by Tim Burnett, September 2022


In September 2022, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett led a weekend retreat at the Samish Island Retreat Center focussed on “finding the space.”  We offer two or three weekend residential retreats each year. See the Multi-Day Retreats section of our Programs.


Talk: Finding the Space


Talk Notes

There’s a quotation we use a lot. If you’ve done anything with us you’ve probably heard it.


Between stimulus and response there’s a space; in that space in our power to choose our response; in our response is our growth and our freedom.


This was attributed to the amazing Jewish psychologist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl but it turns out he probably never said it. The likely origin is the motivational author Steven Covey who created this is a kind of mash up of some of Frankl’s writing. There’s a whole story of him saying he was sure he read that somewhere but couldn’t ever find it again. Frankl scholars say, “nope.”


But that’s okay, wisdom’s wisdom. And we need to toss an “attrib to” on our printed materials at some point.


Between stimulus and response there’s a space; in that space in our power to choose our response; in our response is our growth and our freedom.


And perhaps the converse is true. If there is no space between stimulus and response there’s no freedom or growth. There can be coping, there can be highly skilled activity but it’s running on autopilot, it’s running on well worn neurological grooves, it’s habit based.


This can be quite necessary. We need to be able to handle a lot. Some of it needs to be pretty automatic. Just take care of it and move on.


But I think we’ve all seen what happens when ALL of our lives end up this way. Fast, automatic, and ultimately unsatisfying. Ultimately burnout inducing.


Perhaps what’s lost in high speed, autopilot dominated lives is space for the feedback loop of connection, of meaning. When we’re moving too fast we have the bandwidth to take care of business maybe but not the bandwidth to feel appreciation, to take in gratitude, to feel a full connection with others.


Anyway that’s one contextual frame for looking at the value of mindfulness. It helps us find that space again.


I was talking to Dannica a little bit who took our Mindfulness for Healthcare Professionals course at UW Medicine she thinks about 10 years ago. I remember there was another medical resident in one of those early classes who was worried that if this mindfulness stuff reduced his stress too much he wouldn’t have the drive he needed to do all the work and survive residency!


No worries: mindfulness isn’t just a giant STOP pedal. It helps to tap on the brakes for a few minutes regularly, it helps to put ourselves in park for a weekend retreat like this but that’s mostly to help us get the ACCELERATOR pedal unstuck.


Mindfulness isn’t inherently about SLOW – it’s about awareness, it’s about choice, and it’s about developing more skillfulness with both the brake and the accelerator in live. Well I guess really the first thing is learning to actually know “woah – I’ve been pushing hard for a long time here, is this sustainable?” you can’t do anything without awareness. And we’re amazingly adaptable creatures, for good or ill, we can totally habituate to a high stress life, normalize it, do okay with it until we don’t. Mindfulness is about knowing more fully and clearly what we’re doing at all levels with this complex organism we call me. Of course we know what we’re doing in a way normally: I’m talking to my friend, I’m going to work, I’m doing this I’m doing that. But there’s also a way we lose track of what we’re doing at the same time. Mindfulness helps to broaden the frame.


And in learning to modulate our speed and use our resources more skillfully and actually include our own needs in all of this we feel the space. And in the space we see more clearly who we are, what we’re doing, and how we most deeply want to live.


So I think that’s a big part of what we’re doing here this weekend. Remembering the space.


This can right away feel like a big a relief – “whew” – but it can also be a bit wrenching. There’s a process of shifting gears (to continue with the car metaphor) and downshifting can be a little baffling, nervous making, anxiety provoking. So please don’t worry if you’re not right away cheerful and relaxed and happy to be here.


And especially see if you can let go of any thoughts about how you SHOULD be.


This practice of mindfulness is a very non-linear process. It has ups and downs and twists and turns. It’s about being present to what’s arising. It’s about curiosity. On the main over time most people do feel calmer and more grounded, this is true, but in the short term it’s kind of like the stock market or something – ups and downs and no way to know if you in a short term dip or heading for a long bear market.


So please be patient with yourself this weekend. Taking it a moment at a time.


Speaking of time: this spaciousness also has an interesting relationship with time. Many of us don’t have a great relationship with time. There’s never enough of it, we worry about wasting or using it wisely or effectively, we run out of it. How often do you feel like, “oh it’s fine there is plenty of time”?


Some of that’s true enough. We’re busy. But some of it is a mindset thing, a perception, a relationship that’s gotten a bit strained to say the least.


So it’s wonderful to let go of time a bit here. Another good reason to put away your phone. If you wear a watch to take it off. To rely on the bell signals people are kindly doing for us (they have to watch the clock time for us!) and to come down here and let me keep track of everything. To be in the moment, which is to be in time, but it may feel different. Time may speed up and slow down. Time may be more fluid. Time may feel more abundant. See what happens.


And watch out for you can also invoke time in an anxiety provoking way. Like if you do have a bit of a mood dip at some point today it’s so easy to say to yourself, “oh no: the rest of the day like THIS? Or, what it must be at least 2 or 3 hours until lunch and it’s going to be terrible!” This is making a prediction of the future, this is trying to nail down time. See if you can drop that narrative and just come to now. Difficult moods or uncomfortable feelings in the body do happen but they also do change. They can shift. But if you convince yourself of your own prediction of future unhappiness we can be effective at making that true- a self-fulfilling prophecy.


As you’ve already experienced a good bit of what we’re up to. A flow of practices. Different ways of being mindful with breath, body, senses. In this body. With this mind. With this heart. So the invitation is to just keep showing up for this flow.


The space I’m talking about isn’t something you make happen or figure out or acquire. It’s something make room for. It’s something you feel. Sometimes it kind of sneaks up on you.


It all does take patience, curiosity, a gentle steady kind of effort, and some kindness really helps. One of my core lists for mindfulness practice is: willingness, curiosity, and kindness.


To be willing to do something differently, to try this stuff – here you are, so: check.


To be curious about what’s going to happen. Not too sure. You are the expert on you for sure, but to not to be too sure of your own expertise there. To be willing to be surprised a bit by your self and your experience. Let’s see. I wonder.


And to be kind. From deep conditioning and lots of societal messages we’re better at harsh self-correction than kindness usually.  Here’s a great supportive practice you can add to just about all of the mindfulness practices we’ll do:


[intro Soothing Touch]


Sometimes people ask me what the benefits of mindfulness will be and I usually say: I don’t know what it’ll be for you. We’re all so unique. But I have seen over and over and over that people who show up for this see benefit. But I don’t know how it will manifest. A calmer feeling? A shift in some understanding of who you are? Becoming a bit more skillful responding to difficult feelings, to anxiety, to depressive moods? A feeling of remembering something important, essential about what matters in life? Some skills for helping to keep yourself from revving up quite so much on a busy day? Skills for downshifting more fully and being more present at home with loved ones? There are so many possibilities. And we don’t exactly get to choose from a menu either. It’s more just doing the work, being curious, and seeing what happens that gives the best outcomes.


Another thing that’s really great about this stuff is it’s also an arena that’s a bit beyond doing it right, or doing it wrong. We can be so bound up with performance, production, the many forms of perfectionism always trying to do it right, to be right, to be good always. So it’s a kind of therapeutic thing that this isn’t about doing it right. These positive outcomes are over time and you don’t always even notice them right away. In the short term a meditation period might feel to you, subjectively, as a nice one or a bad one, a focused one or a distracted one, but that’s a kind of short term evaluation that isn’t that useful. The central thing is here is showing up, making a gentle steady effort as best you can, and well, that’s kind of it. “How did it go? How did I do?” isn’t usually that helpful. Something is happening and much of it may be happening in ways you conscious evaluating mind isn’t going to pick up on, especially not right away.


Here’s a wonderful poem we quote often, this one is correctly attributed to the wonderful American poet Mary Oliver:


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


As her work often does it pivots to meaning. Finding your place in the family of things. Mindfulness isn’t just a technique for stress reduction, although it is that, it’s also about meaning, about life, about intention, about purpose.