How to defeat the enemy

The teaching is upside down. — Zen koan

People stumble upon escape arts in the course of life. An escape art frees you to be in greater harmony with what passes for reality. One of the simplest of escape arts is to notice that every thought you have could benefit from a question mark. The upsidedownness or reversibility of everything the mind is doing is a crucial discovery.

This story about upsidedownness was told to me by one of my teachers. His name was Dick Auerswald and I knew him in Honolulu. He had spent a lot of time with Gregory Bateson and had developed an ecological systems approach to working with cultural problems and in family therapy. He had a terrific feeling for what I was coming to think of as the Zen approach to the mind, for seeing the transparency and emptiness in situations that seemed stuck. One of his epiphanies came when he was a 19 year old and in the army, towards the end of the Second World War as part of the American push into Germany.

He was in the infantry and followed the tanks into a small town near the French border. After the tanks moved on, Dick and his companions were left in charge. They removed the guns of the young Germans, put them in the cellar of the main building in town and sat there guarding them. The Germans who could speak English and the Americans who could speak German began to talk. At first there were recriminations, about the blitz on London, the firestorm in Dresden and many other things it seemed reasonable to recriminate about. Pride was also involved. Then, after a few days, the boys started sharing snapshots and the families of both sides looked just like families. The Americans offered candy and cigarettes. After a couple more days, the guns were propped up against the wall and the cellar became companionable, a place to wait out the war.

There was a rumble in the square as more tanks came and went. Somebody climbed up to look and the tank in the square didn’t have the American star on it; it had the German cross. Suddenly they were in a war again. They had a howitzer which was in bits on the top floor. They thought, “We might be able to put it together.” They worked out how to assemble it and stuck the barrel over the windowsill and the tank swiveled around and blew off the roof. “Anybody got a white sheet?” was the next question. And so it was turn about: the American kids were in the cellar and the German kids had the guns.

Events took what was becoming a predictable course, “What about Dresden, you swine,” and “What about Munich?” “What about London?” “Murderers,” and so on. But nobody actually knew much about the war, and after a couple of days the family snapshots came out and dreams of what to do after the end of the war became a topic. Then the clanking of metal treads was heard again and this time the tanks had a star on them. Once again German boys were prisoners and the American boys were guarding them.

At this moment, Dick began to laugh. He said he lost his ability to work out who was ‘them’ and who was ‘us’ and the discovery changed his life. After the war he went to medical school and started to apply his discovery.

Here is a tiny example of a story that shows his approach. When he was a psychiatrist in New York, and one of the people inventing the idea of family therapy, he was asked why so many paranoid schizophrenic Puerto Rican women were coming into a clinic in Harlem. ‘What is going on?’ the clinic director wanted to know.

The question mark he added to the end of the thought became something like ‘The women are crazy?’ He met some of the women and talked to the staff and poked around in the records, not knowing what he was looking for. Perhaps for that reason he found something interesting. The women who had been diagnosed spoke only Spanish but lived outside of the Spanish speaking blocks of Harlem. They had no one to talk to and became afraid and began acting in unusual ways. He arranged for them to get telephones and they stopped coming into the clinics.

I think he was in conversation with the women the way he was with the German boys. Conversation puts a query into your thoughts. This is why Twitter makes dictators uneasy. When people are in conversation the dictators have to pretend to rig vote counts when in fact they didn’t rig the vote, since they didn’t actually count any votes-they just made up numbers. So pretending to rig the vote starts to look like a concession. If you are a dictator the whole thing-conversation, questions — just makes you queasy.

So, most thoughts can benefit by the addition of a question mark to the end of them. There are many current applications. “I need to go on a book tour and tell all the details of my spouse’s affair so that people will sympathize with my pain,” is an example of a thought that could benefit from a question mark. “When we invade, we’ll be welcomed by cheering crowds and be out of the country within a year,” might be another. Adding a question mark might stop you from going on the Larry King show or from getting a top ten entry in the ‘most misinformed presidents’ list.

The nice thing about the conversation in the cellar in Germany was that with no sense of virtue or prior good intention it led to an outcome with some possibilities. ‘You are my enemy,’ became, ‘You are my enemy?’ And ‘I know what is going on here,’ became, ‘Oh really?’ Turning your thoughts upside down is almost always progress, especially with conflicts that seem old and full of certainty.


  1. Sylvia says

    another great post. I love the idea of life as one big question mark. John Tarrant is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers.

  2. says

    What stands out for me in this story is that a jolt of awakening can come in ANY context, at any time, particularly mundane everyday events. And the power to not hold so tightly to our beliefs, but to invite questions and conversation opens the door to untold gifts, shifts and connection.

    • says

      Yes, I think that's an important point, that we don't have to be holding our mouths the right way to discover something valuable, it's more about noticing what is happening, now.

  3. says

    What a beautiful article and story about getting beyond our sense of things, our sense of people, our sense of who we are so that we can truly "see" and experience life with that fresh sense. Having met Dick Auerswald myself the story took on a personal flavor even in its impersonality. I ask myself as I read the story, "Where do I get stuck to it?" There is so much in it which makes for its richness; but I am stuck to the Puerto Rican women who were given telephones and they didn't return to the clinic. So I am asking myself, "What telephones do I need?" Thank you.

  4. says

    I like the idea that the question is "What telephones do I need?' When I ask it of myself, I think the act of writing is a telephone for me.

  5. alfredo espino says

    Great article, John. I´m ready to put more question marks all over my thoughts -particularly those old ones, and full of certainty, that make up that image of myself…


  6. Rebecca del RIo says

    For me, adding the question mark would make great shorthand "I don't know." Thanks!

  7. Jenny says

    I would like to add something else. The place where I get stuck is telling "all the details of my spouse’s affair". An old tibetan monk was once asked what to do if your partner is unfaithful? He replied "who made up the rule that you can only have one partner?

    Personally, I think it is isolation that drives people to insanity that is why keeping connected is so important.

    • says

      Hi, Sure
      Having a friend or two with whom you can share what is going on in your life might indeed be a sane thing.

      I was thinking of Elizabeth Edwards, etc. etc.—you might want to ask yourself if telling all on TV is actually more or less isolating. I haven't found television to be a therapeutic medium, myself. And remember, I am suggesting that we can ask ourselves questions about things we are believing, not that we should come up with particular answers

  8. Ellen says

    So every thought benefits from a question mark? Should go on Larry King? Should I NOT go on Larry King? Is this worth posting? Why wouldn't I post this? Is it time for bed? Shall I stay up longer? Should I NOT stay up longer? What am I avoiding? Can one keep asking questions? Why NOT ask questions? Are questions good? Is this question futile? Does a dog have Buddha nature? Is it just that I don't see it? Is this worth doing? Or not? Where does it end? Does it end? Is a question worthwhile if one doesn't try to answer it? Should the answer be in the form of a statement, or a question? What are my real thoughts? Do I have any? Should I change the radio station? Will it be any better in the morning?

    • says

      Well this is life not an exercise. 'Should I have breakfast?' is not usually an important question unless you are trying to diet or are homeless and hungry. If you let yourself experience your own life, it's not usually hard to find things that you are certain of that perhaps you don't really know. Such things usually make your life more difficult and having a little uncertainty about them can be very freeing.

  9. says

    The more i consider "the teaching is upside down" as I experience my life, the more I appreciate how I expect and sometimes unknowingly demand that life be right side up, predictable, as I like it etc. The more I come up against this, the more I am finding a way to see life upside down, to not hold expectations so tightly. It's freeing, but I also find that my default is to want it right side up. So it's a work in progress. Getting the question right. Hm. Sometimes even getting the question wrong, but holding the question, opens up new insights and learnings.