design and its philosophical implications on the relationship of beauty and performance. In practice, this has resulted in the design of buildings that function at extreme energy efficiency; certainly a marketable product. The explorations of control and variability contained on this site do have implementation strategies, related to fostering a deeper individual relationship with nature so we may use that relationship’s insights to more sensitively guide our technology. And the stylistic implications of control and variability suggest a differentiator in the market for anyone who seizes the opportunity to create an aesthetic driven by sustainability.

But Blue Design remains at its heart, a kōan: uncommon given the fast-paced and solutions-oriented mood of culture today, and critically important to consider.

  • Mcgraw

    Wonderful post!  Thank you for introducing me to the concept of Koan.  I have been trained and spent the majority of my career operating from a logic driven platform.  There have always been gaps, inconsistancies and general uneasiness in my thinking that I have come to tolerate and accept as my own faults and shortcomings.  Now I am begining to embrace those layers of personality, complexity and thinking and enjoy the richness they bring.  Staying in the present moment as I explore issues and questions is in itself rich and prosperious. These days I feel a lightness of spirit as I wrestle with concepts, ideas and relationships.  I enjoy the momentary breakthroughs of thinking and how they can impact and interact with my own logic of business and implimentation.  I am constantly looking for ways to connect and share those thoughts with others.  It truely is a great journey and a wonderful way to spend a lifetime.

  • Nielsen

    This is HARD…  (from Wikipedia):

    “English-speaking non-Zen practitioners sometimes use kōan to refer to an unanswerable question or a meaningless statement. However, in Zen practice, a kōan is not meaningless, and teachers often do expect students to present an appropriate response when asked about a kōan. Even so, a kōan is not a riddle or a puzzle. Appropriate responses to a kōan vary, since different teachers may demand different responses to a given kōan, and the answers may vary by circumstance. One of the most common recorded comments by a teacher on a disciple’s answer is: “Even though that is true, if you do not know it yourself, it does you no good.” The master is not looking for a specific answer but for evidence that the disciple has grasped the state of mind expressed by the kōan itself.”

  • Calvino

    Great post. Not easy but definitely thought provoking!!!  People spend years just to get grasp of the meaning and what it is. My little knowledge of Koan. Koan comes from chineses meaning ‘a draft of public documents’. In old times in China, when public documents were reproduced, they would split the stamp or signature in half for both the original and the copy. So when they are put back together, they can be recognized as authentic. So Koan was used in the same way for these monks. It was about understanding and knowing each other between a pupil and a teacher. It is the interaction between the two in order to come to an understanding. The focus here is not about the understanding but more on the interaction part. Understanding comes a result of interaction. And EUREKA moment comes… We maybe are so focused on knowing the shape of stamp but we need to figure out how to put them together first.  

  • Heukrath

    Transforming one’s viewpoint can be a scary thing. Leaving rigid, tried-and-true, one-dimensional reason and reaching out for something deeper, undefined, and ever-evolving – whew! That’s a daunting proposition with wide implications.

    This reminds me of the Bene
    Gesserit Litany Against Fear, from Dune (one of my all-time favorite fiction novels) which is so true to me that I often refer to it during unsure times…and it’s pretty Zen.

    “I
    must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings
    total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and
    through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its
    path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

  • http://www.peterlarson.org Peter E. Larson

    I’m happy to see all of your thoughts about Koan. When I was writing the post, I looked at a half dozen definitions on the web, and they were all different. I found this to be one of the concept’s most interesting characteristics; that it deals with difficult to define things, and it as a concept is also difficult to define.

    I am just fascinated by the implications of escaping logical thinking. I have been bound by it my whole life, even took pride in being very logical, yet looking back it seems that the things that motivated me the most had nothing to do with logic. In fact, they were usually not logical at all. Is logic’s place best in execution, in the hard work that follows motivation? “When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.” – Robert Pirsig (been reviewing his thoughts on Quality lately)  

    I did not mention in the original post some of the “koanistic” elements that jump out at me in Blue Design. These are:

    The long-term future…How can we work on it given its uncertainty?

    True resource sustainability…Can such a thing even exist? It’s like trying to row a boat to hold a fixed position in a hurricane sea.

    Beauty…Nothing more need be said

    Optimal density (buildings and population)…again, many many variables in play here. A rowboat in a storm.

    Anyway, these are a few off the top of my head. I think its important to explore these even if they may be unanswerable. Useful things always come from the exploration.

    Thanks again for all your comments! And please continue to contribute…I’ve started a series of posts here that will continue to isolate key concepts of Blue Design in hopes of making these concepts clearer…as clear as a koan can be!    

  • Sandra

    Koan and your topic of control and variability seem intertwined to me. The controlling person that I am is scared of Koan, yet I also like to be continually challenged and engaged, or I get bored. I’ve never been a logical thinker, either. I’m more of an emotional thinker, which has its good and bad attributes. 

    I liked this post, Pete. 

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