One day in 1981 I stood on a bluff at Patrick’s Point State Park in Trinidad, California. My back was to the edge of the bluff and a rock-climbing harness and rope firmly attached me to a secure point on the ground in front of me. I was learning to belay – to walk down the near-vertical face with the rope supporting me. The natural, easy voice of the instructor prescribed the next step: “now lean back over the edge.”
Lean back over the edge? What, are you nuts?!?
I did lean back eventually and walked down the bluff, over the objections of several parts of my system that insisted the event was not survivable. Touching the ground at the bottom, I was exhilarated.
I think about that day sometimes when I read what the 13th century Zen teacher Eihei Dogen says about awakening:
“You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest. If you want to attain suchness, you should practice suchness without delay.”
The backward step that Dogen speaks of feels similarly unsurvivable to backing over a cliff at times, asking of me to let go of everything that is familiar and trusted: the things I’ve accumulated over a lifetime, my likes and dislikes, my accomplishments, my ideas about who I am. It feels as though all these things have hardened into a rind that encapsulates a soft gentle nature that might be found still residing within. Perhaps the process of awakening consists of softening the rind to allow original nature to breathe as it was intended. So when I say “letting go” I don’t mean “disavowing”; but letting go as in not holding on tightly, not mistaking the things I identify with for something solid.
When I’m really listening I know that the ground below that backward step is the home to which I’ve always wanted to return. In a way all I do is an exploration of learning to take the backward step, to navigate the obstacles and strangeness of the journey home.