5 – Running Things Backwards

Freedom from Suffering

Relativity theory predicts that if a particle could exceed the speed of light, the time warp would become negative, and the particle could then travel backwards in time.
Paul Davies (Physicist) – The Guardian 20 July 2000

Most of the time the mind is humming along and registering things without adding much to them—the sound of a diesel truck, the sage branch with electric red flowers bending under the weight of a humming bird, a memory of my father, indigestion, cold toes. It’s a kaleidoscope, and disorderly, but that’s not yet a problem.

Sometimes what’s in the kaleidoscope is plainness—the scarred wooden floor of my kitchen makes me happy in a way that is beyond assessment. At other times there is a sense of walking through vast space with delight—those flowers in the yard are themselves galaxies, and have their song.


At other times nothing much seems to be going on; a friend calls me up and when I say I’m doing nothing, I’m actually doing nothing. So far so good, that’s all in the category of doing nothing.

Then another day I’m wandering along and get an email with bite in it or I notice I’m beginning to dread a certain phone call and my inner attorney has started to maneuver and make cases and convince people of things before I even knew that I had hired him. I not only have thoughts, but I have thoughts about my thoughts. The thoughts give themselves reviews—lovely, boring, that one’s intense, ooh, get that one away from me. I think that is what is meant by suffering.

Each thought brings a world and gives us an invitation to live in that world. We are frightened and even ashamed of the chaotic shapes that form in consciousness but there is nothing truly wrong with them. When we identify with our thoughts we live in their worlds and that might be worth objecting to. Suffering is insoluble then, because no matter how much we adjust a thought world, it’s still an airless cell. The thought we identify with might be a district of the ancient city of should-have, could-have or would-have as in ‘He shouldn’t be doing that.’ It might also be an attack on oneself, ‘I always make that mistake!’ Most thoughts are intrinsically unverifiable. One of the product features of a thought is that if you run it backwards it is just as unverifiable as it was when you ran it forwards. ‘It was terrible that we argued’ or ‘it might deepen our connection if we argue’—actually, no one knows. Our thoughts are transparent and if we live in their world, we live as ghosts. When we see through our thoughts, they are dreams, evaporating like morning fog.

The Koan this Week:

If you turn things around you are like the Buddha.

Suffering comes from living in the worlds made by thoughts. ‘He shouldn’t have left me,’ ‘It’s terrible that she died.’ ‘Nobody loves me.’ ‘I’m doomed. Even meditation doesn’t work for me.’ ‘I’ll end up pushing a shopping cart.’

Turning things around is demolition. It’s fun. A joke turns things around and dissolves a thought world that we had entered. A koan does the same thing. It’s a kind of banana skin to send you head over heels.

Here is a related koan:

Blossoms on withered tree—a spring outside of time;
riding backwards on a jade elephant, chasing a dragon deer with wings.

It’s an amusement park ride and whatever a dragon deer is, I’ll be happy to chase it. You can play with thought worlds. For example, you might get yourself a shopping cart and push it around in your living room. A mother told me a story about taking her two kids to the Renaissance Fair. After shuffling forward for hours in the sun, she discovered at the gate that she had left her purse in the car two miles away. She began to walk back. The kids started to complain and whine. She threw herself down on the ground and started kicking and complaining too.

Michael Katz related to me a conversation with Gregory Bateson, the thinker and anthropologist. Michael was driving him to a conference at Lindisfarne on Long Island and Bateson said he dreaded something about conferences.
“What is that?” asked Michael.
“Well, people don’t have a sense of humor.”
“What does that mean to you?”
Bateson thought about it and said, “A sense of humor depends on knowing that what you think doesn’t really matter, or even that you don’t really matter.”

Byron Katie’s inquiry system is meant to explode thoughts, and turning thoughts around is one of its key points. Since she didn’t read any Buddhism before she noticed this, it probably goes to show that we invent Zen over and over again.

The non-linear quality of the kaleidoscope of the mind is actually our friend. The mind keeps turning and worlds keep making themselves and I could run them all backwards, I don’t have to believe in the builder. As we learn this we get skeptical about our thoughts. A friend wrote me this in 1998:

“I decided to sign up for the June sesshin. If I tell you I’m backing out, please tell me I told you to tell me I shouldn’t.”

I’m about to write her and ask if she is coming to our Bare Bones retreat in the New Year, 2010.


What’s it like when we don’t enter the worlds that come with the thoughts? Who owns my thoughts? They don’t have to be mine, they could be anyone’s. Once upon a time I was writing a book on Zen and forgot the kettle and it melted. When I’m not subscribing to the world of thoughts, then there is just the texture of the worn kitchen floor with the scars from the molten kettle near the stove.

Questions, just in case:

  1. Do you have a painful thought that you strongly believe in? How does it relate to your identity? What kind of thoughts go with it? Is it an important part of your life story? What happens when you turn it around?
  2. How does your sense of humor appear? How do humor and play relate to spirituality for you?
  3. Have you ever discovered that you were completely wrong about something? What was that experience like? What were the consequences?
  4. What feelings, thoughts, images or gestures arise for you when you sit with this koan?

The koan, If you turn things around you are like the Buddha appears in Entangling Vines and is originally from The Surangama Sutra. Entangling Vines is a miscellaneous koan collection used for advanced study. It’s the final book of our curriculum. Riding the jade elephant backwards appears in a poem by Dongshan and is a traditional koan.