When I was at the zen center, my teacher gave me the “what am I” koan. I worked on it the usual Rinzai way, repeating it to myself with great intensity and otherwise not knowing what to do with it. It does fuel motivation and intention, which is very helpful, but it was also an exercise in spinning my wheels.
Along with giving someone the “what am I” koan, it is helpful to offer a few tools and pointers on how to use them…! After all, that is how we do it in any other area of life.
If I ask someone to dig a ditch, I show him or her the tool shed and where the shovels are, I’ll point out where the ditch is going, and if needed, I’ll give enough instructions to get the person started.
In the case of the “what am I” koan, there are – at least – two focal points for inquiry.
First the sense of a separate I, and then what we really are.
I can shift into Big Mind or headlessness, and notice that the sense of a separate I appears as content of awareness, just as anything else. There is nothing privileged or special about it, apart from the tendency to identify with it and take it as what I am. And I can notice – get a taste of – what I am directly. That which everything happens within and as, and is no-thing (empty) appearing as form (full) and inherently aware.
I can explore what I appear to be through the sense fields. How does this sense of a separate I appear in each sense field? For me, I find a set of sensations in the head/neck area, combined with a thought – an image of a “doer” in roughly the same location in space. When I look at these sensations, are they any different from other sensations in the body? When I look at that thought, is it any different from any other thought? Also, can I notice how this gestalt is as ephemeral and insubstantial as anything else appearing in the sense fields? How it is awareness itself temporarily taking this form? When the gestalt of a separate I is seen – directly – as just a gestalt appearing in and as awareness, what do I find that I really am?
There are of course innumberable tools here that can be very helpful, and we will naturally be drawn to different ones at different times, but the general guideline is to (a) learn to use some good tools and (b) use them to explore over and over so what we find becomes intimately familiar.