A personal approach to Zen


From very early on starting with Zen practice some are confronted with koans.

One of the most popular ones is…

… When both hands have clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.” Sometimes the koan is set in question-and-answer form, as in the question “What is Buddha?” and its answer, “Three pounds of flax.”

Some definitions say a koan is a riddle or puzzle that Zen Buddhists use during meditation to help them unravel greater truths about the world and about themselves. Zen masters have been testing their students with these stories, questions, or phrases for centuries. … It is up to the Zen student to tease out their meaning.

After reading some of them and books like Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, I don’t believe that as well, because they don’t seem to be riddles to be solved.

It is something to meditate on and lose attachment but I don’t get behind it.

I know I shouldn’t even think about getting behind it and just sit with them. Even that seems to be too much.

As I do get that Zen practice is a lively exchange and dialogue between master and student and there, koans do have their own meanings and dynamics.
As I don’t have a live Zen master but approaching this through books and podcasts those koans are very troubling.

I do get that they should help to lose any attachment, to be like a meditation in words, to lose any logical sense of the world and just let me sit, unattached, but aware.

I don’t know if that’s right but according to Zen practice there is no wrong or right, there is just it, and that’s ok.

Maybe I get to a retreat once and learn from real masters and get a better approach to koans. For the time being, I just let them be as they are and not disturb me.

When meditating and asking myself „Who am I?“ I think of „a blue elephant with a red ponytail sitting on a cloud“ and I hear some master say „You are attached to color“ and my reply would be „I’m a protein bar without chocolate“, maybe he’s answering „you are hungry?“.

As I did study literature and I know about the power of concepts created by our own language and how misleading they can be, my western socialized mind thinks of Jacques Derrida and his deconstruction.

This comes from an intellectual point of view near to the concept of koans, demanding to question everything which comes as a tradition through language over time, constructed by men and their biases.

I know I shouldn’t use an intellectual approach because this seems just wrong in Zen practice but I can’t help it.

Maybe I just should let that go but it seems too important.

I also tend to look back at lyrics where language is used to create a feeling and also is illogical in many cases.

Benjamin Myers, in his novel ‚The Offening‘, lets his protagonist Dulcie say to Robert…

… a good poem breaks open the oyster shell of the mind to expose the pearl within. It finds words for feelings whose definitions defy all attempts at verbal expression.

With such a definition I can work and I decided, though it has nothing to do with Zen practice, I go back to lyrics (many poets are Zen practitioners also) and away from koans, for the time being, not neglecting them totally but let them rest.

Maybe time gives me a good teacher and I can reactivate an approach to koans again.

Maybe time also resolves all the cognitive dissonance and after they sit with me for a while and meditating with them I’ll find my peace with them.

Picture from Book of Longing, by Leonard Cohen, a collection of his poems and drawings from the last twenty years. Reprinted by arrangement with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishing, ©2006 by Leonard Cohen


Hope is a double-edged sword, on the one hand, it makes us look positively into the future and endure current situations with which we are not satisfied.

On the other hand, we often get involved in situations that are bad compromises in the hope that something will change soon and we can then solve the compromise.

We as humans are probably the only species on earth that has the ability to hope. We can dream ourselves into possible, better life circumstances and say to ourselves „one day…“.

Why do we have this ability? Is it a survival strategy that makes us superior to other animals, the ability to ‚endure‘ situations in the hope that something will improve?

Or are we with the hope also hopelessly lost at the same time and we give away our potential? Sure, hope drives us and makes us strive for a better life, but at the same time, it is often a source of despair when hopes are disappointed.

How can we reasonably consider and reflect on hope, classify it as realistic and useful, and when can we protect ourselves from hopeless hope, which becomes a striving that is futile and actually causes agony.

Is the hope of a dying person for an afterlife nonsensical or does it make it easier to say goodbye to this world? Is the hope for an improvement in the housing situation or the financial situation or an improvement in health good in itself, does it drive us enough?

Does hope make us lethargic or motivate us, does it make us actively change life circumstances and take risks? Or does it make us sit back and live with maggoty compromises because we just tell ourselves „it will get better“ until it can’t get any better?

Surely this is to be evaluated depending on the situation and hope can have many different forms. Our striving for a better life with the help of hope has certainly its sense and we have this ability certainly not in vain but it can also become a trap for us.

I wish to be able to deal with my hopes better and to realize that action is better now and life circumstances have to be changed actively because a compromise does not work. At the same time, I hope that I do not lose my hopes and compromise when I have to, for my own sake and for the sake of others.

Of course, I also hope to learn when hope makes no sense and pure acceptance of the circumstances will save me from suffering caused by hope.

For you, too, I hope that you can deal with hope.

Being Anxious

I’m meditating now for several months on different schedules and methods, from extended (for me) 15 minutes to half an hour or just very short sessions.

The effect surprises me because I’m getting more and more anxious and the opposite was expected.

Actually, I do feel emptiness and fear especially after I tried transcendental meditation. I feel isolated and alone and I am more afraid about the future than I ever have been.

Plus, I do feel socially isolated, though I’m living with my family, my wife, my wonderful kids who I love a lot. It’s crazy but I feel like I don’t get a connection to them.

Maybe this is supposed to be and to happen when you confront yourself with your inner self without layering noise and actions above your inner life in order to numb your inner voice.

But actually, with the anxiety growing, I do tend to do exactly this, trying to numb it down. Playing music because I can’t bear the silence, drinking in the evening because I can’t bear my own thoughts.

I do worry as I ever did but it scares me even more and my gut feeling is very bad, I do feel ‚dark clouds‘ or something similar like a weight in my belly and I definitely don’t feel free or light or happy at any time of the day.

The only pause is when asleep and in deep dreams and certainly the short time after awaking, there I feel ok. But then the other stuff crushes in immediately.

So, does this mean it does me badly or shall I confront myself with every fear and try to knock it down or try to resolve it through deep changes in my life?
I can’t narrow it down. It doesn’t make sense and makes sense. Everything is coming up where I made compromises and didn’t feel well with them.

And there are those things that I don’t want to admit to myself.

Mostly, it’s connected to my vulnerability and the inability to post it to other human beings, especially the ones who are near to me. The reason for sure can be found in the way I was brought up and the way I think I have to behave in this world, being strong, not showing my fears.

The stillness is also frightening because I see the ‚normal‘ life as a failure, our consuming, producing, polluting strategy. War in Afghanistan, people kill other people for no reasonable reason.

Climate change is inevitable and will affect my children. My children getting addicts and fuck up their lives. Anything.

It’s more than being worried.

No strategy is to be found yet, and I can’t accept the Zen saying that everything is meaningless and life is suffering.

Yes, it is but I can not overcome it, I feel it and to numb it through meditation seems counterintuitive and wrong.

About waiting

We spend a large part of our lives waiting.

Despite the hectic pace of our daily lives, it’s waiting for a bus, a train connection, a meeting or an appointment, or even a better life.

Often it is as absurd as in Samuel Beckett’s „Waiting for Godot.“ I have waited countless times for a bus connection in Munich and calculated how much of my life I waste on it and it was not insignificant.

In recent years I have thought a lot about waiting and have learned to appreciate it.

Often life is about making room for something you don’t know yet.

A new job, a new direction in life. Then I decided to make room, to end relationships, to quit jobs, even though nothing new was in sight yet. And then it is time to wait.

This time can be used to reflect on yourself and there is an art to accepting the time of waiting as something valuable.

To learn new things, be it through podcasts or books, to enjoy the moment and not to think about the waiting itself but about the time in the now and how it is given to you through waiting.

Suddenly that time makes sense and it’s not just a wasted life. Twenty minutes of meditation or short breathing space while waiting on a bus.

We often waste so much time on meaningless activity and waiting seems annoying but the attitude towards it changes everything.

Often it is the act of willing ourselves to spend time waiting that leads us to more freedom. Especially when we question relationships and activities that exist only for their own sake and we let them go.

It is difficult because we are afraid of the ‚empty‘ time, the time in which we do not know what to do with ourselves. Then it turns out that this time is necessary to learn more about ourselves.

The emptiness and the waiting can also prepare us for the new tasks and challenges we don’t know yet. It is important to get involved in it and to accept it and use it in these times.

I wish that we draw strength from the time of waiting instead of being angry about it and seeing it as wasted.

I wish that waiting is accepted as a possibility to live life in this so-called lost time.

Maybe a new adventure starts right there.


I don’t care that much about money unless I don’t have any.

Money is a concept, I’m really only interested in the freedom I can buy with it. And of course the goods I can acquire.

Although in recent years, consumption is no longer so important to me, on the contrary, it even gets on my nerves.

The fact that our economic system and our prosperity are based on the fact that we exploit our earth and probably inflict considerable damage on future generations annoys me.

It is also annoying in western countries to exploit other countries and other people for our consumption. A consumption stop is a clear sign against it.

But I am also wracked by my own behavior, my urge to buy things. Things that I don’t really need. And I notice how quickly the short happiness from consumption fades, and the things I have do weigh me down.

Then I try to get rid of them again, which is nonsense, wouldn’t I have bought them in the first place.

I’m brought up in the ’80s, in the white, western world, and material possessions and consumption were the number one goal for us. Wealth, more and more, better and better, newer and newer.

Today I feel freer the less I own but also secure when I have money in the account. Being able to travel. Although I know that also pollutes the environment beyond measure, our urge to be constantly mobile, traveling gives me a sense of freedom and happiness.

I like a few things I would miss; a few clothes, a lot of books, DVDs I want to have on the shelf because I want to look at the spines and both books and DVDs remind me of the content. A small watch tick is also there and my motorcycle gives me the feeling of freedom.

For me, not having money means not being able to participate in society. Not that society is that important to me but being excluded is no fun.

The distribution of money is unjust and this injustice is growing every day. Maybe we need a new relationship to money or a new concept that distributes our goods more fairly.

Property obligates, I try to consume less and thus be happier.

But I can’t be without money either, because I am afraid of the social isolation that comes with it.

I am aware of my wealth, even though I am far from being upper class in the country I live in, I am grateful for not having to worry about basic needs like good food or medical care.

I should be even more grateful and be aware of it every day.


We are all children and remain so throughout our lives.

The love of our parents is a prerequisite for us to feel secure in the world. Our parents shape us in the first years of life like no one else.

We cannot decide where we are born and also not whether we wanted to be born. It is a matter of fate or luck and we cannot choose which parents we have. We are born into the lives of our parents.

Life attitudes and values, lifestyle and circumstances format us, so to speak.

I have always had a split relationship with my parents, precisely because of their divorce, and thus with parenthood.

I could not imagine having children. On the one hand, because I am constantly afraid for them, in which world will they live, which challenges will they face?

But also because I am afraid of giving them too much of myself. To transfer my primal fears and mistrust, my doubts and psychoses to them.

Now that I’m a father myself, I have to admit, it’s worse than I expected. The parenting job is the most horrible in the world, with lousy pay and constant over time.

My fears are one thing, but I often fall back on methods of my parents out of nowhere when parenting and it scares me.

No one can prepare you for parenthood and even what kids you get and how they turn out often seems random and a matter of luck. A mixture of genes and peer groups and your own situation in life, a thousand parameters influence the little ones.

I lose my temper way too often and constantly reach my limits. My children seem to love me anyway. This love is the strongest and most gratifying feeling I have experienced so far. My love for them as well. No one can prepare for or anticipate something like this.

I want my children to become free-thinking, independent living, happy people.

I want to give them advice and support and actually just protect them around the clock. But this is not possible and will not do them any good, I have to learn to bring the support and the letting go into a reasonable balance and I have to learn to speak with the children, in their language.

With them, I get the chance to experience my life from a completely new perspective and they teach me more about myself and the world every day than anyone or anything else.

With an open heart and when I am really with them, I see the world in a new way, marveling at seemingly small things, a tree, a bus, a beautiful color, a train, an ice cream.
They live in the now and know no yesterday and no tomorrow. They express their needs immediately. Their default mood is happy unless they are hungry, thirsty, or tired.

As Kahlil Gibran so aptly writes:

„Your children are not your children.
     They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
     They come through you but not from you,
     And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

     You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
     For they have their own thoughts.
     You may house their bodies but not their souls,
     For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
     You may strive to be like them but seek not to make them like you.
     For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
     You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
     The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
     Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
     For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.“

That’s what I have to learn.

Poem ‚On Children‘ from The Prophet (Knopf, 1923). This poem is in the public domain.

On worrying

I worry all the time, all the time. About my children, my professional future, my financial future, my past, my mother, my wife, my home. About getting older, staying healthy, getting a healthier lifestyle, getting more money, buying your own home, owning a home, you name it.

Yesterday we found out that we have to move out of the house next year. We have lived here for almost ten years, my children have been here since they were born, they love the garden, they love the house.

I never cared much about the garden because I don’t like gardening and because I always feel watched by the neighbors. I also didn’t care much about the house because I know I can rent something else and it’s ok. I grew up in apartments and never found it bad. But I worry about how my kids will take it.

Worrying all the time is exhausting.

The mind doesn’t settle down, I can’t be in the now, constantly thinking about something else, can’t enjoy the moment.

It is not a very nice summer but the somewhat gray, rainy days, still summer warm, have a nice mood. Walks are nice, sports outside are nice, time with the kids at home, now on vacation is nice. But everything is overlaid with these worries.
Some writers or philosophers said that it makes no sense to worry all the time because most things never happen anyway and you can only worry when something does happen.

That is right and makes sense. It makes no sense to worry twice about something that is not yet here, and a move is just what it is.

If I try to free the mind from worry, I still don’t succeed. If I wake up at night, it immediately continues. Deep meditation does not seem possible. Any distraction does not seem possible. I don’t know how to deal with it, how to unburden the mind. Tara Brach writes of radical acceptance, I will try that but I feel this discomfort in the abdominal area.

There are bigger worries to have at the moment, Covid, climate change, the shift to the right in society and there are some things to confront. That doesn’t put my worries into perspective either.

Today is the day you were afraid of yesterday, it’s just a waste of time to worry too much. But they are there.

About grief and loss

My first serious confrontation with grief was the death of my grandparents.

Maybe it is like that in many cases when time passes naturally and no early strokes of fate befall us.

At that time this event had shaken me because I had a strong bond with them and I remember thinking at that time ‚best not to take human bonds too seriously, because, in the end, they must end in loss‘.

In fact, this is a core teaching in Buddhism as well, in other words, life is suffering.

What I didn’t understand at the time is that life can still be enjoyed, perhaps even must be enjoyed, and that human bonds are the most important thing there is for us. Only these bonds give our life real meaning.

And so I finally allowed it again, the love. The love for other people, friends, women, my children. Always knowing that a relationship probably has to end one day.

The thing I regret the most is the connection with my father, which broke up in a quarrel and now he is deceased, there is no possibility to revise something or to reconcile. Saying you love each other and then saying goodbye in peace is very important. This regret will definitely haunt me for the rest of my life.

Then there was the loss of a good friend that hit me hard. It came suddenly and for him at a relatively young age some time ago. But even though I miss him every day, I don’t mourn him that much because there was nothing unresolved between us. No conflict and I did not have the impression that he had not lived just one day in the life he wanted, he enjoyed his life. Sure, he could have had many more wonderful years and we could have had many more wonderful times together but I am glad for the time we had.

There can also be mourning about friendships we lost even if death isn’t involved. You lose track of someone, you have a conflict that doesn’t get resolved, you turn to different life paths and don’t see each other anymore. I lost friends along the way which I deeply regret and I’m mourning their loss even if they’re still out there somewhere.

Grief and loss are certainly processed differently in each individual case and there are also strokes of fate in which it is probably not possible. I imagine the loss of my own children and the thought alone must be suppressed, the fear and grief even if such a thing has not happened, is unbearable in the imagination alone.

So it is the acceptance that our lives are fleeting that is so difficult, and even the beautiful moments are not permanent. If life is long enough, the chance of a ‚happy ending‘ dwindles. At the same time, it is the cycle of life and mortality that makes everything so special to us.

Therefore, every moment in the now should be enjoyed and the beautiful and also less beautiful moments should be perceived and accepted as what they are:


It is hard, it is easy, it is cruel, it is beautiful, it is all that and wants to be lived.

Public. Private. Secret.

Everyone combines different lives in him or herself.

There is the public life with our job, our responsibilities, our identity, defined by others who see us in action, there are the skills learned and executed.

There is the private life with our relations to loved ones, friends, children, we behave in another way and this life and the relations within it are often chosen or they were chosen by fate. Regarding our parents, we had no choice. And actually, also our children don’t have it and neither we have about them.

And there is this secret life which no one knows about and which everyone has. Nothing or very seldom there is something shared with the outer world. It can be dreams, hopes, wishes, many sexual desires never talked about maybe.

A whole universe exists in every one of us and everyone is a universe on its own.

Those ‚roles‘ do interfere with each other and though there is inevitable dissonance in it, it can feel ok.

The highest priority for each person I guess is to feel safe. If something goes wrong or forces are demanding actions from these roles we can not cope with anymore, we start to feel uncomfortable.

Many times we go into a direction at a certain age, maybe with a job or a marriage and the consequences do have a broader impact than we could ever have imagined or something evolves in us and the need can’t be ignored.

If that happens we know we have to change something and oftentimes it seems not possible. Instead of becoming angry and trying to destroy or self-sabotage your job or career or family life, I think it’s best to just watch closely and be aware of what really makes us uncomfortable.

Then after analyzing and accepting, what might be hard, we can slightly change. This change starts in our mind and if the mind decided to go in a direction, everything else will follow.

I do strongly believe this, not as this esoteric wish to the universe, but as our mind is a force that can lead us to something else. Something new if we are open to it.

I always feel strongly about the movie „The Curious Case of Benjamin Button“ and especially the scene where Julia Ormond sits on her mother’s deathbed and realizes who her father was.

As though there’s not much told about her in the movie, you see that she is not happy. And as she reads the postcards her dad wrote to her over the years, there follows this moving sequence where Benjamin tells her:

‚Whenever you feel in life you got to something where you’re not happy with, or proud about, you always have the chance to start over. Do it. And I wish you the courage to do it.‘

That’s not a correct quote but how I memorize it. You can watch the scene above.

Because there are so many astonishing things out there to be seen, and the beauty of life lies in that option to simply start over and pursue what makes you happy.

For what it’s worth, it’s never too late to be whoever you want to be.

I hope you make the best of it.

Everything must change

Music plays a powerful role in our lives. Though it’s the most irrational thing I can think of, all cultures do relate to music. Making it or consuming it.

The consumption of music changed a lot over the last two decades and it seems it is everywhere and anytime available in an endless sense.

So, it feels to me that music is oftentimes just background noise, many times not really enjoyed anymore and the act of active listening to music diminished or got heavily reduced.

Ok, many people don’t have such a strong relationship to music and they couldn’t care less but it must be sad for musicians to see their work not appreciated that much.

In meditation music also plays a strong role.

Many do meditate to music, often loops becoming mantras or endless nature sounds or sounds that play on a certain frequency where it is said it resonates with the body and has certain effects like calming the mind, giving you an uplift. Some say it also changes the structure of cells in the body.

I’ve tried many of those tracks and the initial idea of this domain was to provide such kind of music. But it never really worked for me, I found all those Zen music tracks out there always annoying after some time and it irritates me more than it gives me focus.

I know many people who do use music to concentrate and oftentimes I was told they build up playlists of songs that then play in the background and they forget totally about it. It’s like a sound carpet that helps them concentrate. They do get in a flow, a state of mind where they are allowed to work and not be disturbed from the outer world.

The work is flowing out of them, pouring like water. Sometimes, they say it feels like they even leave their body. And oftentimes they are surprised about their results and they can’t believe the results are really created by them. I think that’s what some mystically relate to as kissed by the muse.

I also had those experiences. In painting, in sport, in conceptual work, in writing.

And I do still have my favorite music. One song which was a companion over the years is ‚Everything must change‘ and though most artists interpreted the tune as sad ballads e.g. Oleta Adams or Barbara Streisand or others I was always impressed by Cecilia Stalin’s arrangement.

It has a positive and uplifting mood and worships the fact that everything is changing constantly. This is a fact and we should appreciate it more and also simply accept it. It gives us the chance to thrive and evolve. Every new day in our lives holds this chance and if we are aware and lucky we are able to make the best of it.

I wish you to have a lot of music in life no matter what kind of music you like.

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