the backward step



“just once, take the backward step

that turns the light and shines it inward”



The principle that Zen Master Dogen speaks of in the statement below is mindfulness or, as he called it, attentiveness. There are three essential points in this statement. The first essential point is “the backward step” that reverses the usual dynamic of our mind. Usually we allow our mind to follow the energy stream of mass consciousness which is conditioned consciousness.

That you still do not grasp the certainty of this principle is because your thinking scatters, like wild horses, and your emotions run wild, like monkeys in a forest. If you can make those monkeys and horses, just once, take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward, then naturally you will be completely integrated. This is the means by which we, who are [ordinarily] set into motion by things, become able to set things into motion.

source: Instructions for the Cook p.3 – Master Dogen

For example we live under conditions of judgment and assessment of the behavior of others. If we don’t it feels like we run the risk of being adversely effected by the anti-social behavior of those we live with. When they don’t clean up their mess after them we must do it or acquiesce to living in a messy environment. When confronted with this kind of a situation judgment of the other ‘naturally’ arises. This is the usual dynamic of the mind when flowing with the stream of mass-consciousness. How to exit that stream and live radically changed?

Dogen uses the term “backward step” and this implies calling to order those wild horses and monkeys of your thoughts and emotions in no uncertain terms. See your self taking step after step along the well-worn and accepted path of conditioned consciousness. Suddenly you catch yourself embracing and co-creating a thought form such as “what’s wrong with that person – he/she doesn’t clean up her/his mess and now I will have to do it – how inconsiderate!” In a corner of my mind my higher self nudges me to be aware and beware, but my wild horses and monkeys keep going. If someone is nearby I share my remark and that one joins in and back and forth we go, elaborating on the anti-social character of that person’s behavior.

If I decide to heed the small, fine voice inside that tells me the truth (YOU HAVE BOUGHT INTO THE ILLUSION OF DUALITY AND YOU SEE THAT PERSON AS SEPARATE FROM YOU) then comes the backward step: I pull the emergency brake. I stop my mental/emotional flow in its tracks. I back up just a bit, to just before the impulse for judgment arose. This backing up is divorcing myself from my loyalty to the groove of mass-consciousness. I sever that connection. Psychologically I become an ‘outsider’. For a moment my mind/emotional body are disconcerted and feel even unsafe, not knowing what to do next. This uncomfortable place of ‘not knowing’ is extremely valuable. It is exactly here where my only point of power lies. By stopping the habit energy from continuing the same violence against another part of this one being that we have been perpetrating against ourselves for millennia, we have created the opportunity for a movement of discontinuity. 

Then, having ‘stepped back’ and opened up a space for something truly new to emerge,

I turn the light and shines it inward.

What this says is that I simply turn the light of my attention inward, meaning, away from what we perceive as the ‘outer’ – our circumstances, the situation, the world. For a split second I attend to that subtle inner voice and ask it what action, if any, is called for from me right now. I have stopped mid-stream, stood up and turned 180 degrees to face the full current from the entire past. This requires the entire energy of my complete body-mind-spirit complex. It is not for the faint of heart – it is the samurai on the battlefield called to lift the two-handed sword and sever the connection with the illusion.


Then I move with my awareness upstream toward the source. In this moment I shift my awareness and exit this virtual reality. This happens simply due to the impulse to be fully in this NOW moment free of the past. Any thought or emotion that suggests to me that I should continue with the script of the virtual reality story-line must be ignored, no matter how convincing it may be. This takes great conviction, determination, earnest and courage. Now – with my attention on the source of all of this – I listen for my next movement to be shown to me.

Possibly I will then get a living glimpse of the other as they appear from this perspective and will see the turbulence of their/our life and I will see clearly how they/we/I are already demonstrating heroic stamina just by still being alive in these intense times. Call it looking more deeply, call it understanding and compassion for myself and the other, call it exercising the heart virtues. It matters not, but in that moment we have created a revolution and love has shown itself.

The second essential point that Dogen mentions is “then naturally you will be completely integrated“.  Once we have re-calibrated ourselves and exited the virtual reality of the mind’s past impressions, memories, associations, assessments etc. we have entered the reality of NOW that is pure, new and open. In this state we naturally  and spontaneously move as a part of intelligent infinity rather than as a fragment that sees itself as different than and separate from the reality that includes all and knows of no ‘other’.

The third and final essential point here is “we, who are [ordinarily] set into motion by things, become able to set things into motion“. Simply put, we are now in the driver’s seat. We are no longer driven by the past dynamic of human behavior, which has been governed by the belief that ‘the circumstances, the things in my life (and be it other bodies)’ are responsible for my thoughts, words and actions. Once I have realized that there is no other, and that I alone am, I am ready to have every action that I take be my own action. As they say in Zen parlance, I am ready to be my true person wherever I am. I take full responsibility for every aspect of my existence and all excuses wither away. I then realize that indeed every most subtle movement that I make must be owned by me fully. It is not that I decide to set things in motion, but that I realize the truth that I already DO set things in motion, only up to now I have been reacting to my environment and so my actions were incoherent, weak and trivial.

This is so because if there in actuality is no environment, there are no circumstances, then there also is no ‘other’ who didn’t clean up his/her mess. Then it makes sense that reacting to him or her is like someone reacting to the movements of a shadow that lacks all substance. I have been continually shadow-boxing and wondering why I never got the prize. This is called ‘images interacting with images’.

Now I realize with full awareness the impact of my every action, of my every most secret thought. With this awareness I “become able to set things into motion” and every moment becomes deeply significant.




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