“Put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward.”
These words are from Zen teacher Dogen Zenji who lived in Japan during the 13th century. I mentioned this “backwards step” to a friend recently and he replied, “but be careful; don’t take it when you are standing at the edge of a cliff.”
We laughed, and in thinking more about his comment, the problem, when it comes to change, is that we always think we are standing at the edge of a cliff, though, of course, we rarely are. Letting go of the known, familiar and comfortable is difficult. What we don’t know feels dangerous. This, I think, is why we hold on so tightly to what we have and know, even if it is not serving us. This must be where the expression “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” comes from; reinforcing the idea that change is always bad.
A simple model of change that I find to be useful, for myself and in the teaching that I do, is a three step approach:
1) Letting go of what is either gone or needs to be let go of
2) Being in a place where we don’t know.
3) New openings and new beginnings
Letting go – This is what Dogen Zenji was referring to as the backwards step, at least in part. Sometimes this happens to us beyond our choice – people leave us, people die, property is destroyed or any number of changes happen beyond our choice. We can also choose to make changes – letting go of routines and habits, changing course in relationships or with work.
Not knowing – Most of us want to skip this step. I do. I’d rather be comfortable and know then uncomfortable and not know. Many times we don’t have a choice. Yet, how valuable, though painful it can be to stay in this place of not knowing. Another wonderful expression from the Zen tradition proclaims that “not knowing is most intimate.”
New openings – Often beyond our planning and our control, new possibilities, new openings, and new beginnings emerge. This may take time, or not. The process may be painful or joyful.
I find myself asking the question, What do I need to let go of?; in my routines, my relationship, and my work. Just asking this question helps make room for change and growth.
A great place to begin is with the question – What do you need to let go of?