The Backward Step of Turning the Light

Therefore, …take the backward step of turning the light and shining it back.

(Eihei Dogen, “Fukan zazengi” Tenpuku version, trans. Carl Bielefeldt, “Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation”, pg 176)

If I feel as though I’m moving backward in space, I may suddenly have an acute sense of where my awareness is in my body, and that location may not be in my head. Of course, it’s not necessary to physically step backward to invoke a sense of location in awareness.

‘The millstone turns but the mind does not turn.’

… the turning of the millstone is a metaphor for the turning of the waist. The mind not turning is the central equalibrium resulting from the sinking of ch’i to the tan-t’ien.

(“Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai Chi Ch’uan”, by Cheng Man-ching, trans. Douglas Wile, pg 67)

It’s my understanding that the Chinese word now translated as “mind” was once translated as “heart-mind”. The Tai-Chi classic quoted by Cheng speaks of the mind and maybe of the heart-mind, whereas Cheng himself speaks about ch’i; to me the feeling of place associated with my awareness is the heart-mind, and the heart-mind can sink to the tan-t’ien.

Cheng states that once the ch’i has sunk to the tan-t’ien, it circulates through the body and accumulates at the tan-t’ien. I find that my heart-mind can remain in the vicinity of the tan-t’ien if I exercise my vestibular and proprioceptive senses along with my sense of location; perhaps the experience of proprioception in connection with location is what Cheng referred to as the circulation of ch’i.

Olaf Blanke, the Swiss neurobiologist, mentions the vestibular system and its relationship to the sense of location in a video about his experiments:

Blanke mentions that our eyes can affect our sense of where we are in space. He states as an example that a person on a train who sees another train go by in the opposite direction will sometimes get the feeling they are moving when they are not. Blanke points out that this is because the eyes have a tight connection with the sense of place.

I can experience my eyes affecting my sense of place, yet I can also free my sense of place to move in spite of the connection with my eyes.

Now I find that, like a bagpiper whose activity works the bag while they walk, my activity supports the fluid ball of the abdomen, and the location of my awareness responds as I comprehend the long or short of inhalation or exhalation.

Sometimes the activity of support for the fluid ball feels like one of the lines of Fuxi’s poem:

The empty hand grasps the hoe-handle
Walking along, I ride the ox
The ox crosses the wooden bridge
The bridge is flowing, the water is still


This is especially true when I sit.

You, too, can “study the backward step”*— no experience necessary!

*as Dogen amended his text in the later Koroku version of “Fukan zazengi”, per Bielefeldt.

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