The Buddhist Roots of Mindfulness 2019

Lectures from the Spring 2019 Weekend Retreat

In March 2019, Mindfulness Northwest director and leader teacher Tim Burnett led a weekend retreat and gave two talks focused on the idea of dedication.

You can read the poetry, songs, quotations, and Qi Gong sequence included during the meditations here.


Talk 1 (Saturday)


Below are Tim's notes from this talk. Note that Tim often departs from his notes and the recording of the talk is probably more interesting but here are the notes in case they're helpful.

Dedication - Spring 2019 Weekend

Saturday, March 30, 2019

To dedicate, says the dictionary, is to devote time effort, or oneself to a particular task or purpose.

It's from late Middle English (in the sense ‘devote to sacred use by solemn rites’): from Latin dedicat- ‘devoted, consecrated’from the verb dedicare.

So to dedicate means in some way to make something sacred or to see the sacredness in something.

And that's interesting that I would bring up such a thing at what's supposed to be a non-religious mindfulness retreat. Mindfulness is so practical and scientifically validated. Why would we need to be dedicating anything to anybody or anything. Wouldn't it be enough to just do the steps, follow our breath, increase the percentage of time what we're present instead of mind wandering - did you every hear the study we often cite that it looks like people's mind wander about half the time? 46.7% of the time is I think the figure. Isn't it enough to just move the needle a little on that? That same study also showed a strong association between mind wandering and unhappiness. More present and a little happier. The enthusiastic popularizer of meditation, ABC News Anchor Dan Harris calls his work on this "10% happier" - that would be nice wouldn't it to be 10% happier?

Well the reason why, I think, it's good to consider something that sounds a bit philosophical and lofty, maybe dipping into the spiritual, like dedicating the benefits of this retreat to something. And we can include her dedicating the benefits to your well being, that works fine and it not at all selfish actually. One one level taking care of ourselves is essential in order to take of others as someone mentioned but on another level all of us this brings us to a really central question that gets lost in the shuffle.

The question is another philosophical one but it's central to mindfulness and happiness and all of it. And that's the question of "who" - who is it that's having these thoughts? Who is it that's distracted? Who is it that thinks coming here was a good idea?

And of course you can answer that easily. What are you talking about that's me!

But what does that mean exactly? Mindfulness training and especially the more open forms of meditation like the listening help you start to wonder a bit don't they? Sometimes that wondering is a little disorienting, or a lot disorienting, but ultimately it's liberating. It's freeing. It opens you up. Am I this running line of repetitive thinking? Am I am this body? Am I a kind of feeling in the middle of all of this ceaseless flow of experience? Am I the same me that I was yesterday - probably so, it all seems pretty much the same here. Am I the same me that I was 10 years ago? 20? 30? As a child? I saw a picture of the 10 year old me recently. That image is of course very familiar to me but it's also a little startling every time I see a version of it. It takes a little moment for my mind to make the leap that the picture of that skinny 10 year old boy is a picture of "me." And maybe that moment is not so much a moment of remember that that's me but a moment of re-inventing the fiction that that's me. It's interesting stuff.

But does it matter?

Well I think it actually does matter quite a bit. Is a central point to all of this.

Why? Because "me" becomes such a prison for us. A sense of "me" is an essential tool - don't leave home without it, but it's also our central problem I think.

It's like the different aspects of our amazing mind - like the mind's ability to time travel for instance. We need to be able to imagine new realities appearing in the future if we make choice A instead of choice B. We need to be able to remember what inspired us in the past. We need to be able to remember mistakes we've made and learn from them. And yet we over do it, don't we? We get lost in fear and anxiety about the future. We get lost in rumination about the best nudging us towards depression and self-loathing. The mind is amazing. The mind is a big challenge.

Sitting here silently today we're perhaps all re-discovering the wonders and challenges of the mind.

And what's the ultimate production of this busy amazing imaginative mind? Me!

We take all of these inputs - present moment inputs from the senses, thoughts arising from the past, all kinds of impulse and feelings that we can't know so clearly consciously but they sure can express in our behavior and attitudes.

The reason I arrive a little late yesterday is because we were hosting a visiting neuropsychlogist who we've been collaborating with from a far. Sharon Theroux is her name. Anyway she gave a workshop for nurses, social workers, and therapists of all stripes called Your Brain on Mindfulness. And one of the things she reminded us is the way operant conditioning can run us below the surface of our conscious awareness too. Like the trigger of hunger is supposed to make us want to eat without thinking about it - must eat! - yum, full belly. Feels good. But what about when the trigger of sadness gets hooked into the same circuitry - feel sad, must eat, feel better…for a little while…and then feel even worse. So this "me" is also a bigger story than what we consciously choose.

And yet one of it's defining characteristics is a kind of illusion of control. As I was saying last night, you have some influence - whatever this sit of thoughts and emotions and the impulses you're aware of is - that "person" has influence over how it goes for you. But that person is not the boss of your experience. Experience is the boss of your experience. Sometimes you may think you're in the driver's seat and the annoying world out there gets in the way of where you're trying to go but maybe the reality is that you're in the back seat and someone else is driving. Sometimes this driver does seem to follow your directions but other times that driver doesn't' seem to listen at all and you end up doing all the wrong things and life is a big big mess.

And maybe that's part of why you're here. You ended up in the ditch and mindfulness seems like it'll help you get back on the road of your life. And yes, I think it can.

But it sure does help to soften up around the idea of this all-knowing all-powerful me who's in charge of everything.

So that's why dedicating this workshop to something bigger than the narrow kind of me, me, me, can really help us. It's just another reminder to invite what they call a larger-than-self vision. And that vision can include something that's putatitvely about "me" - to dedicate yourself to a bigger self that's well, that's wise, that lives in service to the world.

To borrow a little from a Buddhist source. Suzuki Roshi talks about "big mind" and "small mind" - and boy retreat is a great place to see both of these characters more clearly. Small mind, a kind of little self, is that narrow self-focussed view.

I got down to the dining hall a little after 6 and bad luck one pot of coffee had already been drained - it's funny actually that we say the "coffee's gone" - of course it didn't vanish into thin air it has just relocated into a bunch of people's stomaches and kidneys and bladders while those sweet little caffeine molecules slipped their way through various membrances into the bloodstream so it wasn't gone but it wasn't in the carafe for me to put in my cup anymore 

So sure I did have the briefest moments of a little self exerience. Aww! No coffee?! I must have my coffee first thing in the morning. And then big self emerged to remind me that this was desire and habit and that actually that statement "I need coffee" is not a true statement. I wanted coffee, that didn't stop but I didn't need it and there was no reason to be annoyed with Janet or the situation. Plus there's black tea right there.

Water poured onto tea bag in my commuter mug and I can't say my small self was happy and satisfied with this exactly - when I have tea at home I always have a fine loose leaf Assam and this little "English Breakfast" mix in a bag wasn't going to fully cut it - no it was that little self got back into this context of a much much bigger life and world 

There was suffering there for sure. There was some frustration and annoyance. It came and it settled away again back to neutral. We don't always need to flood our unhappiness away with the perfect satisfaction of finding another way to meet that desire either. We can just be with our bratty little self with patience, with a little wisdom, with a little kindness helps too - I'm not that good at that, I wish now I'd also brought some kindness into that moment of meeting suffering - "aww," I could have said, "I'm sorry little guy who needs coffee. That's a bummer for you isn't it?" - I tend to go too quickly to the wisdom side and not care for myself emotionally quite well enough but I'm getting there.

Shifting from little self to big self calls for a lot from us sometimes: feeling the suffering, wondering about what that is, really feeling it, and choosing a wise response. And doing so kindly. It's a kind of self-aggression sometimes when you apply wisdom without the kindness. We are not trying to sort of brutalize our way into becoming better people.

And other times it's just organic. Almost like an accident. More of a forgetting to be your little self. The big self, big mind, just arises out of your life naturally. In many contemplative systems that's seen as deeply true: to be this broad, open, expansive big self, big mind, is the more natural thing in the world because that's your true nature 

So anyway that's part of my motivation for encouraging you to think about dedicating your practice to something bigger than your narrow self that just wants to get what it needs right now. And that dedication can take the form of dedication to some vision or person who's obviously outside yourself but it can equally take the form of dedication to a bigger version of yourself. An opening into big mind or big self.

I want to close with a song and the funny thing is I thought of this song because I've mis-heard it for years. This is Eric Clapton's "Let it Grow" which I always thought he was singing "Let it Go!" and it seemed perfect for a meditation retreat. Well so does let it grow.

Standing at the crossroads, trying to read the signs

To tell me which way I should go to find the answer,

And all the time I know,

Plant your love and let it grow

Let it grow, let it grow,

Let it blossom, let it flow

In the sun, the rain, the snow,

Love is lovely, let it grow

Looking for a reason to check out of my mind,

Trying hard to get a friend that I can count on,

But there's nothing left to show,

Plant your love and let it grow

Let it grow, let it grow,

Let it blossom, let it flow

In the sun, the rain, the snow,

Love is lovely, so let it grow, let it grow

Time is getting shorter and there's much for you to do

Only ask and you will get what you are needing,

The rest is up to you

Plant your love and let it grow

Let it grow, let it grow,

Let it blossom, let it flow

In the sun, the rain, the snow,

Love is lovely, let it

Let it grow, let it grow,

Let it blossom, let it flow

In the sun, the rain, the snow,

Love is lovely, let it grow

 


Talk 2 (Sunday)



This talk was largely given without notes. Tim did read the following letter from Mindful Self-Compassion teacher Karen Bluth:

NOTES FROM THE CLASSROOM

by Karen Bluth, PhD
Certified Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher and
Co-Creator of Making Friends with Yourself
Karen's website

For me, teaching Mindful Self-Compassion is a huge gift. I feel more present and most myself when I’m teaching than at any other time. Of course, my teaching is integrally related to my practice -- not only my self-compassion practice, but my years of meditation practice, and most recently, the practice of sitting with a sangha in which we address how what the practice informs how we relate to the inevitable challenges that arise in our everyday lives.

And at times, we are thrown a curve ball … and sometimes several come at you at once. At these moments, my practice is my structure, my foundation, that which holds me together, that which holds my hand as I move from one moment to the next throughout the day. It provides not only the support for my teaching, but the avenue in which I can give back to the world, to pour into the world, to create new life where life has been taken. It’s likely that your experience is similar. This is how it has been for me this past year. Two months ago, I wrote the below:

In November, my dad died.

He was a complicated man, tortured by trauma from his childhood, often misunderstood by his family, consumed by guilt from things he had done in the past. I had long since forgiven him for his unwholesome actions, recognizing that he, like all of us, was the product of causes and conditions that came before him. He was profoundly human. Many times when my sisters and I were growing up, his temper would get the best of him. His anger and inability to control situations would overwhelm him, and he would use his six foot five, two hundred and twenty pound strength, let alone his power and authority as our father, to physically hurt us. At some point in my childhood I pilfered a knife from the kitchen and kept it in my desk drawer for protection, where it lay for years. Just in case.

As he lay dying in a hospital bed, his body crumpled under the weight of failing heart and kidneys, his alertness withering under increasing doses of morphine, I knew the only thing to do was to send him compassion. So I practiced. Giving and Receiving … one for you, one for me. Out for you, in for me. But he needed so much more than me … not just for the physical pain he was enduring, but for the emotional pain that I knew he carried, that I imagined made it hard for him to let go. I soon realized I didn’t need compassion for myself in that moment, but what I did need was to offer it to him. Out for you, compassion for you, peace for you, ease for you. May you live with ease, may you be at ease, may you die with ease… I don’t know if this helped him at all, but it helped me. It was the self-compassionate thing for me to do at that moment… to offer this man, struggling to die, some ease in his journey.

I’m now with my mother, whose body has been racked with pancreatic cancer. She is dying slowly, as the cancer has its way with her body. My mother, the definition of a strong and independent woman, way before we even knew what that meant. Her mind, once sharp as a tack, was now bereft of short-term memory and her thinking fuzzy from chemotherapy. I lay half awake on the now-empty side of the king bed, listening for any sound emerging from her as she lightly dozes. Knowing that at any moment she may sit up abruptly, overcome by nausea, and retch into a nearby pail. And I will put my arm around her now frail body, holding her as she softly sobs, and breathe out love for her, ease for her, peace for her… and this time, for me as well. Because I am suffering, because I want to take away all her pain, and I can’t. Because I want this passage to be easy for her, and I know it won’t. Because I know that soon I will have to leave, to go back to my home 2000 miles away, and I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do. Because I want to know the right thing to do and know there isn’t a right thing. Because this is life, and life hurts sometimes.

Two months has passed since I wrote the above. My mom passed away on March 2. I was in Australia, leading a teacher training for our teen self-compassion program. I spent the week before I left for Australia with her, trying to eke out every moment with her that I could.

Sometime during that week, hospice nurses told us that she had days, maybe a week or so left. So I had a decision to make. Should I go to Australia and miss being with my mom when she passed and also likely not be able to make it back for her funeral?

To be honest, it wasn’t much of a decision for me. My practice had taught me how to let go, and maybe more importantly, how to savor each moment that we have with each other while we’re alive. Realizing this, I had spent as much time as I could with both my parents over the last few years. As hard as I knew it would be, I knew I could say goodbye.

And then, teaching self-compassion is life-giving. It’s an opportunity to offer people a new beginning, to offer the world that which we all need more than anything – kindness and love. For ourselves, for each other, and for strangers. In making the decision, I told my Australian host that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing in the wake of my mom’s suffering and impending death than to teach self-compassion.

And that’s how it was. I said goodbye to my mom – and this was the hardest part – and left for the airport. She passed away about a week later, halfway through the teacher training.

Within an hour of the news, I found myself in front of twenty-one receptive, loving, teacher trainees, who were as passionate about bringing self-compassion to the world of teens as I. This was a tremendous gift. My co-teachers were ready to step in and take over my part if that’s what I needed, and I was ready to let them do that.

But when the moment came, and I asked myself what it was that I truly needed, the answer was this: I needed to teach, to give life back to this world, to be present and held in this community of compassion. Perhaps it wouldn’t be the right decision for others, but for me, that’s what I needed in that moment, an hour past hearing about my mom’s passing.

What a tremendous gift it is to be able to teach this stuff. To say that I am grateful for this opportunity, to my mindfulness and self-compassion practice, to Kristin, Chris, and the MSC teacher community is a monumental understatement. I don’t know how I could live any kind of sane life without my practice, or how anyone does for that matter, but I suppose others have their own ways. And when I’m lost about how to proceed, which often happens, I turn to my sangha, my MSC co-teacher, my meditation teacher, who are always there, offering the wisdom of the practice. I have a full and enormously grateful heart.

Breathing out to all of you, my fellow practitioners, spiritual warriors on the path, sending you all so much love and ease in your journeys through this messy life. We are all here together. One for you, one for me.


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