The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Zen Master Henry Shukman — 20 Minutes of Calm, Plus the Strange and Powerful World of Koans (#560)

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Henry Shukman (@mountaincloudzencenter). Henry teaches mindfulness and awakening practices to a wide range of students from all traditions and walks of life. He is an appointed teacher in the Sanbo Zen lineage and is the Guiding Teacher of Mountain Cloud Zen Center. He has an MA from Cambridge and an MLitt from St Andrews and has written several award-winning books of poetry and fiction.

Henry’s essays have been published in The New York TimesOutside, and Tricycle, and his poems have been published in The New RepublicThe GuardianThe Sunday Times (UK), and London Review of Books. He has taught meditation at Google, Harvard Business School, UBS, Esalen Institute, Colorado College, United World College, and many other venues. He has written of his own journey in his memoir One Blade of Grass: Finding the Old Road of the Heart, a Zen Memoir.

Henry has also recently created a new meditation program, Original Love, which aims to provide a broad, inclusive path of growth through meditation.

Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform.

#560: Zen Master Henry Shukman — 20 Minutes of Calm, Plus the Strange and Powerful World of Koans


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Tim Ferriss: Henry, welcome back to the show. I promised everyone a round two. I promised myself a round two because I have all of these notes that we didn’t even touch in the last conversation, which was wide ranging. And I want to focus on koans and delve deeply into many remaining questions about Zen and practices and so on. And I thought we might start, as I mentioned before we started recording, with a live example, our real world case study, and that is I’m coming down with some kind of cold. I’ve got a scratchy throat. I feel turbulent in my internal state right now because I was feeling a little sick, also got agitated earlier this morning and that has continued to the present moment. So I’m wondering, when you have a lot going on or life has thrown you a curveball or who knows, you just wake up on the wrong side out of the bed, assuming that still happens occasionally, what do you do with your toolkit and training and so on? What happens?

Henry Shukman:
Okay. Thank you so much for asking that. I like it a lot and it’s dear to my heart because alas, I do have to deal with that. It’s not gone as perhaps it ought to have in some marvelously awakened practitioner or something, but I’m evidently not there yet. So I can definitely, I think I can offer a few tools. But actually, I want to just say, I’ve got to say this, Tim, thank you very much for having me back. I’m bowed over, actually, amazed. I mean, I know you said it last time, but I thought somehow it’ll just get postponed and won’t happen because I mean, the people you have on are just so sort of amazing and I’m unknown and weird. So it’s a real — 

Tim Ferriss: Sort of my sweet spot, actually. I kid. I kid, in part. It’s great to have you back on and thank you for saying that and had to have you back on. I promised it.

Henry Shukman: Well, I really am sort of humbled and very grateful. So let’s see. Yeah, so I can totally relate to your question about where you’re at right now. I mean, actually to be honest, I can relate because I’m in a slightly sort of a — I’m in the situation I’m in right now, first of all, talking to Tim Ferriss, my God, but then secondly, actually I’ve got to do a teaching tonight to something like 400 people as a guest teacher, and so that’s a little bit sort of in my system. And tomorrow morning, my wife and I are flying back to the UK for just under two weeks, the first time in two years or more, to see our aging, aging parents who we haven’t been able to be face to face with in person.

And so my system, it knows all that’s going on. So now you’ve got a cold or something coming on, you had some kind of, should we call it sort of a triggering event or some kind of activating event?

Tim Ferriss: A kerfuffle earlier today.

Henry Shukman: A kerfuffle. A kerfuffle happened. Yeah. Right. So the system got sort of a little bit riled up and hasn’t fully settled down again.

Tim Ferriss: Has not settled down at all.

Henry Shukman: At all. Okay.

Tim Ferriss: I appreciate the generous phrasing, but yes.

Henry Shukman: Okay. Well look, I mean, first of all, let’s acknowledge clearly that that’s the situation. There’s a system here with a little bit of upregulation.

Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Henry Shukman: The sediment is churning in the bottom — right? Okay. So that’s the first thing is just to know it, to state it, to be clear about it. This is what I do. Okay? And then the second thing, I mean, really the key to the whole thing is letting it be that way. It’s letting — it’s like, okay, here’s a highly sensitive creature, human being, and among human beings, some by temperament have more sensitivity than others. All of us have fluctuations in our levels of sensitivity.

And some of us do, I mean, in a sense, do the kind of inner work that leads to more sensitivity. So let’s note that in a way to be sensitive to things is a good thing. It means that we’re more aware of life, put very broadly. But with it comes the possibility of getting more easily riled up. Those of us who’ve had, for whatever reasons and whatever shape, traumatic elements in our childhoods, especially also if we are of a sensitive nature. That sort of comes into us. It’s a wound that is in us. So when we’re allowing ourselves to be in, let’s say an agitated or a somehow distressed state, when we’re allowing that, it helps to also allow with compassion that, well, somehow things have made us be sensitive like this, and we still know. We know that we still have wounds and maybe in some sense, there’s a kind of core wound and we don’t want to close that off.

And one way to not close it off is to be ready to accept and allow our states of agitation and distress in the present moment. And if we can do that and see how, in a way, if it’s allowed, it becomes a kind of opening to perhaps a sort of deeper wound, or at least there’s some recognition that that’s there too. And both are allowed that we have, as well as having that stuff, we also have — all of us come pre-installed with access to a sort of wider, more loving, in this case, really meaning more self-loving, awareness. Our hearts have the capacity to love ourselves and we need to tap into that.

Tim Ferriss: Henry, may I jump in for one second?

Henry Shukman: Please, please, please.

Tim Ferriss: I would love to be a dork and ask some technical questions about this word, “allowing.” So when you allow these feelings to exist, or you allow yourself to recognize and accept your current state, so “allow” and “accept,” these are the two words I have questions about, how would you describe how that manifests? For instance, what is the self-talk or what do you do with the feelings? In other words, if you were to try to describe for someone what not accepting or not allowing looks like, and what allowing and accepting look like, on the other hand, what are the characteristics of those two things, practically, for people listening? If they’re like, “Great, I want to allow and accept; how do I do that? What does it look like?”

Henry Shukman: Yes. Okay, thank you. That’s a really good question. I’ll tell you again, I’ll tell you what I do, but remember this is on the back of decades of being still a bit each day, because really, I’d say the ideal is like this, that we can be still. We might close our eyes and be still and first say, “Wow, I’m agitated. I’m distressed. Maybe I’m a bit overwhelmed,” if that’s appropriate. Acknowledge it. State it. To declare it. What do they say? To name it is to tame it.

Tim Ferriss: I’ve never heard that. I like that.

Henry Shukman: Yeah. It makes it a little bit easier if we can just identify what’s going on in a clear, kind, matter of fact, internal voice. Ah, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. I’m feeling a bit agitated. I’m feeling somewhat distressed. Okay, so the first thing is stating it. Now there’s forks in the road all the way along, so there are lots of ways of doing this. But let’s say for somebody who’s got a certain amount of sort of somatic awareness, that’s to say, we can find feelings in the body. I’ve actually heard you on a podcast saying, I don’t know how old the podcast was though, you get the throat and not much else kind of thing. So have you done work on the somatic stuff at all? Feeling things in the body?

Tim Ferriss: I have. I feel like for all the sensitivities that I have in so many other places, I don’t want to say I’m physically insensitive, but when I’m in, say, a Hakomi therapy session, which is really a, if I could simplify it, a somatic focused mindfulness practice, it’s constantly answering the question “What are you feeling?” but in great detail. And I don’t think I have a great vocabulary for it. Maybe that’s part of the handicap.

Henry Shukman: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Because someone could say, “I feel like my friend is being unreasonable,” and it’s like, “Well, it’s not really a feeling.” Right?

Henry Shukman: Right. Correct.

Tim Ferriss: Or the actual kinesthetic sensations and I would say I’m probably a step broader than just tightness in the throat. There’s more to it than that. But I wouldn’t say — I’ve seen group sessions where exercises are being done and someone can go on for five minutes in a mini TED Talk of their bodily sensations. I do not do that.

Henry Shukman: Okay. Okay. Okay. Well, look, let’s just see. Like right now, and I don’t know if you would be happy to close your eyes, but it’s usually a bit easier if you do.

Tim Ferriss: I will, I will. I will close my eyes. Yes.

Henry Shukman: Okay.

Tim Ferriss: I can comply with that.

Henry Shukman: I hope everybody’s sort of okay with this. And by the way, I suppose if anybody’s driving, don’t follow along.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I mean, if we have to tell you that also, seriously, be careful with natural selection. But yes, if you’re driving, don’t close your eyes. If you’re operating heavy machinery, don’t close your eyes. In other words, consult with your closest common sense, PhD, please. Yes, I will close my eyes and share my experience with the audience.

Henry Shukman: Okay. Okay.

Tim Ferriss: We’ll keep it to that.

Henry Shukman: So let’s say, so we’re sitting, you can feel the seat of the chair. Let yourself just feel that, let yourself feel your feet on the floor. Whatever your hands are doing, just feel them as well. It doesn’t matter whether they’re free floating or holding each other or resting on the sides or something, it doesn’t matter, resting on a desk. Just feel them. And again, feel the feet and again, feel the seat. See if you can feel all three zones at once, hands, feet, and seat. And you don’t have to do anything special. Just kind of recognizing that they’re there as sensations. And just let me check in, is that sort of working for you? Are you feeling them?

Tim Ferriss: I am. And I should probably clarify that one thing I feel very capable of, I have a lot of sensitivity for, is feeling different parts of my body. So if I wanted to take the locus of my conscious awareness and put it in my right big toe or in my left Achilles tendon, this type of practice that we’re doing right now, it comes very easily to me.

Henry Shukman: Okay.

Tim Ferriss: And I don’t want to interrupt the flow, so please keep track, but when people usually ask in a therapy session, “What are you feeling in your body?” They’re wanting to sort of tie it to some emotional tenor and that’s where I have a harder time. But yes, I can feel. I can easily pay attention to the sensation of my hands on the table, my feet on the ground and my ass on this very, very hard white chair that I’m sitting on.

Henry Shukman: Okay. Well, that’s, I mean, honestly, that’s probably nine-tenths of the battle, so to speak.

Tim Ferriss: Sweet.

Henry Shukman: That’s the key thing. So let’s just, we’ll keep on with this. So we’ve got feet, we’ve got hands, we’ve got a seat. If you’ve got any back to the chair, maybe your lower back or something is just touching that as well. Just feel that, if it is. It’s fine, if it is or isn’t. And now let’s go to the shoulders. Just feel them. Let them settle a bit. Let them, as they were, sort a slump on their sockets kind of thing. Let’s feel the jaw now. So here’s a key thing. It’s really great to slacken the jaw. It’s a common thing in our fast-paced world, our sort of hasty world, to have tightness in the jaw. So see if you can let the jaw sink about an eighth of an inch, probably forward and down, and see if that, at the same time, brings some kind of softness into the throat.

And you might also just bring your attention to your tongue, because the tongue is a massive muscle that’s incredibly — it’s full of micro muscles. It’s incredibly busy. Let it rest right now. And I know you’re going to have to be talking shortly, but it’s okay to rest it. Let it settle on the floor of your mouth. And maybe you get a sense that it sort of lightly expands, like if you’re camping and you leave your down sleeping bag in a sunny tent all day, it inflates. Let your tongue do that just for a few. So maybe you’re getting a sort of little enveloping kind of just little taste of softness, like almost a soft cloud around tongue, around throat, jaw, all of them easing, becoming easier. So I’m just going to check in.

Are you getting anything like this?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I’m following along, definitely.

Henry Shukman: Great. Great. Okay, so we’re still with that softness in that area. Now we’re going to let it melt down. So it melts down into the shoulders and the arms, by the way, become really limp. And it melts on down into the upper chest, middle chest, lower chest, and then right through and around the midriff, the solar plexus area, right in the middle of the body, either side of it and whatever, to some extent through it, down into the upper belly, middle belly, lower belly, seat, upper legs, lower legs, feet, all becoming quite maybe a bit warm and soft.

So now already we’re getting a bit more balanced in ourselves, probably already a little bit calmer, likely, we hope.

Tim Ferriss: Yes.

Henry Shukman: Yeah, yeah. And a bit more sort of easy. And in a state of mind where we’ve managed to sort of diffuse a certain ease all through the body and we, under other conditions, we might take longer with this and go a little more minutely just to really tasting the quality of ease. And now we can bring our attention to sort of the whole atmosphere around the heart. Don’t go for the middle of the heart. Just sort of the whole area around the heart. If the chest was a kind of snow globe and the heart was a little structure in the bottom, in the middle of a snow globe, we want to be aware of the whole snow globe.

Those little things you shake and snow falls. You know what I mean?

Tim Ferriss: I do.

Henry Shukman: I hope you do. Yeah, good. Okay. So that whole area, so just feeling, how is this whole area? And it might be that much of it is relatively sort of clear, maybe sort of spacious and that parts of it are a bit contracted and tight with some tension in them. Could be that there’s also, if we go a little lower in the body, like the solar plexus, right in the middle, above the belly and below the chest kind of thing, around there, there’s often some tightness, some contraction. So we’re going to be aware of any tension contraction we’re finding, and we’re not going to try to change it. Instead, we’re going to be soft around it.

We’re just going to get a sense of the body, the fabric tissue of the body actually softening to the sides of the chest, the sides of the flanks, and whatever there may be by way of tension in more in the middle of the body or the middle the trunk, the intention is to allow it to be there. This is the allowing in a slightly more somatic sense. We’re softening around it and welcoming it and allowing it, meaning yes, you are welcome. You’re welcome to be here. That’s the kind of vibe. I welcome you. I want to treat you tenderly. I want to be kind to you.

I know that I’m a sensitive creature. I know that I’m a suffering being. And my intention isn’t to try to eradicate that or deny that or banish that or exile that, no, or reject that, no. My intention is to welcome this and I know I’m maybe imperfect at it, but I’m trying, and I want you, little tension, little tightness, little contraction, to know that I’m welcoming you. And maybe there’s just a little more ease in finding that at least there’s a sense of vague possibility of doing this. In other words, you don’t have to be rejecting your feelings. Now we’re looking at feelings right now, in a very somatic way. We’re not so interested in any of the storylines, any of the cognitive side of emotion. We’re really just feeling it out in the body. Okay. Now, Tim, I’ve been going on quite a while. How’s this going? You can stay in it as you’re reporting, or you can just pop out, whichever you prefer.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, it’s great. It’s like a therapy session that I don’t have to pay for. It’s fantastic. And without the cognitive overlay of the story, so this is, I imagine, we’re about 20 minutes in. This is 20 minutes that I could listen to very regularly and I could use your, what’s the right word, mellifluous, mellifluous. This is a word I have to find. This is a word that my fancy GRE friend used once, mellifluous. Yeah, mellifluous.

Henry Shukman: Yeah. I think you nailed it.

Tim Ferriss: That’s the one. Sweet or musical, pleasant to hear. The voice was mellifluous and smooth. So, as I was saying, without any type of hesitancy in my vocabulary, listening to your mellifluous voice for 20 minutes, but moreover, the kinesthetic focusing and relaxing without story is actually really effective for calming my system. And it’s a contrast to what I struggle with, which often exacerbates the situation, which is for instance, perhaps I’m asked which of the five dominant emotions are you feeling? Joy, anger, sadness, et cetera and there’s a list.

Henry Shukman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Ferriss: Now, where are you feeling that emotion? Those are questions that are the second, in particular, very hard for me to answer. But the sequencing, sort of boot up or boot down or scanning sequence that we just did, really call my system without any labeling of emotion.

Henry Shukman: Right. Well, I mean, part of me wants to just say sort of welcome to the male gender because I mean, we’re notoriously, poorly socialized or poorly educated in our social — in having any emotional literacy at all. I mean, I feel that by the time I was cognizant that there was such a thing as emotion. All I knew was I’m feeling okay and I’m feeling awful. And I couldn’t pause out whether I was — I like mad, glad, sad, afraid. I find that very easy to remember. There’s four primary emotions. I don’t know. I know people have different lists. I think four is quite good because it’s just so easy to remember, mad, glad, sad, afraid. And I wouldn’t have a clue what — I mean, of course, if I was feeling glad, I’d know that I wasn’t feeling awful, but that was about the extent of my emotional literacy. So I mean, God, I think for many guys, I mean, I hope it’s okay to talk like this, it’s a journey, a discovery.

Tim Ferriss: I’ll take this episode and I’ll put it on my new podcast, which is actually called Poorly Socialized, so it’ll be okay on that podcast. Please, please continue.

Henry Shukman: So it’s not surprising for many of us that we really have to go on a journey that might take some time to start to understand, in any sense, really understand our emotional life. And it’s so critical because how can you sort of — what can you do with emotions, negative emotions, difficult emotions, if you don’t know what they are, other than try to banish them? And if we try to banish them, inevitably, we’re banishing part of ourself or part.

Tim Ferriss: It just doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work and it’s the type of realization that I would’ve thought by now, I would’ve translated to consistent, reliable self-relating. Do you know what I mean? I know that divorcing a part of yourself and stuffing or refusing feelings doesn’t work. I know. I know it just leads to more problems. And yet here we are again. The dog chasing its tail once again.

Henry Shukman: Right. But we have to sort of compassionately bear in mind what happened to us in childhood because for many of us that lays down some kind of a template for how we’re going to handle difficult emotions. And if we have things that are really basically too much for us to handle in childhood and we are alone trying to handle these difficult feelings without support, without being sort of met by anybody, without connection to anybody, it’s overwhelming and there’s no choice. It’s either I die, and often for an infant, especially, it seems like it is life or death or I somehow have to make it so I don’t feel this, somehow.

And then we may have caregivers who chastise us for showing emotion and we may have stressed parents who just can’t handle it and they don’t need another screaming toddler or infant. They’ve got so much on their plate already and who knows what? And so I think it’s not surprising that we would ongoingly have to be working on this stuff. But I mean, the good news, as far as I’m concerned, is that inside of these difficulties, I think there’s ways to access — well, I don’t know. I’m going off the deep end again like last time. But yeah — 

Tim Ferriss: I think that’s why I’m having you back on.

Henry Shukman: Okay. Well, that’s good.

Tim Ferriss: In for a penny, in for a pound. Let’s go for it.

Henry Shukman: Okay. I guess so. Okay, I’ll go on. Inside of many of us, I believe there’s some kind of deep, primordial wound. There’s some deep, ancient grief. I don’t know. Partly it’s probably part of the human race and all the things it’s been through over thousands of generations and all the killing and famine and slavery and the most painful things that have gone on, endless loss of children. So many difficult things human beings have been through, but somehow I think most of us, probably, I mean, I don’t know whether you could ever scientifically prove this, but I suspect that anyway, a lot of us have got some deep grief inside us and actually there are various methods and I think a lot of good therapists somehow tap into that or can find ways to kindly, gently, give us opportunities to sort of open up to that and it can be incredibly cathartic and incredibly healing actually, to open in that kind of way and find that grief is not an enemy.

Because I mean personally, I feel that some of the most significant important sort of pivot points in my growth so far as a fallible, ailing, fucked up human being, has been through things like that when suddenly a gate of my heart opened and I could feel all this grief, but somehow in that grief, I could also feel just great love. And I don’t know. I don’t know how this works exactly, but my hunch is that grief and love and hurt and love and pain and love, they’re joined at the hip somehow. And so our acts, I mean, I have gone deeper with how to handle and know emotions, but yeah, it all relates really.

If we allow our emotional sort of challenges and tightness and reluctance to feel, if we’re given a supportive framework where we can open to that, then we might open to this sort of deeper well of grief and it’s so beautiful because then we find wow, in the depths of this, somehow I don’t feel so alone, there’s a truth in this that somehow joins me to the human race or something like that. I don’t know, maybe I’m getting off the rails here. Not only off the deep end, but off the rails. But there’s something here for us. I really think this is a part of our healing. That’s been, anyway, my experience. And so not being afraid of feelings is a really important starting point. And that is, I think, part of the allowing piece is that instead of feeling this way, being wrong and bad and I got to not feel this way, flip it.

No, I’m going to allow this to teach me something. I don’t really know what it is and it’s probably quite hard for me to believe it could teach me anything, it just seems wrong, but actually maybe it’s not wrong. Maybe it’s just that my map of myself has got a lot of terra incognita, unknown lands, in my map of myself and hey, why don’t I allow myself to be on a journey of discovery, of not knowing all of who I am and being willing to sort of let parts of myself show themselves that I didn’t think I wanted to know or didn’t even think were there to be known, but maybe they are.

Tim Ferriss:
I was listening to you, of course, one would hope, just now. And what I heard you say was given your more sophisticated accent, the Queen’s English and such, I heard terror incognita and I thought to myself, that’s actually — then I realized, of course, that you’re saying terra incognita as I would say it. And I was like, well, maybe to get to the terra incognita, the undiscovered territory or the unexplored territory where one reaps the rewards, you have to go through the terror incognita, which is the fear in the middle. But I’m starting to really — I’m grasping at straws here. So let me try to land this plane, if that’s okay.

Henry Shukman: Yeah, totally.

Tim Ferriss: Just so we can pile on as many mixed metaphors as possible. This has been extremely helpful. I want to sit with this. We may come back to it, but I want to make sure that I cover a topic that is of great interest to me. It is of great interest to our mutual friend, Kevin Rose, and there are a number of words that you brought up that led me to think about it. Framework, truth, especially framework, is not something that most people would associate with koan, the word koan or the, what people might think of as koans.

And I think we should start from scratch because not everyone will have heard the first episode, but before ever speaking to Kevin about some of what he’s learned, I didn’t know that koans, which we’ll define in a minute, have checking questions that there may be such a thing as passing or not passing a koan, which kind of blew my mind, because for me, and perhaps you could, you could give an example, but what is the sound of one hand clapping that may or may not be a real example that there may be some nuance to that or one that I had kind of bookmarked for myself, which is somewhat different maybe, which is not knowing is most intimate, which again, may or may not be a real koan. You could tell, you can certainly clarify, but these are statements of paradox that are intended to be meditated upon as a way of perhaps stepping outside the confines of logical, rational, sort of hyper intellectualized existence. Right? Maybe that’s how I would look at these types of things. What is a koan? Proper definition.

Henry Shukman: Yes, yes, yes, yes. Well, I’ll try my best. I mean, okay. So a koan is a phrase. It may be a few words or it can be a few lines long, it may even be the longest two that I know about a page long each, but in, even in those ones, we just kind of pull out a phrase here and a phrase there, and that’s really the heart of what the koan really is.

And these phrases, generally, they sort of don’t make sense to our normal rational mind. And it varies a bit. I mean, not knowing is most intimate, it is, but by the way, it’s a totally bona fide koan. Yeah, absolutely koan. it’s with this master called Hogen. It’s supposed to be the moment he had a great awakening actually, when he heard another master tell him that. And, maybe I’ll come back to the story in a moment, but that’s almost a bit more, you could kind of wrap your head around some idea of not knowing as most intimate. Well, actually it’s a little bit hard, but you could sort of think, well, actually, Tim and Henry were just a moment talking about not knowing, like going into unknown land as a sort of like reclaiming parts of the self by recognizing that there’s limits to what I know of myself.

So maybe there’s some aspect of not knowing that’s connected with personal growth of some kind. And actually I think Tim, your comment about terror, that was great. That was great, because actually we know that we’re moving into not knowing if we get a little bit afraid. Fear is a hallmark of that because it sort of is scary, nearly always. You could kind of maybe think about not knowing is most intimate as like, not knowing will help me know something about myself that I don’t yet know or something like that.

You could sort of rationally approach it a little bit, but what about this sound of one hand? Actually the real sort of really, I don’t know, the old formulation of that hand, of that koan, is like this, you know the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand? In other words, you know what two hands clapping sounds like. What does one hand clapping sound like? Or, do you know what the sound of one hand is? That’s kind of meaningless, really? Isn’t it? I mean, some people try that. I’ve had people sort of snap their fingers or something, because only one hand to make a noise. No. It’s not, the basic thing with koans is as the sort of a frame I think I’ve got to give to understand what they’re sort of for and why they’re beautiful and why they’re not just often seemingly infuriating little riddles that can’t be puzzled out.

They’re not just that, they’re actually, so the origin of them and almost, I think in every single case, is something that one of these deeply awakened masters said, or in some cases, did, some koans are somebody just does something weird. And, most of the people doing or saying the things in them, these Zen practitioners, or perhaps we should say Chan practitioners because Zen was called Chan in China, where it really comes from, and the Japanese kind of took it on about 1,800 years ago and did a great job of sort of passing it, conveying it, and practicing with it, and passing it on so to speak, you know? But the original practitioners who gave us a lot of the koans, most of them were Chinese, and they were mostly in this period of Chinese history called the Tang Dynasty, which was like 600 to 900, approximately.

And that’s when Zen is sort of said to have had its first real flourishing. There were just a lot of people around, apparently, at that time who were really doing this practice and got kind of really helped by it and clarified in certain key ways. And the key way that koans sort of pass on, or allow us to maybe taste, is, in a dry way of putting it, is we could say nondual experience. But that’s sort of a bit boring, really, to put it that way. It’s to realize through personal experience that there is actually, there are actually sort of other dimensions to our experience than we normally experience. And what they are like is a kind of incredible, overwhelming sense that somehow everything is one thing, that’s one common experience that koans are trying to convey. That all these separate things in this world, just like they seem to be, there’s a table, there’s a cup, there’s a tree outside, there’s Tim — and are you still on the east coast Tim, somewhere?

Tim Ferriss: Yes. Yeah.

Henry Shukman: So Tim on the East Coast, Henry in New Mexico, Santa Fe, and they’re obviously quite separate, but at the very same time, there is actually also a level of our experience, of our reality, where nothing is separate. And this isn’t an idea. It’s an actual experience that quite a number of people through the ages and today still attest to being something they’ve discovered and found to be real, that does not in any way sort of impair their functioning as a normal human being. So it’s not psychotic and it’s not delusional. It doesn’t generally sort of take us off into dysfunction, quite the reverse. It can actually lead to better mental health than we’ve had before. And, it’s kind of good for us apparently to find this and koans are little invitations to that side of things.

Now, how they work is, actually, shall I give you a chance to say something and not just rant away? Would it, is there anything so far, I know that it sort of doesn’t make sense or anything, or am I going in a direction instead of interest, do you think?

Tim Ferriss: It is of interest. Let me just share a few things that may be of interest to folks. And, I want you to bookmark, you are just about to get into the way they work, which is a hell of a cliffhanger. So I want you to remember that that’s where you are. I had a bee in my bonnet about the actual term koan and I had to look it up cause it was really bothering me, maybe because the characters are super strange for the association that I have with the meaning of koan. And, I pulled it up on Wikipedia, and the etymology, if you look at it, the origin, as you mentioned of this expression, is Chinese. Gong’an, gong’an? It’s the two, or gong’an, depending on whether it’s first or fourth tone on the second syllable. And then, koan are the same characters in the On’yomi in Japanese. But it literally could be translated as “Public case.”

Henry Shukman: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Like, gong, I guess this would be gong’an. Yeah. Fourth tone. But if you hear that gong’an, first tone, it would be like public safety, like public security. It’s public, like you would see that on the people’s liberation jackets in Beijing, these huge green jackets that in some cases you would see that. So I was looking at this and I’m just like, what the hell does this mean? Because it’s public and then case or plan. And I was just like, where does that come from? And so it turns out that that is exactly, according to Wikipedia, what it is. It’s referring to a public record, and the terminology came from the Tang Dynasty in China. And thus, the koan serves as a metaphor. I’m reading directly from Wikipedia, for principles of reality, beyond the private opinion of one person and a teacher may test the student’s ability to recognize and understand that principle.

That is the thing I really want to dig into. But, suffice to say, that as stated here and Wikipedia, Zen koan collections, or public records of the notable sayings and actions of Zen masters and disciples attempting to pass on their teachings, right? So whether or not we agree a hundred percent with that, I just had to get a better understanding of why these characters are used for this, because it is not obvious at all why they’re connected.

So let’s jump back to where you were in terms of how they work. And I just want to tease this for people, and that is, and I am going into the abyss here because I don’t know the answer, but the idea that a teacher may test the student’s ability to recognize and understand that principle seems on its face, just absurd, right? Because it just does. So I can’t wait to hear you tie it together. I will also say that this experience of unity or nonduality, all is one, et cetera, sounds really abstract. And, I suppose it is, for those who’ve not experienced it.

These are experiences that can be captured or reflected at least in, on some level, functional MRI scans with the administration of something like psilocybin at a sufficiently high dose. So you see, and it’s much more complex than this, but some downregulation or decreasing activity in what people might consider the default mode network, this constellation of neural components thought to be associated with, among other things, conception of ego and self-referential thinking and so on. So even though it sounds very woo woo and how would anyone ever document this? This is a phenomenon that is routinely documented and assessed with questionnaires at places like Johns Hopkins when they’re working with psychedelic compounds, not to say that the experiences are identical, but it’s just to point out that it’s not completely outside the reach of experience and observation, although Zen or Chan Buddhism had a head start of a few thousand years, perhaps.

Henry Shukman: Yeah, no, look, all of that is fantastic. I’m so happy to hear you say that. Both, I mean, it’s both parts because my own little sort of hobby horse these days kind of thing is that I’m so happy about the psychedelic research because it’s given, it’s giving us new tools for once again, resuming the study of meditation at deeper levels, because a lot of the study of meditators brains over the last 30 years or whatever it’s been, has been about mindfulness, it’s been about quieting the default mode network and just getting into maybe more compassionate states of mind or just more equanimous states of mind, but it hasn’t really tapped into the capacity, or it’s minimally tapped into the capacity of meditation to yield, to bring to these nondual states, which are really what the heart of the matter, you know?

And so now, the psychedelic research is opening that up again, and it’s creating like new ways of measuring longevity of change in people who’ve been through experiences like this, which was so hard to do before, because you couldn’t, you can’t really get somebody in an MRI and say, have Kenshō, Kenshō being the Zen name for awakening to the principle, which is nondual. So psychedelic research is really helping with that. And it’s actually, it’s funny that Zen had a real popularity in the west back in the ’50, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, even still in the kind of heyday and then aftermath of psychedelic culture. That people recognized, wow, Zen seems to know about what I tasted on that last acid trip. It seems to have some congruence with that. And maybe meditation is a way to sort of get there in a more stable way, kind of thing, and without having to take a substance and maybe that’s the case, really. And, so I think now, Zen got a little bit sort of, I mean, it was almost kind of mainstream really, for a while. You know?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, you had like J.D. Salinger, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, right? I mean, not to mention Alan Watts, and so on. Right. So it was in the zeitgeist for sure.

Henry Shukman: Totally. You know, and I think maybe it’s due for a reappraisal at the moment and maybe, and koans can be a part of this. I’m so convinced because, now, okay. Public case. That’s exactly right. Now, one interpretation that I’ve heard of what the term public case means is that actually it was taken from Tang Dynasty legal processes. That they would, so essentially, a public case was a public record of some point of legislation or some, what we would call a legal precedent today.

Tim Ferriss: Case record of a public law court, at least according to Wikipedia.

Henry Shukman: Right. Okay, great, so I’m not off track there. So basically meaning that you could point to, actually it was a master called Echu who was an amazing master in the late seventh, early eighth century, if I remember right, who said “The single hand doesn’t sound without reason,” that was what he said. The single hand sounds, so that’s a little obscure, of course it’s very obscure, but actually he was trying to express his experience of “awakening.”

In other words, he’s trying to use language to convey, what is basically a non-linguistic experience, and even an experience that we don’t really have language for, but it’s a very vivid and real experience in which the sense of self has been swallowed up by everything, kind of thing. And so what we feel we are is everything. And koans are records of that in a sense, it’s a great practitioner expressing through words what he or she has realized, and therefore, the idea is the ordinary way of constructing reality, where I am a self in this body and everything else is outside of me, that way of constructing reality won’t understand the koan, can’t get at what the koan is getting at. The koan is a little kind of drill bit that is drilling into the wall of my house of self, so to speak.

It’s trying to actually puncture my, the membrane of my sense of self, switching metaphors. It’s trying to, I sometimes have talked to them of, they’re like little explosives. We take them into the psyche by sitting with them. You kind of do best with them if you have a meditation practice. You let them sort of somehow simmer away inside you, and they will possibly do something to deep assumptions that I have. And one of those deepest assumptions is that I’m me in my body, in my mind, and I’m not what’s outside of me, and that’s a deep assumption. And the koan can kind of blow a hole in it, in the assumption. And suddenly I discover that’s not true, or it’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. There’s another reality, that is real. I mean it is a dimension of reality where there isn’t separation between things, there isn’t distance between things. Somehow there’s one fabric, one sort of tissue, one. That’s what they mean by the way. And when you were quoting the word principle, that’s what it means. It means a single tissue, single fabric. That is what everything’s made of.

Tim Ferriss: Henry, may I jump in here for one second?

Henry Shukman: Please, please, please!

Tim Ferriss: No, no, no. I have a tendency of saying no, no, no, and what I really mean is yes, yes, yes. So some psychoanalyst or therapist can really do a deep dive on that, I’m sure. But, returning to the point I wanted to make, there are no doubt going to be people listening who are like, “What the fuck these people talking about?”

So what I’d love to do, because they might assume you have to do a lot of drugs or like lock yourself in a room in a robe until you basically go crazy for any of this to make sense, let me ask some super specific questions. And if you wouldn’t mind, I think this will be a way because this is the itch that I want to scratch for myself, also. And it’s related to, the extent that one exists, the system around, or that includes koans. So one of the questions that Kevin wanted me to ask you is: “How many koans are there and how many have you passed?” So give me the short answer to that, and then we can go from there because I think people will be like, “What?” Okay. It might pull people in. So how many koans are there that you’re aware of, and how many have you passed?

Henry Shukman: Okay, I’m aware that, I’ve read that there are 1700 that are kind of classically recognized koans, nearly all from that Tang Dynasty period. And a few from way earlier, actually a few have come out of the Indian phase of Buddhism, way back in the fourth century BCE. So apparently 1,700, but in practice, what happens is there are these different sort of schools of Zen that will use certain collections. So, to my knowledge, no school uses 1,700 koans. No training involves that many. In a school that I’m part of called Sanbo Zen, we use something like, I believe it’s around 420, is what I’ve heard. Fairly recently actually, from one of my colleagues, had sort of counted it up and they’re in five collections of kinds. So these koans got collected in mostly Song Dynasty China. That’s around 1100, 1200, and these sort of classic collections were compiled, and there are several of them.

There are, there are maybe three really major collections. The earliest was put together in 1028, it’s called the Blue Cliff Record, and that has a hundred koans in it. And then there’s another one called The Book of Equanimity that’s also got a hundred, and there’s another one called The Gateless Gate that has 48. And, actually, there’s quite a bit of overlap among those volumes. And then there’s another volume that we use. And there’s a preliminary kind of volume of just a sort of hodgepodge of koans that one of our teachers in the lineage put together called The Miscellaneous Koans because they are just miscellaneous. And, and so what we do, okay, so this is how it works, is that if somebody is really kind of got a steady meditation practice and they have found ways to get to the point where they’re kind of like meditating, whether there’s a reason — 

Tim Ferriss: Henry, hold your thought. But if I had to answer Kevin’s question, maybe it’s a bad question. I don’t know, because I don’t know what I’m talking about, but how many of those 1,700 or 420 have you passed? Because I think that is a concept that is going to be interesting to people.

Henry Shukman: Okay. So I can modestly and humbly say that I have been passed on all of the ones that we do, the 420, at least sort of two at the minimum times, in some cases, multiple times. The reason I say multiple times is because I first went through them all with one teacher and then actually my teacher, John Gaynor Roshi in the UK. And then I moved to New Mexico and picked up with my teacher, Joan Rieck Roshi, and sort of carried on with her, and so between those two teachers, I did one go through them all. Then, I did another go through all of them with my teacher Rubin Habito Roshi, who is a professor of comparative religion at SMU in Dallas, they’re all fantastic, fantastic people by the way. And also I’ve done many with my current teacher, Yamada Roshi. And So I mean I’ve done a lot of them at least three times and I’ve probably, I’d say, hazard, that I’ve done just about all of them three times. But definitively, probably three, and three quarters of them, two and three quarters of them, you know?

Tim Ferriss: You know, I thought that I would have a set, a finite list of questions, but now I just have more questions about questions of all things. So if I may, just dance with me here a little bit, so there are there are these many koans, but there is, for practical purposes, subsets that are practiced by different schools.

Henry Shukman: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: You are in the Sanbo, Sanbo Kyodan. Sanbo school, the Three Treasures, is that right?

Henry Shukman: That’s right. Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: And you have been passed, and we yet explained what that is on these various koans. Some of them two or three times. Now in my head, I’m thinking like once you have it answered, don’t you just kind of have the answer? What does it mean to pass two or three times? And then I’m going to give you another question from Kevin and then I’m going to let you run wild.

Henry Shukman: Okay, okay.

Tim Ferriss: And that is: “What are the checking questions?” What are the checking questions? Because when I first had these sent to me from Kevin, I thought to myself, well, this is interesting because in my head I’m imagining this koan, using your earlier description, as this sort of Trojan horse software, that puts a little snippet of code in your head and your computer can’t run the program. So you basically just like beach ball your way into giving up on rationality, and then somehow poof, you have this Kenshō unity experience because you break your computer and whether that happened or not is kind of your word against somebody else’s word. Right? So the idea that there are checking questions and passing, I’m like, okay. I want to know all about that. With that, please go crazy.

Henry Shukman: Yeah. Well it all ties into what you just said. It’s your word against somebody else’s as to whether you’ve had Kenshō, that’s the point really. It’s not, it’s really not. And the reason it isn’t is that if somebody’s had Kenshō, the way they experience the koan will have changed utterly. And the way they are when, if they meet with a teacher, if they do, I mean, bear in mind that this is not the only way of working with koans actually, there’s nothing wrong with somebody just deciding they want to sit with a koan. Fine. I’ve got a friend who doesn’t even sit with them. He likes reading them. Fine. There is no ban on that. You know, that’s totally up to you. But this system of training, you can actually, I mean like on Sam Harris’ app, for example, we go to these koan meditations and you just sit with it.

And it’s a bit like, for example, in the Zendō when we’re open or even when we’re, I mean in life, but when we’re on zoom, people come and they just, they hear a talk on a koan and they get to sort of bask in the weird waters of a koan for a while, while the teacher’s giving a disquisition on the koan. It may be opaque, and yet, there may be moments when suddenly they feel some weird sort of movement inside, a stirring or something within, and some weird little pool of limpid clarity opens. They go, “What the hell is this?” But it’s beautiful. You know —

Tim Ferriss: Limpid’s Clarity, that’s my third podcast.

Poorly Socialized, and then to offset the damage from that podcast, I have Limpid Clarity. Please continue.

Henry Shukman: Yeah. So there are different ways of working with them, but this way, whereby you have sort of decided to engage a teacher with them, if you have this Kenshō experience, in a way, the very point of the koan is it’s a meeting place where the two people, two practitioners, one more experience than the other can actually meet through the koan in the very reality they’ve awakened to. To me, that’s the most precious and amazing thing about it, is that, far from this sort of awakening thing, this awakening and nondual, being just a personal experience. Of course, it is that, but actually through koans you can meet in it, you meet in the boundless wonder of this other dimension of our experience. 

I think I said last time we were talking and I talk about in my book, I had a couple of these sort of what I felt to be very powerful experiences of nonduality and they were slightly different, each one. Prior to connecting with a teacher, I’d been trying to find a teacher actually, but sort of wasn’t ready. But then eventually when I did connect with the first teacher that I really engaged with, John in the UK, John Gaynor, when I got my first koan from him, which was this, often, it’s the first koan, which is so inscrutable. I mean, just sort of damnable.

I mean, I’m embarrassed to even say it, but it’s a koan that a lot of people start with, which is Mu. M-U. Mu. Which basically means — 

Tim Ferriss: That’s it.

Henry Shukman: You go ahead.

Tim Ferriss: That’s it, that’s the whole thing.

Henry Shukman: That’s it. Mu. I mean, it has a little background story. A monk asked Zhōushu, this great master Zhàozhōu, Zhōushu in Sino-Japanese, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Buddha nature meaning this awakened nature or principle as it was referred to earlier, does even a dog have that? He asks. And Zhàozhōu answers, “Mu,” which ostensibly means “Not.” It does mean “not,” literally, but it’s sort of a principle of Buddha nature that it’s everything. So how could a dog not have it, sort of thing? Yet, Zhàozhōu says, “Mu.” So we don’t worry about that. We just sit with Mu. We just sit with Mu. We could almost take it like when Zhàozhōu says, “Mu,” he’s sort of just dismissing the whole question. “Mu. I’m not going to deal with that. Mu,” something like that. But he’s also presenting that very reality in that little word, Mu, because actually, that very reality is showing up all the time, right here, right now. It’s always present, this so-called principle. It’s always present. It’s always here. It’s just, we’re not conditioned to know it clearly.

Tim Ferriss: Now what you mean by that is the principle of not, or the principle of emptiness? Is that what you mean? Is that what you’re referring to?

Henry Shukman: Yes, it is. Yes. Basically, the principle of what I was calling nonduality, which also happens to be empty, the principle of total oneness, which is also empty. That’s always here. So when Zhàozhōu says, “Mu,” he’s expressing that in his way, “Mu,” just then. He’s expressing it. So a student sits with this question, Mu, and if and when they have an opening with sitting with Mu, and it is a — 

Tim Ferriss: To be clear, that is not done by thinking about it.

Henry Shukman: No, it’s not. It just — 

Tim Ferriss: You’re not reflecting and ruminating. You’re just kind of sitting there with this software and this code that’s been installed.

Henry Shukman: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Okay. All right.

Henry Shukman: Yeah. You’re usually just sort of repeating it softly. You add it to your breath meditation, usually, just softly voicing the sound, “Mu,” with each breath, and you just patiently do it. The more patiently you do it, the better, because you’ll be more comfortable, and you’ll — it starts to just sort of, in a way, take over your sitting in a very nice, gentle way kind of thing. It’s a little bit like a mantra. It’s a little bit like that. But anyway, so it’s a little unlike other kinds in that regard because you use it that way, but when — let’s say something happens. When you go to see the teacher, you both light up in this other dimension, kind of thing. I’m sorry. I’m not expressing it very well. You meet in a way that — I mean, I certainly, coming back to when I was working with my teacher, John, when I went in to see him after I’d had some experience with Mu where — I mean, I don’t know if there’s any interest, but I could tell you what that was like, if anybody wants — 

Tim Ferriss: Sure. Yeah, please, and then I’m not going to let go. I’m like a dog with a bone on this check-in questions thing. I’m not going to let that go. But please, yes, I would love to hear about the experience.

Henry Shukman: Okay, and I’m truly going to the check-in questions, truly. It’s a long journey together, a long and winding road to check-in questions. So this is also just to exemplify how much this can happen in the midst of ordinary life. I was busy as a writer and as a poet. I was doing lots of readings. I was working on my next book. I just sold a book, and working out a contract with my agent, all of that stuff going on, busy, and kind of productive, and I got a fellowship in poetry at Oxford Brookes University at the time, and one day — I’d been sitting with Mu, and often, when I’m riding my bike to the office in the college, I’m using Mu, and as I’m riding along, it just comes to mind, and I said, “What is this thing?” but just doing it.

Then one day, I’m home, and I’ve just made dinner, and our toy boys are young, and they’re watching a movie, and I’m bringing a plate of food upstairs for Claire, my wife. The boys have already eaten. They’re watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a great movie, on the video, with Bob Hoskins, and I bring in Claire’s plate of food, and I think I’m still holding mine, and I’m watching this scene on the movie where Roger Rabbit goes whirring round and round a kitchen while his rear end is on fire. I don’t know if you’ve seen it —

Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. Oh, I’ve seen it more times than I should probably admit. It’s been a while, but yes, I’ve seen it.

Henry Shukman: It’s a fantastic film, I feel, or at least, that’s the last time I saw it, 20 years ago, whatever that was, and I was watching that scene, and it just suddenly seemed just so funny, and then all of a sudden, this crazy sort of like a cyclone energy whips up through my body, and blam, it’s really like I sort of black out. I’m on my feet, and everything’s disappeared. Everything’s just gone. It’s just an empty, vast, empty space that’s so beautiful, and nothing there. Then I sort of come back and I realize I’m standing in this room, holding a plate, which somehow I haven’t dropped, and it’s like the house is still here, but it’s not really made of anything. It’s totally discombobulating and marvelous, and I’m just trembling with some sort of overwhelming gratitude and love, and it’s like somehow this empty space that everything’s in is just so overwhelmingly beautiful, and it’s just like a huge love.

I’m overwhelmed. I can’t believe how fortunate it is to be a human being. It’s just indescribably — this is all coming out of this little word, Mu. I’ve been sitting assiduously with Mu, and at the time, I didn’t even realize it had anything to do with Mu. It was just this mind-blowing experience. So I go downstairs and I think, “Well, I better sit and light a stick of incense, and maybe I’ll just calm down,” and I don’t. I’m supremely happy. I’m overwhelmed with happiness. Tears are flowing down my cheeks, and it’s just so beautiful. So then two weeks later or something, I get to visit with John, the teacher, and I tell him this thing, and he says something like, “Ah. So Mu has paid you a visit,” or something like that.

I thought, “What’s he talking about? How could Mu have anything to do with that?” But suddenly, the penny dropped, and I realized, “Oh, my God. This is what a koan is for. It’s for precipitating, it’s for sharing this fucking reality.” Excuse my Greek. A koan isn’t an annoying, boring, little, pointless thing. It’s got an incredible purpose, which is sharing this deepest reality of our existence. And how can it do it? I mean, I still don’t really understand how it can do it. I can sort of piece it together a little bit, so yeah, Zhàozhōu knew this world incredibly well. He was accustomed to it. It’d become second nature to him, and he was at ease in it, and he knew this normal way things are and this mind-blowing way things also are not in the end separate. That’s the point of the training ongoing in koans, is to go beyond this either life is this mind-blowing, boundless oneness, emptiness thing, or it’s my ordinary life, but the point of training — damn, am I going ahead? Can I just finish that thought? Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Finish the thought, yes, please.

Henry Shukman: Wow. God, Kevin. I hope this isn’t too much for everybody listening, but — 

Tim Ferriss: No, it’s not, and I also like being Kevin, so please continue.

Henry Shukman: God. You can tell how my mind is blown. I’m sorry. Well, that explains — 

Tim Ferriss: Mu’s got ahold of you right now. You’ve got to be careful.

Henry Shukman: Oh, my God. Yeah. So that is why we sit with koans, is because they can open us up to this boundless reality, but ongoing beyond a first experience, they train us more and more in realizing that our ordinary life and that mind-blowing reality, they’re not separate, and that’s a very hard thing to understand, and that’s why so many koans are about things. Okay. I want to talk about koans are about things, and koans love the world so much, and they love us. They want us to share in it, and basically, of course, they don’t really, but the masters, the practitioners who created the koans, they’re deeply compassionate, and they wanted to share somehow what they had realized, and it’s pretty amazing. So, check-in question, when I — Yeah. Okay, okay. It’s going to be —

Tim Ferriss: He’s on a scent trail.

Henry Shukman: Oh, my God. This is going to be a bit of a letdown from me, an anticlimax when we finally get there.

Tim Ferriss: I’ll be the judge of that.

Henry Shukman: Okay. Well, the check-in questions were what John started to ask me about Mu that enabled him and me to meet more thoroughly, and to know more deeply, basically, what experience had just happened in the student, me. They’re questions like — actually, I don’t know how much of this I can reveal, but I think I can. They’re things like, “Well, show me Mu. What is Mu? How old is Mu? How tall is Mu? How would you show Mu to a baby?” They’re weird question like that, but after that experience they’re easy. They’re easy. So they’re kind of — yeah. This is a system for sharing what we mean by awakening, and sort of being able to, as in the legal precedence of it, to meet in the same place, so to speak. Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: All right. I have so many followups.

Henry Shukman: Okay.

Tim Ferriss: So I want to preface all of the followups by saying I am genuinely fascinated by all of this. Simultaneously, I have to act as a stand-in for the audience listening. So you can understand, I have to both be enthusiastic — I don’t have to, but I am enthusiastic, and I have to present, or I should, ask questions on behalf of the audience who might be thinking to themselves, at least a handful of them, “Well, what the hell is going on?” Right?

Henry Shukman: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: No, this is great. This is great. I like it. We’re rolling in the mud here. It’s good. So the first question that hopped to mind for me is related to, I’m sure, an observation that many people had, or a thought that occurred to them, which is if you were to go to a psychiatrist and describe your experience with your dinner plate, there’s a very good chance they would consider that a psychotic break or label it a delusion of grandeur, and prescribe medication for you. That would be one very likely psychiatric treatment response. What I’m curious to know is, or just to get your opinion on, and this is by no means meant to imply that people who have destabilizing experiences shouldn’t seek professional help.

I think they should, but do you think that these types of experiences can show in the — the benefit or detriment of an experience like that is dependent on the container and framework that you have within which to try to metabolize that, and building on top of that, and I’ve wondered this quite a bit because with psychedelic experiences, you come to have over time, I think, tremendous empathy for people who appear to be suffering from mental illness, say homeless people, who seem disconnected from reality. In your opinion, this is not medical advice, it’s just curiosity, do you think that some subset of people we view as completely mentally detached are just people who had experiences of Kenshō, perhaps identical to what you experienced, but have no means for trying to make any sense of it, and therefore, become lost at sea?

Henry Shukman: I think it’s quite possible that that’s the case, tragically, I do. Quite a number of people that have reached out to me report having had something like this earlier in life. I can think of several people who did as teenagers, and had no idea. They somehow, in the depths of the experience, they felt this was a vastly benevolent thing to perceive, to undergo, to experience, and then afterwards got terribly scared and didn’t know what was going on, what had just happened to them, were they going crazy, and in some cases, got unhappy, got depressed, anxious, for some years, and I think that it could be that in some cases, it could be graver than that, and if somebody is already perhaps traumatized anyway, as so many are, it might initially be a very benevolent thing, but then there’s no container. There’s no understanding. They’re completely alone with it, and it could be really scary, and it could become another traumatizing factor.

I think that happens, and it’s very sad, and I feel part of what I want to do is get the word out widely that this is a feature of human nature. It is something we — we’re built a capacity to have these kinds of experiences, and they are vastly benevolent in the end, and they may also be really pretty fucking weird at the beginning. So I want people to know that this is a feature of human nature, and therefore, there are places you can reach out, people you can reach out to, and you don’t have to be doing koans for this, by the way. The koan method I think is a beautiful thing because it makes it more accessible to more of us. It’s not a freak thing if somebody has that kind of experience with a koan. It’s still by no means totally predictable or reliable or something, but it’s not a freak thing.

Also, the koan training subsequently is exactly a way of grounding it, integrating it, getting more familiar with it, probably deepening it, clarifying further, and learning how to just effortlessly live from it in your normal life, and not feel you’ve got to quit everything and go and live on a mountaintop or something. You don’t have to. The mountaintop’s right here anyway, kind of thing. So the more that people are aware of this, and the more it becomes part of the conversation, the public discourse, the better, and so far in the world of meditation, a lot of the public discourse around meditation, most of it, has been about the nervous system calming benefits of mindfulness. Absolutely right. Right on. It’s great that that’s happening.

Then you’ve got people like Sam, Sam Harris, who are bringing this experience of waking up, waking out of the dualistic, separate sense of self, into a much more inclusive kind of awareness that is deeply beneficial to experience in principle because it shows our infinite connectedness, and if trauma is about ultimate separation and isolation, the poor child with their overwhelming emotions, totally alone, Kenshō, if we can call it that, using Japanese terminology, is exactly the opposite. It’s about infinite connectedness, and that is the most wonderful thing to discover. It cannot but flood us with love, at least briefly, and if we’re then really freaked out, I want people to know that it’s okay. You haven’t gone mad. You’ve, in fact, discovered something really beautiful and real about your human nature, and there is followup. There are ways of gradually integrating it, and hallelujah that we’ve seen this. It’s amazing and — okay. I’ll pause there.

Tim Ferriss: Thank you for the pause. I would imagine, though, that this puts you in sometimes a very tricky position where you have an audience now. You’re on a larger platform. You’re on podcasts like this, and people must reach out to you, some percentage of which describe an experience that they have interpreted as Kenshō, and for people who are interested, Kenshō is actually written in a really cool way. It’s Kenshō, which is seeing nature or essence — 

Henry Shukman: Yeah, essence.

Tim Ferriss: — and it’s a cool combination of characters, which does make a lot of sense, unlike my original exposure to koan. But I would suspect that you have some subset of people who come to you who really should have psychiatric treatment, just out of the ether, over the transom from the public, and I would expect that puts you in a tricky situation because having spent time around people who are having breakdowns and maybe not breakthroughs, sometimes one and the same, but not always, is that something that has been challenging for you, when someone who is, perhaps, going through a manic episode or having some type of potentially destructive experience that is quite isolating for them, just kind of separated, perhaps reaches out to you to validate it as Kenshō, and therefore, sometimes that does not require intervention?

Henry Shukman: Yeah. So far, it’s been comparatively rare, and I think the reason is that — 

Tim Ferriss: That’s good.

Henry Shukman: Yeah, I know. I mean, I can think of one clear time it did, actually. There was somebody who wanted to come on the retreat, and we were — we, meaning myself and the little team at the Zendō — was a little bit wary because of some of the things she said, and we asked about her psychiatric background, and there were some things she told us, and then she came, and it was clear that she really was in much worse shape than she had led on. One guy who was part of the Zendō team then who was a therapist, he spent some time with her, and then actually, he decided that she really needed to be taken to the psych ward for an evaluation.

So that was what we did there, and she was compliant with that. But usually, people know that there’s — you know that whatever exactly role I’m in, I teach meditation, and so you’ve got to be into meditation, really. Not everybody is, and it’s quite — I don’t know if I’d say it’s demanding, but that’s the main method here. I don’t teach just, “Hey, let’s talk about koans.” No, I teach meditating, and one of the ways I teach meditation is meditation with koans. It’s not the only way, but for those that are inclined, we can do that, but also, like I said, there’s a large number of people, I think, getting interested in koans who don’t really feel the need to engage with a teacher, and that’s okay.

They get something. They find their meditation is deeper if they’ve got a koan, that they’re touching, they’re repeating or thinking of a little bit while they meditate. It just sort of enriches the meditation. Some people have reported to me just having really deep sits, peaceful, lovely, deep, joyful, peaceful sits when they bring a koan in, and they have no idea, really, what the koan’s saying, what it’s about, or what are you going to — no interest in how it might lead to Kenshō. They just find the phrases somehow absorbing and relaxing, perhaps, and cast a little bit of a spell over their meditation, and they find it’s really deep, and that’s lovely. No problem there. I think this Kenshō business and the real deep koan training is not for everybody. You know?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah, true of a lot of things.

Henry Shukman: Right.

Tim Ferriss: So let me follow up with a couple of exploratory points. I’m going to get into some of the weirder stuff in a minute, but let’s start with the assumption that the experience as you described it is absolutely true. This is where I want to start, just as a basis for the question I’m going to ask you. In other words, that this experience of Kenshō is not an everyday by all people thing, but it is not a freak thing. Another way to put it would be it’s reasonably common. It’s been reasonably common for hundreds or thousands of years.

Henry Shukman: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: There are sheer characteristics, and it takes one to know one, if that makes any sense. Right?

Henry Shukman: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: One Obi-Wan can look at another Obi-Wan in training, and the force is strong with this one. You have passed. You have passed this koan, after asking the check-in question. I mean, I’m obviously joking around a little bit, but let’s just take it as true that that exists as an experience, as a phenomenon, as a training. How does someone who is brand new to Zen separate someone who is legitimate as a teacher from a charlatan? Because I have been exposed and overexposed to the, let’s just call it the so-called self-development fields, the personal development fields, to the medical fields, to the medical in quotation marks fields, for decades, and all of them are rife with charlatans, or people who claim to have a set of expertise and skills that they do not, or people who make promises they cannot deliver. I have to imagine on some level there are people running around, claiming to be masters or experts in Zen who aren’t. How can one who hasn’t had these experiences assess who is real and who is not?

Henry Shukman: Yeah. Okay. That’s an important point. Well, if I just describe a little bit how it works in Sanbo Zen. That will be a starting point.

Tim Ferriss: Great. Let’s do it.

Henry Shukman: Okay. So in Sanbo Zen, there are assistant teachers, and then there’s a — somebody called it an equal hierarchy kind of thing. Everybody is equal, but there are grades of responsibility. So there’s an assistant teacher, there’s an assistant Zen — an assistant teacher can do — usually, they work with a Zen teacher as an assistant to them, and they can do a certain amount of things as the teacher wants. A Zen teacher can do anything, meaning they can give talks, they can use the koans, they can meet with students, and they can run a Zendō completely. Then there’s so-called associate masters, and this is all within Sanbo Zen. I’m just giving you a framework so you can get some sense of how it works.

These associate masters can appoint a personal teacher. They can’t appoint a Sanbo Zen teacher. Then there are a circle of — well, they’re called authentic masters, or just masters. They can appoint Sanbo Zen teachers. So they can appoint people in the name of the lineage, and there aren’t many of them, and they tend to do it collaboratively if they’re going to appoint people. So, in other words, there’s quite a — I don’t know if it’s elaborate, but there’s a certain careful system for who gets what level of responsibility as a teacher.

Now, I feel that I’m happy that it’s like that because it means that at every step of the way there’s some accountability. It’s not just I tell everybody I had this awakening experience. I’m an awakened master. I want to be a teacher now. In fact, in Sanbo Zen there’s almost a bit of a view that if somebody wants to be a teacher, they may not be ready yet. It’s like if they’re going to get something out of being a teacher, it’s hard to be perfect about this, to be honest, but if somebody is needing the affirmation of being a teacher, and after all, it’s kind of like, “Whoa, you’re a spiritual teacher. That’s pretty exulted,” if somebody’s needing that kind of affirmation, they’re probably not ready to do it, and we just wait.

Every year, all the teachers of all levels and all the senior students who their teachers have thought, “This person might be ready to start training to be a teacher,” they all gather. We all gather for a week-long retreat and workshop, and we do a lot with the koans, and people have to give talks in front of the others. It’s pretty terrifying because — I mean, one of the most frightening things, more frightening than being on the Tim Ferriss podcast, actually, which, by the way, I’m finding very enjoyable. It’s not as frightening as I thought, but — 

Tim Ferriss: Terra incognita.

Henry Shukman: Exactly, terra. Oh, my God. But one of the most frightening things I’ve done, really, was have to give, I’ve done it twice now, give a talk to 80, 90 Zen teachers. Oh, my God. All my seniors and — anyway, in other words, it’s totally not down to me to say, “I’m a teacher.” In fact, it’s rather carefully titrated over the year. You get more and more responsibility as you’re ready for it, if you see what I mean. Okay. So that’s how we do it. Now, typically — then those quote-unquote masters, they get this formal, old-style Zen authorization called Dharma transmission, which it’s very moving to get that because it really means you’re — the whole body is really trusting you, and why would they do that? But they’ve decided they do, and so you just accept it, and you hope you’ll do your best. It’s a very moving thing to — 

Tim Ferriss: What do you mean by the whole body, if I heard you correctly?

Henry Shukman: I guess I mean the whole organization of Sanbo Zen and all — 

Tim Ferriss: Now, isn’t Dharma transmission — so I’ve heard transmission used in yogic practices in very specific ways. Is that a promotion, effectively, or is it a transmission?

Henry Shukman: Yeah, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: I mean, that sounds really crass, I know, but — 

Henry Shukman: No, no, no. It’s totally fine.

Tim Ferriss: — in other words, is it a titular, if that’s the right way to pronounce that, titular, I don’t know.

Henry Shukman: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: You get the idea, involving titles. Honor that is bestowed upon you, and it’s a formal recognition, or is there an actual transmission from one person to another?

Henry Shukman: Yeah. That’s a — 

Tim Ferriss: Does that make sense?

Henry Shukman: It totally does. It totally does. It’s got at least two meanings. I mean, one would be, yeah, somebody really gets it. They really get the Dharma. They really get what this is all about, and they do it through, in conjunction with their teacher, and that is a kind of Dharma transmission, in a sense, but it’s not really that there’s anything transmitted, because you’re realizing that it’s all one. So nothing can be transmitted. It’s like you’re truly discovering that we’re all one, one thing. There’s no distance, no space, no time, no separation. That all is clear, and it’s clear here and now, and it’s clear in the company of a teacher of another, and maybe in some sense the teachers help that become clear.

Tim Ferriss: Is the moral of your description or the lesson, the take-home lesson from your description of how Sanbo Kyodan handles structure of the organization, responsibilities, in essence, to say, “Be aware of rogue Zen masters running around?” That is to say that you should look for a recognized organization with some type of self-governance and so on, as a starting point?

Henry Shukman: I just think if you do find somebody who’s in that kind of realm, it’s probably safer. Because for one thing, they will have been fairly closely vetted over quite a number of years by somebody else. Now, who that other person was and how reliable they were, who knows? But at least they’ve then further been vetted by a number of people, by a body of people. That means that you feel, of course, we develop relationships with our peers. I don’t want to let them down by misbehaving, for example. I feel that I have a real deep responsibility, obviously to people who want to study with me, what an honor that anybody would. Also to my buddies, my friends, my colleagues, who are other Zen teachers, and to my own teachers, I don’t want to let people down.

So there’s a sense of, I think the way it’s organized at Sanbo Zen, would bring quite a few breaks, would exert quite a bit of resistance on anybody who wanted to go rogue, kind of thing. They’ve got some endorsement, I think it’s a bit safer. They’ve got an organization that has a code of ethics and I’m not saying at all that Sanbo Zen is the only one like that. There’s many other Zen organizations, and non-Zen organizations that have some levels of responsibility that are bestowed or whatever on their teachers. So it’s not the teacher just setting themselves up, and that have accountability to one another, and of course, to students. Actually, I think there are many quite well organized spiritual institutions, organizations in the West today, which is just great.

And Vipassana has a number of really big, really well organized outfits. That’s fantastic. Tibetan Buddhism does, I think as well. And Zen certainly does. So the rogue teacher thing, I mean, it’s always a hazard, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s any total foolproof way, but I would think that things to watch out for would be, does somebody seem to have some kind of accountability to a wider organization? Do they have fellow teachers that they’re in contact with? It’s sort of accountability, I think. 

So this is also a thing with the koans, you see. They’re trying to set up a system whereby there can be some shared agreement about what this awakening experience actually is. The koans themselves are, they are checking points, like not knowing is most intimate, there’s a way to, how might a student and teacher handle that if they meet with that koan. So they are also a way of checking that we’re on the same page.

Tim Ferriss: So let’s talk about that page. And this is a good segue to Strangeville. So let’s do that because I’m always eager to take my occasional jaunt into Strangeville. And I want to preface this exploration by saying that I pay a lot of attention to two ends of a spectrum, when it comes to — I know people will dispute this word, they’re not going to like it, because they’ll say the plural of anecdote does not equal data, but when I’m considering the potential, the veracity of something. On one end, you have randomized controlled trials, fantastic. I’m highly supportive and engaged with a lot of studies and clinical trials, and so on. This is really important, a very powerful framework, the scientific method as implemented in RCTs, for asking questions of nature, testing hypotheses and getting answers back.

Fantastic. But there are limited researchers, limited funding for studies, not everything is going to be studied. So we have to make decisions, or interpret reality by and large in the absence of RCTs. So on the other end of the spectrum, you have direct experience. So if I trust the fidelity of my own senses, what have I experienced? And what I have experienced multiple times over and over again? What patterns have I identified? I pay a lot of attention to those things, and testing and 4-Hour Body, actually, my second book, is a good example of this. There are many things in that book that were highly controversial, seemingly highly speculative, but tested and measured multiple times across multiple people. Many of them are now, many of those particular items now have more and more widely accepted scientific support.

So it can start off with an end of one, is what I’m saying. But I want to dig into this checking question business, and I will offer something on my side, just so it doesn’t seem like an inquisition. So on my side, I will say something that I have observed and experienced, and also compared with the experiences of dozens, at least, of other people at this point is the apparent phenomenon of shared visions on certain types of psychedelics. What that means is people are seeing, hearing or feeling the same thing simultaneously. By any kind of secular scientific stretch of the imagination or assessment, these are hallucinations, but even if they are hallucinations, it’s interesting to me that consistently shared visions, let’s just use visions for the time being, seem to be a common reported characteristic of certain psychedelics, like ayahuasca, going back hundreds of years.

These are in fact so consistent that they are relied upon in certain implementations and usages of ayahuasca in South America. Okay, put putting aside whether that is true or not, it is widely reported and experientially, it appears to be a real phenomenon. That’s that’s what I would say. Can I prove it? No, you can’t prove it. Just like you can’t stick me in a, or anyone for that matter, you, into an MRI machine and be like, “Okay, 3, 2, 1, and Kenshō.” It just doesn’t seem to work that way. I recognize all of the criticisms that could be levied against what I’m describing, so I’m well-aware of it, and moving on. When you talk about this experience of Kenshō and then having the checking questions, “How tall is Mu? How would you introduce a baby to Mu?” These types of questions, I’m probably not phrasing them exactly correctly.

That sounds super bizarre. I mean, to anyone listening who’s never experienced something like this, it sounds super strange. Even to me where I spent a lot of time in some pretty unusual spaces, and it still sounds pretty strange. So what do you think is happening there? Because to me, there have been surveys, I guess you could look at them as observational studies, but surveys performed by different universities looking at so-called entity encounters with compounds, like a N,N-DMT. So when I hear you talk about these questions, like “How tall is Mu?” it sounds like we’re describing an entity or something that exists independently of the observer, or the experiencer, in this case, you. How would you explain what the hell is going on? Or describe this further?

Henry Shukman: Yeah. Okay. I think this is a fantastic question. Okay, first of all, let me just, how do I put this? So what, I mean, I love what you’re saying about the shared visions. I get that actually, I really, yeah, it’s fantastic to hear. Now with, say, this Kenshō thing, is it’s actually the questions are doing, they’ve got a dual function. One is we will be able to answer these questions if we’ve had Kenshō, and especially if we’ve had it fairly recently, so it’s still alive and vivid, say within a few months, or even weeks or days, or even hours, if it happens on a retreat. So they are number one, the way we respond to them will confirm that we’ve really experienced this thing.

Secondly, they will somehow help us explore it even more deeply. Now that actually doesn’t mean that it’s an entity other than us that we’ve experienced. No, it’s more like, “My experience has shifted in a certain way, which has really opened up a different way of experiencing altogether.” And these probing questions allow me to inhabit this new way of experiencing more, and they allow me, or they help me to realize that this new way of experiencing is actually not contradictory to my ordinary way of experiencing. In other words, I can start to see that this mind-blowing other dimension, for want of better phrasing, is in fact present in my everyday experience. That’s what it’s really trying to do, is to help me to less know it as this other weirdness, mind-blowing and lovely though it may be, it’s other, and to actually, “Wow, I’m living this all the time,” and I didn’t realize. And it’s not actually foreign and other. I mean, and that gives hope really that there is a way of integrating it.

There’s a way of having it be present, in a very positive way in our ordinary life, that’s non-problematic, quite the reverse. I’m going to point to my master, Yamada Roshi, who is an extremely successful businessman, who ran, he was head of Mitsubishi Securities with something like 30,000 employees under him. And could do all that while practicing Zen very seriously and earnestly and deeply, while having mind-blowing experiences or whatever, while doing a lot of koan training, none of it interfered with his work life. In fact, he thinks, he said he wasn’t, he’s a reasonably good student, he felt, but not the best. He thinks the reason he had a very good career is his Zen. It gave him more balance, more clarity, more empathy, more compassion, and more openness to seeing things from other people’s points of view. And yeah, a wisdom perhaps in how to approach things. So — 

Tim Ferriss: May I hop in for a second, Henry?

Henry Shukman: Yeah, please. Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Okay, all right. So I absolutely agree that Zen practice, there are many practices that might be thought to be antithetical or somehow compromising to your normal waking reality, let’s just say. So I certainly don’t think Zen practice is incompatible. It seems highly compatible, and if Kevin’s experience, limited as it may be, is any indication, then that’s certainly true. It’s been nothing but an enhancer for him. I want to come back just for a second, again, not to beat a dead horse, but to these checking questions, with respect to Mu. To also clarify for people listening, that when I asked about the entity, the relating to these questions, and to Mu and whether or not there was the perception of independent entity, it’s not so much that I’m saying there is an independent entity, because that’s not the part that I find interesting.

We’re just looking at the perceptual experience of multiple people. What I find so bizarre and tantalizing at the same time, is that whether or not these things are happening for the reasons we believe them to be happening, whether or not the explanations are accurate, if we take it as true for now that you and many other people are having consistent enough experiences in this nondual state, in this experience that is labeled “Kenshō,” within Sanbo Kyodan, that you can consistently answer, similarly, answer the questions, “How tall is Mu? How would you introduce Mu to a baby?” And so on, is fucking weird.

Henry Shukman: I get it.

Tim Ferriss: That’s not to say it’s untrue, I want to be super clear here. But I want to hear, if you had had three drinks and we were just at a steakhouse and in London. And I was like, “Henry, what the fuck is going on here? What do you think is happening here?” How is it that multiple people could answer these questions with similar or the same answers, with respect to this koan? What is happening here? What would you you say?

Henry Shukman: Well, I think it’s so beautiful. I mean, I think that our, it’s not the — you see the thing is, it’s not that we’re each having our own experience, and there’s consistency among what those experiences are. It sounds like that, but I actually believe there are different levels of our experience. I think many traditions seem to attest to the same kinds of thing. I’m not sure it’s all one mountain. People say that, I think it’s a mountain range personally, so to speak. So the different spiritual traditions have slight different emphases and stuff, but there’s a lot of congruence, that actually everybody — I mean, I just think this is real, that we’ve got this level on which we normally experience things, in which we’re socialized into and conditioned into, where we have, we feel that we are a separate self, and that the world is out there.

I just think that it actually is true, that there’s another level of our reality, where somehow the separate self is inactive, and we feel we’re more part of what seems to be outside us, that we belong to it, and it belongs to us, and we’re not so separate from it. It’s a decisive shift, and I think it’s sufficiently widely reported in the traditions, and here and now in literature. People getting to this level by one means or another, suddenly dropping into it where they just feel not so separate from what would seem to be separate to them, and external to them.

Number one, and number two, it goes even deeper that there’s underneath that, there’s this reality, again, of our experience that we can get to where we somehow see that things don’t have the solidity they seem to have, that actually they’re empty. And what that means it can be understood in a number of different ways. But that I just feel convinced by now, that these are real human experiences and they’re not separately induced in each case. It’s more like in each case, what obscures them, is somehow blown away, or blown open, or temporarily suspended, or punctured.

It’s more like that. That’s reality, oneness and emptiness are actual features of, I think, somehow the way things really are, and it’s just obscured by our ordinary way of construing reality and these practices. Be it something that pops in the middle of an ayahuasca experience, or 5-MeO-DMT or something, a couple of students might have done that, and had something like this.

Tim Ferriss: It’s a big gun, that one.

Henry Shukman: Right, big and fast, I gather, right?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Henry Shukman: Well, I’ve never done it, but I think in Kenshō, it’s not like the practice is inducing an experience. I don’t see it that way. It’s more like the practice is allowing us to release something. When that is released, naturally, this other stuff becomes clear.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s an observation. Well, not the last part, but I think what you’re in some respects alluding to, this idea that our realities are constructed, in a way, by everything around us, this reality being filtered through a reducing valve of sorts, to use Aldous Huxley’s term, right? And this seems like some hand-wavy, or it might seem like some really hand-wavy, spiritual stuff to a lot of people listening. But there’s actually a great TED Talk I want to recommend from a cognitive scientist named Donald Hoffman, H-O-F-F-M-A-N. He is faculty at UC Irvine, and a recipient of the Troland Award of the US National Academy Of Sciences. This is a legitimate scientist, is a TED Talk called “Do We See Reality As It Is?” I highly recommend it to folks. I put it in my newsletter in 5-Bullet Friday, and gave some time code points for people.

You can hop ahead, I want to say 10 minutes or so, to get to the meat and potatoes of it. But he makes a very similar point, and he’s running computer science simulations, and using a totally different toolkit for inquiry, but arriving at perhaps what is a very similar conclusion. That is, “We are operating within a construction. These things that we think of as solid, these things that we think of as real, are more like icons on a desktop computer. They’re representations that allow us to interact with something far different.” So it makes sense to me that that one way, one explanation or description of these Kenshō experiences would be, “Okay, this is just what naturally happens if you temporarily remove the gating mechanisms of your perception, so that more of the raw data hits you.” In a sense, right?

Henry Shukman: I think that’s very good. I just recently read his book The Case Against Reality, actually — 

Tim Ferriss: Oh, nice.

Henry Shukman: — which is a detailed dive. It’s not too long, it’s very readable. He writes well. It’s a dive into that realm, absolutely. I’ll tell you though, the one thing that I feel, I mean, that’s a really helpful way to come at it. The only thing though, that it doesn’t necessarily account for, or quite cover, is why does it feel so amazing? Why does it feel so good? 

It’s not just we see it differently. You see the thing about this nondual experience, and it does have different flavors, by the way, comes in certain varieties. So the one that I described earlier, that’s not the only way it can show up. 

It has this weird property, this kind of experience, that we are profoundly implicated in it. We don’t just see it. In a way, we can only see it when we discover that we’re part of it. It’s unlike other things we see. Like, you can look at a tree from six inches away, you can take three steps back, you’re still looking at the tree, of course it looks a bit different. You could walk 100 feet away, and again, it looks different, but you’re still seeing it.

This isn’t like that. You can only see it when we discover we’re part of it. So that I find really wonderful. In other words, in using Donald Hoffman’s approach, we’d have to say that if we’re using that kind of a frame to look at what happens in Kenshō, it’s discovering that we’re made of the same code as everything else, kind of thing. Whatever the raw data is, we’re made of it too. If you see what I mean, do you get what I mean?

Tim Ferriss: Oh, I totally do. No, you’re one and the same. Yep, I totally totally understand what you’re saying.

Henry Shukman: Right.

Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. Yeah, you’re not looking at the ocean. You’re one of the drops in the ocean, so to speak.

Henry Shukman: Yeah, exactly. And to really have that as a vivid personal experience, it’s just, it’s profoundly benevolent, and I feel it’s the ultimate healing in a way. I mean, I don’t mean that we’ll be instantly healed by it, of all our trauma and all our dynamics that are unhelpful, et cetera. But man, it’ll move things along and give us all kinds of help in our healing journey.

Tim Ferriss: Hear, hear. Well, I think that is a beautiful place to begin our initial descent. Since you also have a big evening ahead of you, and a big day tomorrow, this has been so much fun. I expected it would be. I’m glad that you were so game to go into uncharted waters with me. So thank you for playing along. I wanted to share something super random with you also, because you mentioned, “Pardon my Greek.” So you know how we say in English, “It’s all Greek to me?”

Henry Shukman: Yes.

Tim Ferriss: Well, I was in Greece at one point and I asked them, I said, “What do you say when you want to use an expression like that? Because you can’t say, ‘It’s all Greek to me,’ because you speak Greek.” And they go, “Oh, yes, we say, “Aftá gia ména eínai kinézika,” which means, “It’s all Chinese to me.” So in Greece they say, “It’s all Chinese to me,” and apologies to any Greek friends if I screwed up that pronunciation. But I feel like all of this is much less Greek to me after getting your help, walking through a lot of it. Certainly still quite a lot of mystery and many questions, but I’m very grateful that you were willing to take the time to dance this dance with us again.

Henry Shukman: Well, I’m truly humbled and honored and very happy to get this chance to talk with you again. And you’re an exceptional conversationalist, and interviewer truly. I mean, I suppose that’s no surprise to anybody. Really, you really are as wonderful.

Tim Ferriss: Thank you, I only see the words, that’s my own work. That’s my own work to do. So I appreciate you saying that. And it really means a lot. I encourage people to go to That is a good jumping off point, I suppose, for many resources, and many things that you’re up to, so We’ll link to all of these in the show notes. And Henry’s memoir, which describes his own journey in detail, is One Blade Of Grass, subtitle, Finding The Old Road Of The Heart, A Zen Memoir. Henry, is there anything else that you would like to mention? Instagram is @mountaincloudzencenter if people want to check that out. Anything else that you would like to suggest people check out? Or anything at all that you’d like to say or suggest or ask before we close up?

Henry Shukman: Yeah, thanks. I might just mention, we’ve got another site,, where we’re a program called Original Love, which is a broad approach to meditation that includes approaches to awakening, but other stuff too. I think it’s more, has more attention to the healing side of meditation as well as the awakening side. So that’s something that I would just mention and, yeah, thanks to Kevin again for encouraging this, and thanks to you, very sincere thanks to you, Tim. It’s great to connect with you. I hope you feel a bit better. How do you feel actually now?

Tim Ferriss: Thank you. I feel emotionally much better. My throat is super sore, but I’m welcoming the throat soreness more than I was two hours ago. So that’s a step in the right direction. I think I’m just going to take a hot bath and watch some Disney shorts or something. I really need one of those nights, I think.

Henry Shukman: Oh, that sounds lovely.

Tim Ferriss: I’m looking forward to it, and, people should check it out. We’ll put it right at the top of the show notes. So, if you just search Zen or Shukman, S-H-U-K-M-A-N, or Henry for that matter, I’m sure they will pop right up. Henry once again, thank you so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

Henry Shukman: Well, Not at all. Huge thanks to you.

Tim Ferriss: And to everybody listening until next time, thank you for tuning in.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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