by Tim Burnett, June 2022
In June 2022, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett led a weekend retreat at the Samish Island Retreat Center focussed on “knowing where you truly are”
We offer three weekend residential retreats each year. See the Multi-Day Retreats section of our Programs.
Talk: Knowing Where You Are
[source on the smallpox epidemic of 1862: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_smallpox#Epidemics_in_the_Americas]
Good morning, I’m so glad we’re here together practicing mindfulness and taking a weekend to pause and…be.
This is a place I truly love. The Community of Christ have been here for about 55 years from when one of their members helped them acquire the property. It was originally for large summer reunions. They have the church organized into large regions – called stakes – and back in the day each stake would gather her for a week. There would be activities for the kids and church meetings and discussion and mostly I think just a lot of fellowship – a lot of hanging out. They’d have 300 or more people here living together for a week. The building we’re in is on the site of what was a large barn when they first got here – the big gathering space. Must’ve been pretty chilly at times but again it was just summer pretty much when they came. Eventually they tore down the barn, it was falling apart, and build this building which they call the Christian Fellowship Center – CFC – we usually just call The Hall. The meditation hall. When I’m here with my Zen community which I will be right after this we call it the zendo. One time my Zen teacher called it “the basketball church” – same building with many different names. And it’s interesting how a different name does give something a different feel.
But there were people way longer than 55 or 100 years of course. The Samish Nation was here for much, much longer. Several of you I’m sure read the display they made for the dining hall here. There was a 50 year anniversary of the Camp and they were kind enough to attend and share, they brought that then and the camp has kept it up ever since.
Science suggests they were here up to 10,000 years. Where were your ancestors 10,000 years ago? I think the Samish just say they’ve been here since the beginning. I’ve had the privilege of meeting a few members of the tribe over the years and we actually just reached out to the current Tribal Chairman to see if we can connect a bit. Anyway this was a winter village site. They were pretty mobile through the islands the rest of the year, hunting, foraging, gathering, getting everything set and then the winter was a relaxed time. A time of story telling. I remember reading that some Coast Salish peoples had different names in winter to support seeing the winter as a different time. Different names for people, just like for buildings do change things.
My child who was born to my ex-wife and I as a little boy and I always through I had a son. Now I’m learning that she feels more female than male and has changed her name from Walker that we gave her at birth to her chosen name of Zaviah. Male and female are also names we give. It’s been confusing, yes, but also beautiful so far. She’s coming home in a few weeks and I’m really looking forward to getting to know this being I know so well and yet, it seems, I don’t. What an opportunity right? To get to know your child fresh as a new person. A different name for herself and her gender, the same person but a different person.
But back to the Samish Nation. I’ve done many ceremonies here at this place apologizing for being a part of the culture that brought them such pain, dislocation, loss of their lands and ways, and straight up death. In this time of pandemic it’s worth taking a minute as we sit on this land to think about a much worse pandemic.
[dates Independence Day, The treaty was signed on 22 January 1855, at Muckl-te-oh or Point Elliott, now Mukilteo, Washington, and ratified 8 March and 11 April 1859. And now smallpox year 1862]
I just learned that we actually know exactly how smallpox came to the area. It was carried to Victoria, B.C., by a passenger steamship in 1862. The authorities there did recognize it quickly and had access to vaccine but it was almost exclusively white people who were vaccinated. Victoria was a major trading hub and there were many First Nations people were camped at Victoria to trade and do town stuff – over 2,000 native folks were there, but as they started getting sick Vancouver Island authorities forced them to leave. Of course they went home to their villages and people and the small pox spread quickly.
At the time Western society understood Smallpox well enough to slow or stop outbreaks. There was an effective vaccine and communities were often pretty effective at using quarantine to slow the spread. But very little of this was offered to the native community. There was some I read. One particular doctor, Dr. Helmcken, vaccinated over 500 people in a tribal group called the Songhees and they suffered very little loss. But overall up and down the region about half of Coast Salish people died from Smallpox.
The thing I just learned that I didn’t know is that many of those deaths could have been prevented by vaccination and public health practices that the white settlers had access too. I had a simpler story in my mind that the native population was naturally a lot more vulnerable to smallpox than the European settlers but it turns out that was only part of the story. The settlers protected themselves and managed the public health crisis of smallpox which was plenty dangerous for them, but with some exceptions like Dr. Helmcken’s example the dominant feeling was this was a handy way to get rid of the Indians.
I’m sorry to share this with you but I think it’s important to bear witness to it. This was an editorial in the Port Townsend newspaper from May 1862:
“The Indians are a loathesome and indolent race, of no earthly use to themselves or anybody else in the community — save the doctors — and their presence gathers and retains a set of graceless white vagabonds, who … get a precarious living by peddling villainous whisky among them. … These social lepers are far worse than the small pox. In ridding ourselves of one, we no longer encourage the other. Let the Indians be sent to the Reservations where they belong … [and then] our natural resources would rapidly develop, society would improve and strengthen, and free-love and atheism find fewer endorsers on the shores of Puget Sound” (May 24, 1862, p. 2).
I don’t know all the details of how it progressed for Coast Salish peoples but there was at least one report of a village here in the Skagit Valley where just about everyone died of small pox. I have this horrible image in my head – from something I read – of a settler entering a village to find only a few children still alive.
The Samish Nation was devastated too – their sign says their entire population was reduced 90% which is about as bad as it got if that’s historically accurate.
A result of all of this is that when settlers arrived in increasing waves in the 1880’s and 1890’s they came into a land that had already been largely depopulated by disease. Made it less clear to them I guess who land they were taking over and of course they didn’t really recognize or understand the land use practices of the Indian population either. No one here: I’ll start my farm – not knowing that that field was burned annual to promote camas bulb production and that folks would be back in the Fall to harvest them. No Indian camas farmers in a farm house. So many layers the story of the enormous cultural change that happened here. 150 years ago isn’t that long really. I’m kind of proud of being in Bellingham over 30 years, that’s 1/5 of the entire history of Euro-american habitation of this land. Hard to get my mind around that.
Back to buildings that stood here where we sit, that’s what got me reflecting on all of this: before all of that horrible suffering there was a village here and a long house also right about on this site.
It’s good to know where you are I think. Lovely place, it’s always felt like a deep place for practice to me, and a place where tremendous suffering has happened. Maybe that’s true pretty much everywhere. Tremendous suffering and I’m sure so many millennia of joy and connection and every other human emotion.
So gratitude for the Samish Nation, thank you for allowing us to be here in whatever way you are, thank you for surviving and tolerating this greedy hateful culture that swept down on you 150 years ago. I hope we’re doing better now. And as part of that process I do think there’s an element of facing our past, and knowing a little more clearly about the ground on which we stand. Lovely, peaceful, and also soaked in blood and tears.
And gratitude to the Community of Christ for sharing the place with us. Thank you to Shawna who’s been working really hard holding this place together. Thank you to Christina for jumping in to be camp manager this summer. Thank you to Chef Wayne and Sally and young Ian for making us wonderful food. Thank you to the swallows and the herons and the eagles and terns for sharing the space with us too. No matter what each of our challenges are in life there is much to be grateful for isn’t there? So much.
Okay. Of course I worry this was all TOO MUCH to this bring up. We’re here to reset, relax, practice, take a break from a busy life probably. Do we need to contemplate the horrors from history? But I trust our big hearts too. We can do all of that and include in our hearts some appreciation and some sorrow for how got to tot his point, and how they continue to be in so many ways. Thankfully some progress anyway. I’m sure you can find sentiments like in that 1862 newspaper editorial on fringy websites but thankfully that kind of racism is so much less prevalent, if sadly not gone from this world.
Maybe on way to look at this is some sense of responsibility to really use our practice time well. A way, perhaps, of honoring those who sacrificed so much. And also a way of honoring the many, many people who have supported each of us more directly. It’s worth taking a minute to think of some of the people who’s support has made it possible for you to be here. [pause]
And while we’re here, appreciating the blessing of getting to be here for the weekend, how should we practice? How should we orient ourselves? How should we make the best use of this time of practice?
Well Buddhism has many suggestions for us and I thought we’d explore one of them today. A teaching called The Three Dharma Seals. This teaching suggests that any teaching or practice with depth will include three aspects, three seals. “Dharma” here refers to authentic teaching, and thus to the practice of putting those teachings to use.
The Three Dharma Seals in their traditional phrasing are: impermanence, non-self, and nirvana. These get increasingly obscure really but we’ll unpack them. impermanence, non-self, and nirvana.
Impermanence makes some sense: everything changes, exploring change, exploring and appreciating how temporary absolutely everything is. There was a conversation over dinner about hospice work and appreciating the challenging truth of how temporary each of us is. My friends and I at the table in our 50’s and into 60’s and starting to feel a little more clearly how our years remaining are fewer than they were. An uncomfortable feeling but it can also be an inspiration: how do I show up for my life more fully from now? Not wanting to let the remaining years just sort of slide on by.
And it’s more challenging to notice that that thinking, as true as it seems to be, is also putting death at arm’s length: imagining life into the mid-80’s maybe as a default. So at 56 I’m more than halfway there but still plenty of years left, whew.
But of course I don’t know that. I didn’t know yesterday if I would be here today, I couldn’t know that. It was a reasonable guess since I’m not aware of anything wrong with the body and a fatal accident here at the camp seems unlikely. But that’s only thinking, or not thinking, I know what’s going on and what’s going to happen. I’m hearing more and more of friends of friends who suddenly died from an unknown issue in their hearts or blood vessels. It happens. You go out to get the mail one morning and just don’t come back.
And the sad noticing yesterday that some baby birds – maybe swallow chicks, baby birds are hard to identify – apparently fell out of a nest and we found them in the grass by cabin B1. Tiny little guys, agitated, opening their beaks wide asking to be fed, no adult birds to be seen. We debated how to save them, if we can save them, if we should save them. Being faced with impermanence isn’t easy especially when it has this quality of something happening that we think shouldn’t be happening. It’s hard to look at baby chicks and see their fragility and impermanence: knowing they were likely to die soon.
So how on earth do we practice with this? The great teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has a few suggestions for us: [Cultivating the Mind of Love p11-13]. Long live impermanence!
So setting these issues we see as so big, like death, aside we can practice deeply with change right here at Samish, today. Watch your mind states, watch them change. Watch the light of the day as the earth spins steadily on it’s axis: how it changes. Birds that were fortunate to grow to adulthood fly by: one moment there was not a bird there, then there is, then there isn’t. Miraculous that birds exist, miraculous that they fly, and it all happens within the web of impermanence and change. Without change none of this can be. Without change we can’t be.
Impermanence can feel like a deep challenge but it can also feel like a great relief. Maybe you get stuck in some horrid mind state at some point today like we were talking about last night. You try to cheer yourself up or change the subject in your mind – that’s our habit – but that doesn’t work. And the more you poke and prod at yourself the worse you can feel even if you do manage to avoid the pitfall of the predicting and time travelling I mentioned where you make it worse by believing that the rest of the rest will be horrible.
A great blessing of retreat there is the structure and support to hang in there. Not to jump up and distract yourself. To stay with it. And, usually, soon or later: it changes. The mood lifts, your attitude changes, you feel okay again. What happened? Did I do that? Did God or Buddha or someone out there do something? Is it neurochemistry?
But again a blessing of retreat is to drop out of all of that thinking and analyzing and trying to figure it all out and just returning to experience itself. A bad mood was here, now it’s flown away like one of the birds, gone. Like the sun breaking through the clouds can feel so amazing, which is the impermanence of weather.
Sometimes we benefit from thinking of moods and thoughts like weather you know? Just the inner weather of the mind. Most of us prefer a mildly warm sunny day to a cold rainy day but it’s not that big of a deal if it’s rainy out really is it? You put on your layers and carry on with your day. Can we bring that attitude to our every changing inner weather too. That’s a practice of appreciating impermanence.
SO that’s the first Dharma Seal: impermanence.
The second is a bit more subtle: non-self or not-self. What they mean there is that the self we’ve constructed through our lives, built up from childhood, culture, the many inputs of our parents, our choices and experiences and myriad influences, this sense of me that feels so solid and me-like, what they mean is that sense isn’t so solid. Isn’t so real and fixed as we think it is. You can feel the way impermanence weaves it’s way in here can’t you?
And the practice here is a great application for curiosity. Is this really what I am? Might I be more than this? Not so limited by who I think I am?
A great place to study this in retreat is when you feel really convinced about something, have a strong view that’s flowing from your sense of who you are. I’m this kind of person, not that kind of person. That often shows up in a feeling of limitations: I can’t do that, maybe he can do that or they can do that but I can’t do that. Our constructed self is full of fixed views about who and what we are and how we function. Maybe my student’s observations about how the day is ruined when something bad happens stem from this, like I’m just a fragile person and when something goes wrong I freak out, just how it is, how I operate. And then she found out no, maybe I’m a more flexible and resilience person than I thought.
This gets into a bit tricky territory because it’s not like we can shed all of our past trauma and conditioning and hang ups just by switching up our attitude and learning some mindfulness or, here, some adapted Buddhist thinking. That stuff has it’s power, but what these teaching on non-self is suggesting is that at the same time none of it is as solid and fixed and binding as our mind’s think it is.
That there’s healing from our deep suffering BOTH in learning about it, taking care of ourselves, being gentle, steady on and so on AND there’s healing from the deep curiosity of looking carefully at our suffering and conditioning. Is it as solid and powerful as we thought it was when we gently turn towards it to look? There’s a subtle interplay here between doing what’s wise so we feel better and also questioning the whole notion of feeling worse or feeling better in the first place. But maybe this is getting a little far out.
A practical way to land this traditional teaching of non-self is: hold yourself lightly. Hold it all lightly. Smile a little. Keep breathing. Don’t try so hard to figure things out. Dance more, push through less. Take a fresh look at your story – your many, many stories as they come up. Oh! That’s the story I tell myself about who I am. I wonder…. Hold it lightly.
Which is why I encourage myself and all of us to be light with our expectations at retreat. Something will happen here. Probably something quite valuable to us. But our mind’s attempts to predict what that will be, or our expectations of what it should be from before, are just another emanation of our fixed story of self.
You’re aren’t this you-unit that you think you are, this teaching suggests. You’re a process. You’re part of everything. And everything is a part of you. You can’t even really know what you are. Hold it all lightly. Instead of non-self it would be better for us probably to say flexible-soft-self but that’s also too limited. A self that practices connecting to “beyond self” maybe. I’ll stop before I confuse us further.
The last of the three which we use here a sanskrit term for is nirvana. This sounds like the most complex of the three but actually we can’t boil this one down to one word: stop. Nirvana points to all kinds of things but it’s essence is just that: stop.
Which is what we’re doing here at the root isn’t it? We’re stopping. Disconnecting. Dialing it down. Pausing from our busy lives full of responsibilities to others, stop that for a while. Just stop see what happens. Stop and smell the roses we say in English. We usually hear that like, “yes yes it’d be good to have more room to notice the beauty of life, to smell those wonderful roses.” And we put the roses first. But this teaching might say, “sure nothing wrong with smelling the roses, but the important part there is the stopping part.”
Why does this help? Stop there too. No need to figure that out. Just stop. See what it feels like, see what happens. It would be silly to try to explain this with lots of words triggering lots of busy thoughts wouldn’t it if the essential point is stopping.
So let’s practice this way this weekend and see.
Being open to change and impermenance. Being present to it. Noticing it. Appreciating it. Everything’s always changing.
And so is the impermanent me at the middle of it. Hold her or him lightly. It’s just an idea you’ve made up in your head, don’t worry about it so much. Just being. Just breathing in the body is such a sweet way to practice this openness and flexibility.
And stop. Really stop.
Stop talking is one piece we’re practicing so please do take full advantage of that possibility. Silence in all of it’s forms and that includes studying the urges to reach out and solve things or explain things or check in with someone who seems like they need it, or whatever – luckily those urges are impermanent too.
Finding other ways to slow down too. Move slowly around the camp. Mindfully. Take your time. Pause, stop.
And being gently diligent with the busy thinking mind. You can’t make it stop exactly, it doesn’t work that way, but you can feed it less. Stir it up less. Judge it less. Let it be. Stop mucking with your mind is a way to think about it.