by Tim Burnett, February 2023

In February 2023, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett gave a talk at our weekend retreat at the Samish Island Retreat Center focussed on “Role Models and Mindfulness”

We offer three weekend residential retreats each year. See the Multi-Day Retreats section of our Programs.


Talk: Role Models, Poetry, and Mindfulness


Talk Notes

​Good morning. Again: so glad to be here together with you. So grateful you’re here, I’m here, the camp is here and so welcoming to us. As I always do after I settle in a little I feel sorrow and gratitude for the Samish people who had a winter village here for some thousands of years.

I had some intense dreams last night. I woke up several times but got back to sleep soon enough, so I think I slept enough for the body, but somehow sleeping felt really complicated and rich last night.

I hope you slept enough. As I mentioned as we parted it’s not unusual for sleep to be a very different space that usual on retreat. Hopefully if you found last night challenging, tonight will be more easeful but we’ll see.

Waking up for real with Sonia’s bell I felt grateful that I’d gotten back to sleep the last time I was awake 4:30ish and grateful to Sonia for her dedication to us all in ringing it. I was so grateful actually to wake up feeling grateful.

Isn’t it interesting how we can so easily amplify difficult mind states: being grouchy about feeling grouchy which just makes us grouchier, but it feels more rare when the mind amplifies more positive mind states: feeling grateful to feel grateful like that.

And the next thing I experiences was actually just feeling really impressed by the complexity and richness of consciousness. And that I notice this richness and weirdness and amazingness more easily on retreat. Obvious it’s straight up dependent on how many hours of meditation I’ve done or anything like that as we only sat a bit last night.

It’s an important aspect of this experience. We tend to be more open. More open to our internal and external experiences. And this can be wonderful; and this can be overwhelming too. So I hope you’ll keep tuning into what you find grounding. Both RJ and I have made various suggestions about this and probably you arrived with your own sense. What helps you ground in.

Not to try to “ooommmmm” tune everything else out – sometimes we can be pretty concentrated and there is a feeling for a time of just this moment, just this breath. That’s a valuable part of this but ultimately it’s about being open to the whole thing and it’s so important to have a touch stone, and anchor to hold to when the inner weather gets wild and woolley.

To ground in the breath. To feel the body – the earth beneath your seat or your feet when you’re standing. To open the senses, is wonderful too. RJ mentioned hearing when all of us can access all the time here at Samish. Some of us can open to sight too: drinking in the beautiful landscapes, tuning into the doings of the birds, the trees, the weather.

As I walked down to the meditation hall last night after our meeting I was so enjoying the sounds of the crickets and the frogs. I realized how much I’ve missed the sounds of the frogs particularly. It’s a wise choice for me to live in town but I was remembering I need to make time visit richer habitats especially in the evening and early morning to commune with the other creatures we share the planet with. That sounds like planning but it was more like a feeling of coming home at the time. Grateful to the frogs for singing.

And the way that my opening to the frogs singing lifted me out of myself.

It’s so wonderful to be here together. Sitting and walking quietly. Taking time. Disconnecting. I so appreciating getting a little bit of a sense of everyone who’s here last night and why you’re here.

So I’ve been reviewing Mindful Northwest’s collection of poem with one of our teachers, Carolyn, who also serves as our diversity and inclusion coordinator. And it brought my attention, a little ironically maybe, back to the work of an older white man named Wendell Berry I’ve always admired, even as I open up to younger poets, queer poets, BIPOC poets.

A wise farmer, poet, essayist and deep thinker named Wendell Berry. Berry works a small farm in a river valley in Kentucky. And as a farmer he’s also been very active against the ravages of industrialized agriculture. And as an activist he’s advocated for peace and against polluting industries – joining non-violent civil disobedience actions many times.

His core work has been advocating for small farms, soil conservation, farming that understands and works with ecology. And for an agricultural system where small farmer can make a living with dignity. One example of his work I ran into is the government was trying to implement a national system for tracking farm animals individually – probably for reasons that would make sense to most of us but the technology involved would be a big burden on small family farmers. He said at a hearing, “If you impose this program on the small farmers, who are already overburdened, you’re going to have to send the police for me. I’m 75 years old. I’ve about completed my responsibilities to my family. I’ll lose very little in going to jail in opposition to your program – and I’ll have to do it. Because I will be, in every way that I can conceive of, a non-cooperator.”

I’ve always felt like here’s an example of someone with deep principles making a difference and reviewing his life a little more I’m learning more how deep and committed he is and has been. He’s now 85 years old.

And he’s also explored the world and his relationship to it, human and non-human, through writing. Many novels, mostly around an fictionalized form of towns near him in rural Kentucky, many thoughtful essays, and many poems. Sometimes you become more aware of one of these exemplary folks and it’s hard not to compare yourself to them and come up feeling lacking!

One of his long term practices has been to take a walk in the woods around his farm on Sunday afternoons and write a poem many of which have been collected in several volumes The Sabbath poems. Here’s one that’s new to me:

The bell calls in the town Where forebears cleared the shaded land And brought high daylight down To shine on field and trodden road. I hear, but understand Contrarily, and walk into the woods. I leave labor and load, Take up a different story. I keep an inventory Of wonders and of uncommercial goods.

And here’s one I’ve loved for a while:

I go among the trees and sit still. All my stirring becomes quiet around me like circles on water. My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle. Then what is afraid of me comes and lives a while in my sight. What it fears in me leaves me, and the fear of me leaves it. It sings, and I hear its song. Then what I am afraid of comes. I live for a while in its sight. What I fear in it leaves it, And the fear of it leaves me. It sings and I hear its song. After days of labor, mute in my consternations, I hear my song at last, and I sing it. As we sing, The day turns, the trees move.

I don’t know that I agree with everything Wendell Berry does or says. It’s better we don’t fall into hero worship with people I think. Here’s a little summary from a biographer:

Over the years, he has called himself an agrarian, a pacifist, and a Christian—albeit of an eccentric kind. He has written against all forms of violence and destruction—of land, communities, and human beings—and argued that the modern American way of life is a skein of violence. He is an anti-capitalist moralist and a writer of praise for what he admires: the quiet, mostly uncelebrated labor and affection that keep the world whole and might still redeem it. He is also an acerbic critic of what he dislikes, particularly modern individualism, and his emphasis on family and marriage and his ambivalence toward abortion mark him as an outsider to the left.

And to remind me that nothing’s cut and dry or black and white. Here’s a quotation from Wendell Berry advocating against the death penalty and pointing out a hypocrisy that seems to show up often in conversative politics:

“As I am made deeply uncomfortable by the taking of a human life before birth, I am also made deeply uncomfortable by the taking of a human life after birth.”

I don’t know that Wendell Berry ever took up meditation. I’m sure knowing some of the people he interacts with he’s probably tried it. He and the Zen beat poet Gary Snyder have had a correspondence going back decades for instance.

So why am I bringing him up instead of talking about meditation or how to approach retreat or something?

Well I’m not entirely sure to be honest but I think it has to do with the value for all of us of finding role models. Inspirations. Reminders as lived through human beings of how we can be in this life, on this planet. Wendell Berry is one of mine it seems. And speaking about him this morning I’d like to get to know his work more and appreciate him more – not as a way to admire some great one from afar, well that’s part of this, but to feel moved, motivated, and inspired to be the best person I can be. A person of integrity. A person of commitment. A person living his values. I hope to be inspired to faff about a bit less, not that I want to feed my work-a-holic tendencies, I also want to continue my journey towards learning more how to rest and renew and have fun. But I do waste minutes and hours on frivolous stuff. Getting hooked into reading the news too much for instance. To keep in touch with the bigger vision of my life while also staying grounded on this earth.

Who’s are your inspirations for how you want to live?

And none of this to say we can every quite figure out our lives or put them into perfect order. Or even understand ourselves. Here’s another Wendell Berry favorite:

Wendell Berry – The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

There is mystery in this thing. And with mystery, if we’re wise, comes humility. Comes patience. Comes a lot of curiosity. And a lot less being so sure we know what’s going on.

I’ve never met Wendell Berry or even seen him read or speak. It’s at a distance but what an amazing thing the written word is for connecting us to people we’ve never met. Some of my role models have also been people I do have a human to human relationship with.

My long term Zen teacher, friend, and well he’s a father figure to me too Norman Fischer is one example. He’ll be 77 this year and is still going strong pretty well. I’ll be here at Samish with him at the end of June with my Zen community. This custom of mine of giving a talk mid-morning at mindfulness retreats is from the daily “Dharma talk” at those Zen retreats and this year I’ll be honored to give half the talks, alternating with Norman, across a week long retreat. We’ll have a couple of private meetings during the week but mostly the support of that long mentorship is now just being together, feeling seen, walking together. Last year someone broke protocol a little bit and took a lovely black and white picture of the two of us walking away from this Hall together in the 9pm twilight on the summer solstice wearing our Zen robe. It’s an image I cherish.

Do you have role models you get to spend time with too? Are you making it a priority to see them? I could see Norman a bit more – especially now that he’s also teaching on Zoom. But there’s also a balance there: we appreciate our teachers and role models so deeply, they are true treasures, but it’s also healthy to have some space to find our own way. To not be too glued at the hip with them.

Here are a few lines from Norman Fischer I was appreciating the other night that speak to what we’re doing here together:

Who are we really?

We’re not anyone in particular. Every moment, in response to the conditions in front of us, another person, the sky, the flowers, we are created again. That’s who we are: our relationship in this moment. Yes, of course, conventionally, we all have identities, commitments, loves, hates, and preferences. No one avoids that, and we wouldn’t want to. But that’s not all of who we are. That’s the point of Zen practice and, I think, of all spiritual practice: to get in touch with the person that we are beyond the person that we seem to be.

We don’t really ever come to that understanding and realization by ourselves. In Zen practice, it is understood that we enact this wisdom in our connection to one another. It’s our dharma relations, renewed moment by moment as we meet each thing and each person, that bring us to the truth and a kind of awakening within and beyond our suffering.

Zen practice is itself a together practice. We’re always sitting together side by side. In a classical Zen sesshin [retreat], we sit together, walk together, eat together, work together, chant together, and bow together until we become one body. As we continue our practice and understand more, we realize this—that the separate person we are is a conventional person and that we’re also a person beyond that person. That is why our practice is all about compassion, not only in the sense that I am compassionate for you but also in the sense that I am you. My compassion is not me being a nice guy. My compassion is me realizing who I am and knowing that having a heart of love for all creatures, all beings, even a blade of grass, is true to who and what I am. … That’s why we love one another: because we are one another, and there’s no other way but to love one another.

A nice reminder of how much of this mindfulness journey is not about me over here separate from you, it’s about us. It’s about a bigger feeling of a “person” than our mind narrows down to, especially when we’re stressed or worried or feel defended. There’s a reason why we’re doing this retreat together as a group. There’s a reason why we have a schedule to follow together and why RJ was encouraging us to come down to the Hall whether you feel like it or not, even if it’s just to lie down and feel grouchy or not into it. Still something is happening in our togetherness that awakens our wisdom and compassion.

And we’re not just together with the other humans in the room, we’re together with the birds we were listening to, with the trees and grass, with the rising and falling of the tides, with all of it. This might be Wendell Berry’s best known poem:

Wendell Berry – The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

We can have inspiring relationships rich in learning with our role models but also with other species, with landscapes, with birds, with our pets, with nature too. Rich relationships made all the richer through paying attention, through giving time and space and priority to them.

Really if you think about it everything is relationship. Every moment we are relating to our thoughts, our feelings, our bodies; every moment we are relating to what comes in through the senses and then we’re relating to memories and ideas and hoped and dreams and fears the mind comes up with somehow, perhaps in relationship to our experiences and sometimes it all seems kind of random too doesn’t it? Sometimes we love our insightful minds, or our calm mind, or our excited mind – that’s relationship. Other times we dislike our mind, are frightened and upset by our mind, and fold those difficult feelings around our whole being or project them onto others. The mind of blame arises from relationship to all of this, and so does the mind of acceptance, forgiveness, grace, and even gratitude.

And as we study and practice, as we’re guided by our role models to a more thoughtful and deep way of life, we start to see that it’s not just the circumstances that matter: we’re not always happy when things are good or always upset when things are bad.

It’s more in how we relate to what’s happening. How we relate to ourselves. How we relate to each other. Everything is relationship.

And today I feel inspired to point out the importance of one area of relating: relating to role models, teachers, trusted others, deep friends who support you with wisdom (sometimes calling you on your insanity and blind spots too).

And my hope is that during this retreat we can be this wise one for each other just by being here. By being fully here.

If I and RJ can be this for you in some small way that’s wonderful, if it doesn’t feel that way please don’t worry about it. I know that you are for sure, every one of you here, a role model for me. I really mean that – I am so inspired by what’s happening here: this showing up, this willingness, this doing your best (imperfect, yes, as it will be – how could it be otherwise).

And my hope is that during this retreat this amazing place and all of the other beings that live her can be this for us. And even that as visitors we may be a wise presence in support of this place. Relationships are never one way. May our presence somehow be a support for this place: the beings we can see who live here and those unseen.

Here’s a last poem by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry – The Law that Marries all Things

1. The cloud is free only to go with the wind. The rain is free only in falling. The water is free only in its gathering together, in its downward courses, in its rising into air. 2. In law is rest if you love the law, if you enter, singing, into it as water in its descent. 3. Or song is truest law, and you must enter singing; it has no other entrance. It is the great chorus of parts. The only outlawry is in division 4. Whatever is singing is found, awaiting the return of whatever is lost. 5. Meet us in the air over the water, sing the swallows. Meet me, meet me, the redbird sings, here here here here.