by Tim Burnett, September 2023
In September 2023, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett led a weekend retreat at the Samish Island Retreat Center focussed on the ways that mindfulness supports surprising personal changes in a way that often seems quite mysterious.
We offer three weekend residential retreats each year. See the Multi-Day Retreats section of our Programs.
Talk: The Mystery of Letting Go
Spirit of exploration. What happens when we truly pause, disconnect, and immerse ourselves in the structures and supports of a short meditation retreat?
We are conditioned towards fixing things, manipulating things, figuring stuff out, how does it work? what’s wrong with it? how can it be improved?
While the process of mindfulness-based growth and change and living does include a bit of that: we have realizations, we see things about ourselves, we find ways to reduce unhealthy choices and habits and to increase healthy ones. We “work on ourselves” with the support of mindful awareness and on the much strong foundation of accepting who we are. Mindfulness process does include a kind of analyzing, understanding, and improving. That’s what we’re used to and it comes naturally to us to apply the same kinds of problem solving skills that we apply to everything else to ourselves through these practices. That’s okay.
BUT it’s also very incomplete and limited. I believe the great power of healing potential of this practice isn’t like that at all. It’s more mysterious. It happens beneath the surface and without our conscious awareness. We’re so in the middle of our oh-so-familiar minds that we might not even notice at first that things are changing, we are growing, we are gradually become more free.
Fairly regularly someone in one of our classes will say to me, “Tim, so I’ve been doing the daily practices and coming to class and trying to apply mindfulness but I sure don’t feel any different, but my spouse says I feel a lot calmer, is he right?” With a kind of bewildered tone. And yes, I suspect he is right in those cases.
Or other times you might go through a difficult moment, perhaps someone who often triggers you does that thing that they do, and looking back later on the encounter you realized, huh I didn’t really react like usual.
And sometimes we actually explain what looks like progress away – maybe it’s a kind of self-defense against getting our hopes up – we can say well, I was just in a good mood today, or boy good thing I slept well last night. And maybe those factors are true enough, but maybe there’s also some fundamental change happening gradually, slowly, beneath the covers. Maybe we’re growing and changing.
Kind of like the poem I shared last night:
Lynn Ungar – The Way It Is
One morning you might wake up to realize that the knot in your stomach had loosened itself and slipped away, and that the pit of unfilled longing in your heart had gradually, and without your really noticing, been filled in – patched like a pothole, not quite the same as it was, but good enough.
And in that moment it might occur to you that your life, though not the way you planned it, and maybe not even entirely the way you wanted it, is nonetheless – persistently, abundantly, miraculously – exactly what it is.
I love how she describes this kind of growth as kinda messy and imperfect. It might not always be what you thought you wanted but it’s growth, it’s change, it’s freedom from the knot in your stomach; it’s a softening of the unfilled longing in your heart. You realize you’re okay.
And how could it be what you thought would happen? Whatever thought that was it was just that, a thought, a prediction. Did your life work out the way you thought it would? Really?
Sometimes this kind of growth it kind of messy. Other times maybe there’s just a feeling of release. A big whooshing sigh of letting go. This can happen. Here’s another poem:
Rosemerry Trommer – One Morning
One morning we will wake up and forget to build that wall we’ve been building,
the one between us the one we’ve been building for years, perhaps out of some sense of right and boundary, perhaps out of habit.
One morning we will wake up and let our empty hands hang empty at our sides.
Perhaps they will rise, as empty things sometimes do when blown by the wind.
Perhaps they simply will not remember how to grasp, how to rage.
We will wake up that morning and we will have misplaced all our theories about why and how and who did what to whom, we will have mislaid all our timelines of when and plans of what and we will not scramble to write the plans and theories anew.
On that morning, not much else will have changed.
Whatever is blooming will still be in bloom.
Whatever is wilting will wilt. There will be fields to plow and trains to load and children to feed and work to do.
And in every moment, in every action, we will feel the urge to say thank you, we will follow the urge to bow.
And perhaps at she suggests here with that release of striving and plan making and boundary setting a feeling of gratitude emerges.
And of course there are no one size fits all answers in life. Sometimes you need to strive and make plans; sometimes you need to set very strong boundaries and defend them fiercely. Sometimes we have to push.
But the things is we can get stuck so easily. If you’ve been pushing the gas pedal to the mat for years it tends to get stuck there. Then even when there is a little gap in the schedule, a little pause in the demands, you can’t relax. You just find other ways to stay busy and frantic. You have days off that are actually just working hard on some other aspect of your life. Everything starts to feel urgent and in need of immediate attention all the time. Every day. There’s no stopping.
Until sometimes it’s the body that slams on the brakes. I’ve known several people who’ve worked very hard until retirement, for instance, perhaps with lots of fantasizing about the wonderful easeful life they’d have once they stop. These are people who do wonderful caregiving service oriented jobs that are meaningful for sure but so easily too much and this powerful always-on mind can multiple the too-muchness into way too too much. Anyway a couple of folks I’m thinking of soon after retirement serious illness appeared pretty soon after retirement and they couldn’t do all of those wonderful things. Some people hear that strong call to change and then do adjust to their new life and health limitations and enjoy life nonetheless, some don’t. Maybe in it’s a blessing to get sick sooner or have some other dramatic shocking experience that jolts us out of the always on pedal to the metal unsustainable life. As hard as those kinds of times can be: sometimes they are awful but they wake can wake us up. My mind is right now going to a time in my mid-30’s when one morning I was utterly frozen in psychological panic and fear. I simply couldn’t go to work, my wife had to call in and say I wasn’t coming in that day and then I had to call the next day and say I was never coming in again and start looking for a good therapist. It was awful at the time, really frightening for me actually, but I’m grateful now for the things that started to shift in my life from there.
To be here each of us in our own way had some realization of the importance of stopping. I think we can by grateful that we were actually able to hear that voice, and followed through. Maybe this weekend is part of a long ongoing journey for you to find yourself again, maybe it feels like an important first step. Maybe there’s plenty of doubt about it all, that’s okay too, but here you are.
The other thing about softening around our deep habits to go go go, to problem solve and figure everything out immediately is as we soften there’s more space. More space for what? Who knows? We can’t know until we’re there in that softer more open place. And even then who really knows. We can be aware of much, more than we usually are aware of, but there will always be much happening below the surface of our conscious awareness. And just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not important.
Maybe there’s more space to remember. To remember something of our deeper hearts and intentions maybe? Maybe a sense of remembering who you are in some way?
Here’s a poem by Joy Harjo on this:
Joy Harjo – Remember
Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
And in this mysterious process of stopping, releasing, remembering, so much comes up. Regrets come up. Fears come up. Doubts come up. And we practice our mindfulness in their company. Here’s another poem.
Bruce Bennett – Stopping by with Flowers
I used to bring back flowers for my mother. I’d stop the car and gather a small bunch. She’d always be surprised, and always grateful. She’d put them in a vase. Could we have lunch? I wasn’t free, but that part did not matter so much, I told myself. It was the thought. She loved my stopping by for those few minutes. Still, I’d feel guilty, since I felt I ought to visit far more often, and for longer. She never said it, but I knew she knew that I could make the time. I’d sometimes linger, but then I’d go do what I had to do, hoping that what I could and did not say might be made up for by that small bouquet.
Those oh so many ways that we feel like we don’t do enough. That in the end we aren’t enough. Would he have been happier in the end if he’s made the time to stay for lunch? Maybe. Or once a regular lunch date with mom, all the while feeling the many pulls of other things that need to be done, would there just be another thing that comes up in this complex life where you feel like you aren’t doing enough?
No simple answers here. But something happens when we make space to wonder. What I’m trying to get at here is there is a lot of mystery to this being a person who grows and changes. And mindfulness practice sure seems to help but how it helps is also has a mysterious quality to it. There are the practical qualities of mindfulness, those do make sense: lowering our blood pressure and general stress levels, tools to righting the ship more easily when we get upset, and even calming ourselves down and inviting a fresh perspective before we get upset. But if we reduce this down to just a kind of toolbox of techniques I think we miss the depth of its power and potential.
And a lot of patience and trust is required if we want to allow space for the mysterious aspects of mindfulness, and of life in general. It’s hard on us, conditioned as we are, to not know. To not know what’s going to happen, to not know what benefit there will be from this, to not know where we’re headed. And there’s a comfort and kind of safety to pulling back, to doing it all the usual way, to keeping the walls around us strong. And sometimes, yes, in the face of something that feels threatening that may be exactly what to do – at least for a time.
But there’s also this something inside us that wants to change and grow, perhaps it’s a wilder part of us. Maybe there’s a childlike quality in the good way we think about children: curious and adventurous. Easily filled with wonder.
Here’s a poem about that. I love how John O’Donohue in this poem personifies that part of us that’s ready to change and grow.
John O’Donohue – For a New Beginning
In out-of-the-way places of the heart, Where your thoughts never think to wander, This beginning has been quietly forming, Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire, Feeling the emptiness growing inside you, Noticing how you willed yourself on, Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety And the gray promises that sameness whispered, Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent, Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled, And out you stepped onto new ground, Your eyes young again with energy and dream, A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear You can trust the promise of this opening; Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning That is at one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure; Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk; Soon you will be home in a new rhythm, For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
And one more poem, a deep favorite of mine, originally I was thinking of just talking about this poem for the whole time but then I thought of the other gems I just shared with you and where they might take us. But this one says an awful lot about this journey:
Mary Oliver – The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean– the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-‐ who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should l have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Anyway I hope this poetical ramble and pep talk was useful to you in some way. Some encouragement perhaps to stay curious and present. To see what happens this weekend. To cultivate that spirit of discovery and curiosity, which you already do have for sure – I could hear it so strongly last night and it helped to re-awaken mine, to cultivate that spirit after this weekend and onwards.
We really don’t know what’s going to happen. Much is out of our control of course but we do have a kind of sacred stewardship of this body, mind, and heart – this one in the middle of your life who takes it all in and responds in some way to each interesting, challenging, wondrous, at times terrifying, moment. This path of mindfulness – we don’t know where it leads – but it’s there – this sense of life as a journey. Well, bringing up the idea of life as a journey calls on my to offer one last poem, another by the great Mary Oliver, may she be resting in deep peace after a long life of sharing her poetry with us.
Mary Oliver – The Journey
One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice – – – though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. ‘Mend my life!’ each voice cried. But you didn’t stop. You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations – – – though their melancholy was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones. But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice, which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do – – – determined to save the only life you could save.
If there’s something you’d love to come back to from what I just shared remember you can just let it go for now, we’ll send the poems and a recording of the talk (I even put my talk notes in there) to you later. For now be here. In your own journey, living your own poem, not the ones I thought of to share but yours.