The Backward Step

Everything changes. Continually. Always. Nothing is ever the same. This is the foundational teaching of Buddhism. We all know this. Yet our perceptions of how we change are often at odds with this teaching. People tend toward behaviors that attempt to hold on to conceptions of they think they are and what they determine is real for them. Honestly, we have to do this just to move around. Imagine what life would be like if we constantly saw everything around us anew each time. Yet we have to ask, what would it be like to approach your life acknowledging everything has changed and will change?

Some people seem more inclined toward shifting their connection to place and identity.  People who know me, think of me as someone who fearlessly takes grand leaps to new jobs, living in new places, throwing myself into new possibilities. For many years, I myself would describe my life changes as jumps off a cliff. Starting with imperceptible reactions and deep unspoken thoughts, add in some longing and desire and then one day off I go.

There is a Zen kōan, a teaching story that might describe my decision making. In The Gateless Gate, Case 46, Master Sekiso says,

“From the top of a pole one hundred feet high, how do you step forward?” Another ancient master, Mumon, tells us, “One sitting at the top of a pole, one hundred feet high, even if he has attained it, has not yet been truly enlightened. He must step forward from the top of the pole one hundred feet high and manifest his whole body in the ten directions.”

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My Zen practice has trained me to act in a just-do-it-now way for many things. Every morning, I get up as soon as the alarm rings. Just get up. No matter how I think I am feeling, every morning, I just sit. Later, when it is time, I just go to the skating rink or gym. And recently for my move to Berlin, just put things in order and go.

However stepping forward from a 100-foot pole?  Maybe not. If I have learned one thing, it is that I have a fear of heights. I discovered this in a ropes course-team building exercise a few years ago. With a belay rope securely around me, so that I could not fall unimpeded, I nimbly climbed up a twenty-foot pole. Easy-peasy I thought. Then I discovered that the top of the pole was not fixed but had a disk that could spin around. Despite the belay rope, my mind seized up, unable to stop thinking about falling off. I knew this was my mind at work and that I was safe, but I still could not move my legs up to attempt to stand on the top, even though I could do the same movement on the ground without thinking. Ten minutes, I managed to sit on the top, as standing was out of the question. After another ten minutes of attempted breathing and relaxation, I was as wound up and tight as I started. My mind would not let go. The last act of the exercise was to jump off the pole and try to grab a ring a few feet in front of me. Of course, the belay rope would safely bring me to the ground. After checking with the person a half a dozen times whether he really had me, I finally jumped. Once on the ground, I had some clarity…I certainly won’t do this again!

I had dramatically been face-to-face with my mind’s fixed point-of-view. I did not like what I saw. I created fear where there was safety. I froze in my steps when my natural limberness could have been my companion. While I never went back to the pole, on each of the other exercises high off the ground, I tried a different approach of acknowledging my fear and using my breathe to convert the fear into energy I could utilize.

Despite my own experience with poles, I am fascinated by the 100-foot pole. Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi gives some commentary on the 100-foot pole that I would like to quote.

“So what is the hundred-foot pole? Well, put yourself there. It’s a hundred feet up. How is it there? From atop the hundred-foot pole how is it down here? Far away. It’s so far away you can’t hear the conversations; you can’t hear the cries. It’s so far away you can’t even see the people. It’s so high you can’t see a single thing. And so (Mumon) is saying on top of this pole he has gained entry, but this is not yet the real (thing). Now of course from down below that pole looks pretty sweet. The air is clear, there’s no noise. No problems…So from down here it looks pretty nice. This is the view from delusion to enlightenment. But enlightenment is not a place or thing, so the only view we can have is within our imagination, which is not enlightenment at all. Only by standing on the top of this pole can you know.

But why does Momon say “having arrived here you gain entry but this is not yet the real”? Momon is speaking about something very real within our practice and training of the buddhadharma. Is it liberation or is it escape? Are you withdrawing from the world or are you meeting the world? There is a long-held desire for escape, to withdraw and be done with it all, to avoid the difficulties. I imagine we’ve all had moments where we thought if we could just leave the world while we find a refuge, a heaven, an island, a cave, a something, a somewhere. But this is not buddhadharma. This is not practice. This is not even real.”

So while we emphasize meditation in our practice, this kōan is telling us we can’t sit still. If we are sitting in our satisfaction, our notions that we have arrived or not arrived, that we know what we are doing, or don’t know what we are doing, that we have something to teach others and/or our work is done or that we are worthless without anything to offer, our sitting is not real.

The only way to experience awakening, Mumon tells us, is to step forward and manifest our body.

Manifest our body. How do we manifest our body in the ten directions, which is to say everywhere? Mumon never tells us to jump off the pole, although that is how my mind interpreted his word. But if he wanted us to jump off, he would have told us that. In fact, he tell us to just step forward. As the pole is an illusion, we step into our practice to manifest our bodies. Read the text again, and instead of imagining yourself plunging down from this pole, imagine yourself walking forward, confidently, knowing the pole (fear) was never real in the first place. Our practice is not in our head.  As much as we love dharma talks, reading Buddhist texts, accumulating a library of masters of all stripes and inclinations sharing their wisdom, all that study at our desk or on top of a hundred-foot pole will not help us manifest our body. As humans, we become aware of the connection to all beings through the body.

Although I started this talk, saying that I make major decisions in my life by jumping off the cliff, there is a different Zen phrase that seems more applicable to me.

Eihei Dogen, the founder of Zen in Japan traveled in China in a search of the perfect practice. He was not satisfied until he was introduced to zazen. When he returned to Japan in 1227, one of the first tracts that he wrote was entitled Fukanzazengi, which we can translate to Recommending Zazen to All People.

In the early pages of the Fukanzazengi, there is this paragraph:

“You should stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind in itself will drop off and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this (suchness), immediately practice just this (suchness).”

Those four simple words, Take the backward step, set my mind off in wonder.

Take the backward step is an invitation to practice.

Take the backward step is a practice all by itself.

Take the backward step is actually the ultimate experience of practice.

Dogen starts by saying stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. I think we understand that. Our mind, or at least my version of the mind is awhirl in thoughts, visions, words and ideas. Sitting in meditation gives me a chance to examine what is going on there and notice the mind activity that I take for granted. That said, do you understand how uniquely your mind works?

About a year ago, Paul Haller at the San Francisco Zen Center, suggested that instead of focusing on letting thoughts go, that we take some time instead to look at our thoughts to understand how we experience our thoughts. Like most people, until that day I had no notion of what my thoughts were like nor how they were manifested in my body/mind.  

I discovered that my thoughts are mini-movies that last for less than a few seconds. In that time, complete stories appear. While some may contain memories, most are new stories in themselves with familiar and unfamiliar parts. I believe that this is what I see in my dreams. Others have reported that thoughts are spoken words, colors or sounds and music.

Taking the backward step of looking at my thoughts, opened up new insight for me. I can see the direct connections between my mini-movies and my speaking and writing.  I am a person who can spontaneously stand up and give a talk with any written guidance. And when I write, stories come forth at a pace that I can transcribe and fully embellish. I think I am slowing down my mini-movies enough to delve into the deepness of what they really are. And like this dharma talk, there are always stories within stories.

As an invitation to practice, Dogen asks us to drop the words that we use to define us, the words that make us think that we know what we are doing and who are. By dropping our fixed choices, we open up new possibilities of experiencing what is now.

As a practice, we must continually take this backward step now and again now and again now. There is not just one backward step, but step after step. 

Let go. Leave yourself behind.

Let go, leave yourself behind.

Let go, leave yourself behind.

Ever the poet, Dogen’s next phrase is:

Your body-mind in itself will drop off and your original face will appear.”

It is not just our mind and thoughts we are now leaving but our body-mind itself is dropped. The brain and the body store experiences in behaviors, reservoirs of trauma and emotional pain, in movements or restrictions of movements, in our posture, in our gestures, in our facial expressions. My habitual movements and thoughts keep me occupied and hide my changing body. My experience of life becomes defined like an on-line profile that has not been updated for years, with the same photos pretending to be who we are now.

Your original face is how you are before all of these learned behaviors changed you, how you are before you existed, as you are as you manifest your body in ten-directions.

Tara Brach wrote,

If we wake up out of a confining story of who we are and reconnect with our essential awareness, we’re taking the backward step. When our attention shifts from a narrow fixation on any object—sound, sensation, thought—and recognizes the awake space that holds everything, we’re taking the backward step. We come to this realization when there is nowhere else to step. No anything. We’ve relaxed back into the immensity and silence of awareness itself.”

So stop focusing on what is going through your mind, stop making fixed choices about your experience or who you are or who others are. Let these all go. Leave yourself behind. It is scary to let go of ourselves. What will we be if we let go and see our original face? Can we trust ourselves to do this?

Though I had been intrigued by Zen for many years, I was very leery of practicing Zen. I worried that it would change me into some else, that I might become indoctrinated into some cult, and worse of all, I would become this unmoored person, blithely floating around in some nirvana, always with a smile on my face. That was my fear of leaving myself behind. Fortunately, a non-Zen mentor pointed out the everything she saw in my life and actions suggested the opposite and that I would likely become more grounded through practice.

We can trust that we won’t disappear even though we are letting go. As long as we are alive, the body and the mind remain.

Stepping back is the ultimate experience of practice, where one can feel the freedom of being immersed in the lack of attachment.  The experience is almost always momentary, but that does not matter. It can be frustrating to experience glimpses of non-attachment or it can be a gift to experience glimpses of non-attachment. Your body-mind is the one making the choice. On the advice of my mentor, I decided to go for the gift possibility.

Can stepping backward and stepping forward exist simultaneously? Well of course, it can in the Zen world, where everything is a contradiction.

Stepping back for me is the first step of moving forward.

Stepping back gives us a chance to gain perspective about what we hold dear and what believe we are not willing to give up. Without reflection, we unknowingly cling to ways of acting that may not be response to current conditions. Our egos are trapped in a sense of privilege and deservingness. I worked hard so I should____ (fill in the blanks.) After all that I have done, I should be able to ____. I am in charge of my body, so I can _____.

Or worse, we accumulate the pains, the suffering, the bitterness that we have experienced and turn it in on ourselves. We cling to our suffering as much as we cling to desire.

As I reflect on my life, I see the connection between stepping back as I step forward.

Stepping back allows me to re-equilibrate my life. Thirty-three years ago, stepping back created a space for me to examine the relationship I was in, to see if it could be repaired. Working with a therapist who helped me experience my body and mind, allowed me to see the harm the relationship was causing to me. Stepping back allowed me to understand how my needs were not being met and how I contributed to making that happen. Stepping back allowed me to come out as a gay man.

A supervisor in a past job would caution me each time I excitedly wanted to jump forward with a new idea. He would tell me to step back and assess the situation fully before acting. He taught me to wait for the right moment to act, for the moment when real change can occur, when others can participate wholeheartedly, where I disappear and the group takes action together. In Buddhism, we call this right action.

Since my teenage years in the 1960s, I participated in what I considered the forefront of social change. I worked in non-profits or organizations that were trying to resolve social, economic and political injustices. I had a vision of a better world, that was shared by many. I was proud of living a life dedicated to change and my ego liked being recognized for that. I honestly thought my generation would solve the problems of injustice, human rights and environmental degradation.

Sadly, I have to admit, we did not completely succeed in our dreams.  When a vision becomes encrusted with frustration, bitterness and defeat, it disappears. We replace it with resignation, hopelessness or sarcasm. When our ego clamors for recognition, as it will, we lose our focus.

Only by stepping back, can I allow myself to look at the present moment. I can now see that the problems I was confronting in the world were rooted in centuries of history, in traumas upon traumas. My desire as a liberal cisgender white man to change the conditions, ignored how systematic racism, sexism, homophobia, and other isms molded how I saw these issues.

Stepping back now, I can see that my perspective was incomplete and what I saw was directly related to my ability/inability to see the world as it is at any present moment. I saw that I had fixed views, formed in my youth that were not in sync with the present conditions facing the world. Stepping back, I can see myself in the long arc of justice, which like the 100-foot pole has no end.

Stepping back, another generation steps forward.  When I step back, younger people that have the energy and vision I had in my youth, better ideas and the ability to recognize the world as it is now will step forward. People of color, women and trans and nonbinary folks and any others who have been excluded will move our causes forward.

For five years or so, I led the mediation at Queer Dharma. I was happy to share my love of Zen and mediation with others. However, in doing so, within this particular Zen Center, I had to live within the strictures and hierarchy which permitted me to lead mediation, but did not allow me to lead a discussion about mediation when we were finished. For a long time, I was fine with this restriction but eventually, I felt irritated when I sat in the group. Clearly, irritation is never a good way to teach mediation.

When I stepped back, I had the realization that my ego was clinging hard to the idea that I was the meditation guy in Queer Dharma, a role that gave me an identity and allowed me to participate in the true teaching of dharma. I had to drop this very ego to determine my true intent of living the dharma I trusted.

As I asked that question, during a time of recognition of white privilege and power, I realized that as long as I and other white people sat in these seats, others could not. I stepped back with a recommendation to open a space for someone of color to step in.

In my last job, stepping back during a difficult and heart-breaking time that exposed the hidden cracks of privilege and control within the organization, allowed me to let go of my identity as the leader and replace the fight to stay with the goal of creating a safe landing space for myself. Some saw this as a defeat; I saw it as taking the step forward, a step that several years later allowed me to contemplate a bigger move to Berlin and living life as a writer.

The hundred-foot pole is a metaphor for believing that there is a fixed place, an end goal of our practice journey. There is not such fixed place in life, except for maybe death. And perhaps even death is not a fixed place, but something we will discover when we die.

Taking the step backward allows one to prepare for the unknown. Stepping back allows me to examine my motives and lay bare the cravings of my ego for recognition, wanting everything to be about me.

Covid forced a step back that gave me more time each day. I love languages and began to study German, just to study German, without other plans. That step backward step, opened the door to getting a 3-year visa to stay in Berlin.

Sharpening my skates before I left San Francisco was a step back that allowed me to step on new ice in a new place with as solid footing as one can on a slippery surface.

Packing my bags for a long-term move to a place I had only briefly visited, was the backward step of deciding what was important for me to physically and spiritually carry with me a this time of my life.

Establishing a practice and relationships with sanghas in San Francisco and Belfast, was the backward step that allowed me to continue to practice in a new place, where I am Alan sitting, peering at a blank wall, never the same and always different as I carry my Alanness from place to place and from time to time.

Arriving in Berlin, the step backward is to experience this new place in its suchness, its Berlinness in 2021 in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

And now it is time for me to step back again, this time as a guest teacher of this beautiful sangha which has enriched my life deeply in the last three years. Our sangha has learned from each teacher we have had over the twenty years of its existence. And we have had more teachers step back than we have had remain. What we be like if Ryūmon H. Baldoquín Sensei and Larry Yang had stayed with us for that period? We don’t know because they stepped back and allowed the sangha to grow and flourish as it found its collective feet and mind/body in the ten directions.

Being asked to be a guest teacher has been a great honor and that honor has shaped the person I am now. Honestly, my ego doesn’t want to step back from this role. It wants to figure out how it can continue. It wants to feel wanted and respected. I still want, want, want. My ego does not let go. But the super-power of stepping back allows me look at myself, forcing me to examine how I cling to my desires and let my ego run amok.

I don’t know what will happen next for me, but I trust in stepping back and seeing happens next. I also trust that stepping back from my version of life in San Francisco, with its familiar and fixed ways, will open this body/mind to what is next, and what is next and what is next.

There is nothing else I need to know.

This is blog is based on a talk given to the San Francisco LGBTQ Sangha on 6 December 2021. You can listen to the talk here.

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