Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Learning the Backward Step

The most important thing to learn is what Master Dogen called the backward step. The backward step of turning one's light inward so that body and mind naturally drop off, and one's original features appear.

Once a Zen master in the authentic one-to-one lineage of transmission from Sakyamuni has transmitted to you this fundamental principle, then other things are no big deal.

The woman you love ditches you. After 20 years, you still haven't got over it. Still, it's just a part of being human--no big deal. Your Zen Master himself, in his dotage, suspects that you have evil motives. In the end, that is just an old man's worry--no big deal.

In his comments to the previous post, Oxeye wrote: "How many people out there don't give a damn what other people think of them? You just put your head down and keep pushing."

Oxeye's words were intended kindly, but it is not true that I don't care what others think of me. I do care. I hope that I don't care unduly, but I do care. Because I care, I hold myself in fear, I brace myself against the chill wind of external criticism, holding on to body and mind as if I might otherwise fall apart.

In the past I have made the mistake of pretending not to care. Nowadays I prefer to bear witness to the fact that I do care. I cannot change what I did in the past, but what I did in the past was false. It was symptomatic of trying to be right.

The Alexander teacher Marjory Barlow once said to me, "Listen love, being wrong is the best friend we have got in this work." These were words of true compassion.

I have come to see that holding onto body and mind is my starting point in Zazen. It is the foundation upon which to build.

Oxeye observes that I am always pushing forward. The truth I wish to tell you is that I go back, again and again. I do not put my head down and push forward. I direct my head forward and up and step back.

I have learned that this is the most important thing to learn -- the backward step. We go back to the drawing board, back to beginner's mind, back to square one, back to the starting point. We can't push forward to the drawing board, beginner's mind, square one, the starting point. What gets us back to the starting point is the backward step. The backward step IS the starting point.

So I go back, again and again, to awareness of how I am -- wrong in my doing, holding, caring, fixing. And, in that awareness of how I am, I come back to the intention of how I wish to be. I don't mean only paying lip-service to some words that I learned before, like "neck free, head released out, spine released into length, back expanding...." I mean: How do I truly wish to be? I wish to be free.

Here and now, how am I? Am I holding my breath again?

Yes, to some extent I am.

How do I wish to be?

I wish to be more free, less held. I wish to go in the right direction.

In the end what I want is to be sitting in the full lotus posture allowing body and mind to drop off.

24 Comments:

Blogger kwatz said...

You think my comments are not sincere??

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

Thank you, Mike. Great post. I'd like to ask a question about AT and unconscious stuff: Let's say a person's limiting behavior is due to repressed childhood (or other) trauma. How does AT deal with that?

Thanks.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Kwatz:

I think that inherently you must be a sincere person. But I feel in your comments something contrived, artificial, imitative. Something that is not really true to yourself.

What do you want from me?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, zero. Good question.

If I answer on the basis of my own practice and experience, the answer is that it doesn't matter why I am holding. The point is just to stop holding--or at least to stop holding so much, to hold less.

This is how I understand Master Dogen's instruction "When something arises in the mind, just wake up." In other words, there's no need to make a big deal out of it. Whatever it is, just stop whatever it is that you are doing to hold it suppressed.

In his book THE USE OF THE SELF, FM Alexander describes how he observed in himself (using a 3-way mirror) a pattern of holding which involved pulling the head back (and down onto the spine). Later he came to realize that he was not the only damn fool that reacted unconsciously in this way to the stimuli of life. We all tend to do it.

Whatever particular problem a person came along with, FM Alexander would always aim to teach them how to prevent this pulling in of the head.

The operative word is teach. FM Alexander was a teacher, and he taught other teachers to teach according to certain preventive principles.

The term "Alexander Technique" can be misleading. There are Alexander teachers, some good, some bad, some indifferent. And an Alexander teacher can only teach a person who is willing to learn -- there was a therapeutic side to Alexander's work, but first and foremost his work was and is re-education of the self.

We talk of "Buddhism" and "AT" but what are these things in reality? Gautama spoke not of Buddhism but of the Dharma, Alexander spoke not of AT but of the work.

While I was at university a doctor deduced from my medical records that when I was an infant I was misdiagnosed by a locum as having mumps, when in fact I was suffering from testicular torsion. After 24 hours or so of me screaming out with pain, the records indicate that the problem subsided -- its blood supply cut off, the testicle evidently atrophied.

This must have been a traumatic episode, although I have no conscious memory of it. It may go some of the way to explain a tendency I have to find some truth that I would like to tell everybody, and then proceed to do it in such a way that everybody ignores the truth that I am trying to convey!!

Becoming aware that this is what I am doing, I can stop it. It is very difficult for us to stop doing things that we are not aware of doing. That is where a good Alexander teacher can be very very useful. I am very fortunate to have been taught by three or four exceptionally good ones.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger axel said...

Mike,

Your words keep giving me a new perspective on my practice.

In particular this: 'I have come to see that holding onto body and mind is my starting point in Zazen. It is the foundation upon which to build.'

And also your thoughts on taking the step back.

Being aware of our clinging, our fears and our hardwired habits is step one. Then it's humility to take the step back and allow things to be as they are. Like a Zen teacher from NY once said to me: 'don't try to fix yourself'.

In any case, easier said than done...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Axel.

The point you make is Marjory's GOLDEN KEY:

"Then it's humility to take the step back and allow things to be as they are. Like a Zen teacher from NY once said to me: 'don't try to fix yourself'."

In other words, first make friends with being wrong. Don't be in too much of a hurry to try to get the right thing going.

Yes, easier said than done, because our desire to be right is so insiduous and deep, and our reactions are so fast.

Who was that Zen teacher?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger axel said...

Mike,

The teacher was Barry Magid from the Ordinary Mind Zen Center in NY. He was kind enough to answer many of my pestering emails.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Alex.

I have a friend in Australia (who I have corresponded with a lot but not yet met in person) who is both an experienced Alexander teacher and a Zen student of Charlotte Joko Beck. She finds many parallels between the two approaches, and it seems Joko was open enough to Alexander's discoveries to allow my friend to help people with their sitting during retreats.

Her name is Diana Devitt-Dawson. Her husband Geoff is also a Zen teacher. You can find them on the internet if you're interested.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger axel said...

Thanks Mike,

It's interesting that Charlotte Joko Beck was also Barry Magid's teacher.

Axel

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Michael Dietz said...

I find that often, when I sit, an overwhelming feeling of wrongness comes over me. My spine feels twisted, one side of my body seems smaller than the other, the mere possibility of "vertical" seems to have disappeared.

And what do I do? It's a distressing feeling, after all. Nine times out of ten (or ninety-nine times out of a hundred) I do something to fix it. "Fix" in both senses of the word: "adjust or repair," and "settle permanently." My desire is not just to relieve the distressing sensation, but to get rid of it once and for all—to never have it arise again. My desire, in other words, is to position myself outside the law of cause and effect.

Gradually, I've been getting it into my thick skull that the effort to fix is the real problem here, that all it does is trap me in a cycle of fix-forget-feel wrong. Is there a difference, a realizable difference, between the effort to fix and a genuine letting-go? It seems to me, in those times when I can manage to stay within the feeling of wrongness without reacting—a thing I find tremendously hard to do—that it's there where the path to a genuine letting-go might be found.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Yes, Axel, and Charlotte Joko Beck was a successor of Maezumi Roshi, who I heard was a Dharma-heir in several lineages.

The doubt that I have expressed to Diana is that Master Dogen never says anything in Shobogenzo to the effect that we should bring formal "koan study" into Zazen practice, or that we should discard the kesa, or that we should establish separate schools with a name such as "Ordinary Mind Zen School."

So there seems to me to be something very good, very open, about Charlotte Joko Beck's teaching, but at the same time I feel a doubt about her attitude towards tradition. She seems to me to have discarded a true one, and kept a spurious one! But this is only my doubt or my opinion. I haven't met either Joko or Diana in person.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, MD.

It seems to me that you got the point already, so I will not labour it.

But in response to your question, "Is there a difference, a realizable difference, between the effort to fix and a genuine letting-go?", my answer is a definite YES. Absolutely there is a realizable difference between these two approaches.

FM Alexander referred to them as "different, nay opposite, conceptions." The effort to fix he called "end-gaining" and the opposite conception he called "the means-whereby."

To realize the difference in practice I would warmly encourage you to look around for an Alexander teacher that you can work well with. A good Alexander teacher will do more with his or her hands in 5 minutes to highlight the difference for you, than I could with 10,000 words on this blog.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

Mike,

Thank you for detailed answer. May I be so bold as to summarize your answer to my question “How does AT deal with that [unconscious stuff]?” as “not at all”?

I take your initial “If I answer on the basis of my own practice and experience, the answer is that it doesn't matter why I am holding” to indicate that. And that teaching people how to prevent the pulling in of the head is considered the cure for all ailments says the same to me, but then I don’t know much about AT.

When it comes to Master Dogen's instruction "When something arises in the mind, just wake up", I wonder what you mean in this context - suppressed emotions, and the mechanisms for suppressing them, typically don’t arise in the mind at all so there’s nothing to wake up to. And how about difficult emotions such as anger, rage, jealousy, deep sadness, and so on, that we’d rather keep out of consciousness? What does it mean to wake up to them? Only reason I’m asking is that I’m a bit perplexed by the way you refer Master Dogen's instruction.

Thank you again.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, zero.

My understanding is that the benefits of Zazen, and the benefits of Alexander work, come indirectly. We don't pursue specific benefits directly.

In general, when we identify some specific problem, our instinctive reaction is to do something to solve the problem directly.

But a fundamental principle in both Dogen's teaching and Alexander's teaching is non-doing (MU-I in Japanese).

To follow this principle is to give up our narrow efforts to make ourselves better, by doing something specific on the basis of our own narrow understanding. Instead we yield to something else.

We give up our intention to achieve, and instead we intend to allow.

I refer you back to the comment of Floating Weed on the previous post:

"All I have learnt from a lifetime of mistakes is to practise zazen, give everything away into everything, release myself from my self and into all things."

This principle of non-doing is far from easy to follow, but it is very simple. Too simple.

Finally, what is it? Just to sit.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

Thank you, Mike. I have no problem at all with what you are saying. But if you just sit aren’t all those things that you don’t want to be dealing with (the depressive thoughts, the anger, the jealousy, life’s difficulties, and so on) going to start to creep up and make themselves heard? And maybe they'll stay for years. What does it mean to “wake up” to that, how do you practice non-doing with that?

On the other hand, however much you sit, there may be things that will never surface because they’re deeply buried – still they may cause all kinds of behavioral and relationship difficulties. How do you detect and deal with those in the context of zazen practice?

A friend of mine did 24 years on the cushion enjoying the “balanced state”, samadhi, or whatever beautiful description one wants to use for avoiding dealing with the messy stuff. Then the bubble burst and he found himself dealing intensely with all kinds of things he had avoided, including some repressed childhood stuff. And his life and sitting practice have been transformed. I just think he could have practiced more wisely, and dealt with the messy stuff first and enjoyed real samadhi afterwards. But then again, who am I to say? And maybe 24 years were needed for him to be able to face his stuff? Who knows?

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Lisa said...

Hi ##NAME##,
I was just passing looking for stiff joints links on the blogger site and found your ##TITLE## blog. Your blog was not quite what I was looking for, but I enjoyed my visit all the same.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, zero. The point you raise is a very important one. My conclusion about it, thus far, is the same as yours: Who knows?

Maybe James Cohen is correct in his opinion that I could benefit from professional help for deep-rooted psychological problems. But even if his opinion is correct, who the hell is he, as supposedly a Dharma-heir in the lineage of Master Dogen, to express such an opinion, especially about a person whom he has never met?

I don't regard myself as in any way qualified to express any kind of opinion on matters that are addressed by professional psychiatrists. I am just a blundering fool who has spent the last 25-years as a Zazen devotee bungling one thing after another.

Again, I come back to the words of Floating Weed:

"All I have learnt from a lifetime of mistakes is to practise zazen, give everything away into everything, release myself from my self and into all things."

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

Thank you, Mike. Again, no problems with what you are saying. And in my previous post I wasn't so much thinking about psychatric stuff; it's the ordinary messy stuff of our lives that is of more interest. How do we deal with that in the context zen practice? I can't find even a trace of an answer to that in what FW writes.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

But you put it very well in your next post: "making friends with the stiffness."

Thank you again.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, zero.

My frustration with Floating Weed is his or her disembodiment. Why do I wish to know if Floating Weed has the external form of a man or a woman? It says something about me, doesn't it?

But I don't find anything lacking in Floating Weed's words. He or she is a poet, speaking transcendental wisdom.

If you want advice on doing the washing up, don't ask a poet -- ask a dishwasher! But if you are interested in how to deal in the context of Zazen practice with the ordinary messy stuff of our lives, then don't ask a dishwasher; ask a transcendental Zen poet.

In fact, no need to ask. Realize what the transcendental Zen poet has preached to you already about how to deal with the messy stuff:

Transcend it!

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

And in that transcending, might we also supress and avoid a lot of stuff that we ought to "wake up" to? And might we also cause are practice to bear no real fruit in our lives, but only produce blissful states on the cushion and transcendent poetry. Might we be adding to our stiffness rather than softening it?

Nobel prize winning poet Jaroslav Seifert, famous for his love poetry, was approached by a journalist: "Mr. Seifert, judging by your poetry, you must have had a fantastic love life?" And the answer was: "No, if that had been the case I would have been drinking wine with my loves instead of writing poetry."

Mike, if you continue maiking friends with Joko Beck and her Dharma heirs, I think you'll find people who, in addition to me, would disagree with the recommendation "Transcend it!"

Thank you.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, zero.

I take your point. I am ever liable to turn a principle of non-doing into a doing, a principle of transcending into a suppressing, a principle of allowing an upward direction into a subtle stiffening.

About love poetry, here is an old one of mine:

Have you ever heard a bell, unstruck
Begin to softly ring?
She walked into the gym, worse luck,
And my heart began to sing.

Now I don't expect to win any prizes for that, but I didn't make it up off the top of my head. It is an expression of something (a hormonally-induced state of imbalance) that I experienced.

Similarly, when one reads one of the poems in Shobogenzo of Master Tendo Nyojo, for example his Windbell poem or plum blossom poems in chapter 59, Baike, one feels it is real plum blossoms being expressed, not just his idea of them.

For me, Floating Weed's words seem to express Zazen itself, not only an idea about it.

I do not know Joko Beck and her Dharma-heirs. I heard a rumour that she decided to discard the kesa, a decision of which I know for sure Master Dogen would have disapproved. But I wonder whether that rumour is true or not. Rumours sometimes aren't reliable!

If you have any direct experience, please don't be shy about sharing it. I would value your testimony.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

Mike,

Thank you. This is a good discussion. I really like you love poem. Was that the one you lost all those years ago?

What I am trying to get across here has less to do with ‘true zazen’ (whatever that is) and more with true practice, or rather what our practice is about. As an example, let’s consider Kosho Uchiyama, Sawaki’s crown prince. Everybody who has met him testifies to his severe inter-personal handicaps – the guy would have had a hard time making it outside the walls of Antai-ji. I’m sure his zazen was exquisite. But is that freedom, the freedom we’re seeking, or is it something else?

May I be bold again and suggest that our practice is not just about poems about plums blossoming, but about ourselves. About facing ourselves. It’s about facing not just what is sweet, like the scent of plum blossoms, but also about facing what is terrible and terrifying. My first teacher used the example of somebody farting in the zendo – a real stinker, one of those lethal ones. How do we sit with that? Similarly, sitting is about sitting in the stench of all the toxic waste we’ve dumped into our unconscious (i.e. bodies) until that waste through the flame of our attention has been burnt and turned into soil, giving way for something else to take root.

It’s like in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Early in the poem Dante has the urge to avoid the visit to hell and ascend to heaven directly, and he starts to climb straight up the mountain. But he finds his path blocked by a lion, a wolf, and a leopard – symbolic of the parts of himself (anger, pride, greed, and lust) that he hoped to leave behind. He has to turn around and travel through all the rungs of hell, until he can return to meet the divine represented in the form of feminine love.

I hear in the voice of FW somebody still trying to make his way up the mountain.

And I can confirm the rumor about the kesa.

Thanks again.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, zero. You make your point with great clarity.

Yes, the object of the poem was the one that got away.

When I consider what you wrote about Kosho Uchiyama in the context of what Master Dogen wrote in Shobogenzo, the first thing that springs to mind is Dogen's exhortation to spend our lives sitting in the full lotus posture without leaving the forest/monastery. (See esp. chap. 72.) If Uchiyama's Zazen was truly exquisite, I think that would have been good enough for Master Dogen.
But how was his Zazen really? I never met him, so I don't know. But I did meet Tsunemasa Abe, who told me that Master Kodo, at the very end of his life, changed the way he sat himself and also the way he taught the young Tsunemasa Abe to sit in Zazen. I think Master Kodo began to realize, at the very end, that his previous way had been too forced. But the above is mainly just my views and opinions, isn't it?

When I consider what you wrote on the basis of my own experience, I have to confess that you pretty much hit the target.

When in my early 20s I read Shobogenzo chap. 73, Sanjushichi-bon bodai-bunbo, I got it into my head that it was vital for me to "transcend family life" i.e. become a celibate monk. Gudo told me his expectation that if I could be successful in transcending family life I would become "the most excellent Buddhist master in the world." This was music to my deluded ears.

And so I began my attempt to ascend directly to heaven, turning a blind eye to the reality of how I actually was. My attitude was utterly impractical. Certain people, I think, are simply not cut out for celibacy, at least not when they are young. And I was one of those people, but I couldn't see it.

To be fair to Gudo, he probably could see it. He tried to steer me in the direction of getting married when I was 23 and still with my first girlfriend. But my youthful head was already ascending heavenward. I really was a classic case of what Master Dogen describes in the second paragraph of Fukan-zazengi, and also of what you have described in Dante's Divine Comedy. A comical figure I was indeed. Or a tragic one, depending on how you look at it. Like some pretentious person tripping on a banana skin--comical for a third person, tragic for the first person.

Thanks again to you also -- as you observed in a previous comment, one who has eyes can discern the false from the true among groups.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  

Post a Comment

<< Home