“Why do you sit? Even chickens sit.
Why do you sit?”
–Yonghwa Lee, my teacher at the Diamond Zen Center

She was always cool, super cool. Everything about her was cool (probably still is—she isn’t dead, we just haven’t spoken in a while). One of those people who makes life look effortless. Who makes the simplest things like taking out the trash seem magical. Someone who doesn’t care what you think, and so you care what she thinks.

I wanted to have that type of touch and magic. I wanted her to think I was cool. At that point in my life, I wanted anyone to think I was cool. (Who am I kidding, I still do. Today I bought an Instagram ad. I am literally paying others to be seen.)

So this super cool girl comes up to me and asks, “Do you meditate?”

Confidently, without a glitch, I said, “Yeah, of course, of course I meditate. For sure, I meditate all the time.”

I meditate all the time—who says that? At this point in my life I had never meditated. Latin kids from Queens generally don’t, in my experience. I was a sophomore in theater school and meditating was low on my hierarchy of needs. Between beer pong, Shakespeare, and 6:00 a.m. benders, there wasn’t much inclination or motivation to meditate amid the other stimuli (and stimulants).

But I liked this woman a lot. I had for a while, and I knew she was tapped into something big, something I was completely ignorant of. I would have said yes to whatever she asked me. You like looking stupid? Yes ma’am, absolutely, I love looking stupid.

I could have stopped with the very suave “I meditate all the time” line. Though, and I’m not sure why I said this—maybe I thought it would make the lie seem more believable or further the conversation—I also decided to throw in a solid “I do it twice a day, how about you?”

I liked her a lot, and for some reason, she liked me. She definitely liked that I “meditated.” So we start dating.

She would wake up early to sit after spending the night and ask if I wanted to join, and I’d always have some excuse not to join her—“Oh, I’ll do it tonight,” or “After class.” I tried, I did. I hit up the library and checked out every book on meditation I could find (including Meditation For Dummies, which is actually not terrible); it just never stuck.

For starters, it was hard. Just sitting in stillness is hard. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand why a person just sits. It didn’t feel like what the books told me. It felt like I was doing it wrong, and so why do it at all?

Our relationship wasn’t all lies. It was great, actually. Two brown-skin New Yorkers trapped in a very white suburb studying theater. We would smoke weed and talk about art for hours. We had a good time.

We’d been dating for a year strong, and on my 21st birthday she took me out to this great dinner. She was so giddy, couldn’t wait to share her gift with me. I thought dinner was the gift, but I wasn’t about to say no to that new pair of Chuck Taylors I mentioned I wanted.

Then she handed me this skinny envelope. Is my girlfriend giving me cash, like a bar mitzvah?

I open the envelope, and inside are two plane tickets to Massachusetts.

“What’s in Massachusetts?” I ask.

“A weeklong silent Vipassana retreat,” she says.

Oh shit…

“I can tell how hard you’ve been working and I really think this will take your practice to the next level. I want you to have this.”

I have to tell her, I have to confess. I have to tell her Allen Iverson–style (“Practice, what practice!? We talkin’ ’bout practice!”). I have to tell her that I just wasn’t built for meditating. I like to talk. I have extremely tight hips. I can’t go there. I can’t be quiet for seven days because I can’t be quiet for thirty seconds. I can’t.

Just tell her, I’m thinking. “I lied to you. I’m sorry. You are so cool, and this is so great, and I just wanted it to work, but I can’t turn 21 in silence. I can’t do that, no one should do that.”

But I don’t say any of that.

“Wow. Wow,” I say. “Thank you. I’m so excited. Wow.”

She’s so happy for me, and for us—yes, us, because she’s going on the retreat too. She’s so overjoyed about sharing this that she starts to cry, and all I can think is, What is wrong with me?

This will be my girlfriend’s third silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts. She explains that it’ll be seven days of Vipassana meditation. No phone, no books, no journal, no talking, no nothing but silence and your own thoughts.

“A silent retreat is more than just being silent, Chris,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to look inward and process our thoughts in a calm, constructive way.”

Calm, as it turned out, was not exactly the case for me.

The whole flight up I want to come clean to her. I don’t. We get there, we check in, we meet some people in the brief moments before talking halts. Everyone is assigned a task of some sort and I’m quickly delegated to dishwashing. Little do they know, I love washing dishes. This might not be so bad.

She and I are the only people of color on the retreat. Normally I would complain about it to the higher-ups, but technically I can’t talk. At first, it really isn’t so bad. It’s kind of nice actually. Sit for thirty minutes, walk for thirty minutes. Sit for thirty minutes, walk for thirty minutes. Easy.

Well, easy for one round. Then it goes sour. This is not like the magazines where fit white women sit with toned arms together in prayer position, smiling ear to ear. It’s more like being trapped in a phone booth with a lunatic. All day. A wild and loud, insensitive person.

But the real kicker is that said outrageous person is me. Me reminding me how I don’t belong. How I lied, how I took advantage of this person’s trust, how I always take advantage and push my luck, how I don’t really care about a practice being sacred to a person, how I don’t really listen, how I’ll never make it, how I’m not enough, how I don’t belong in this space, how I don’t have the strength or the skill or the talent or the worth … and it goes on and on like this. On and on and on.

When you aren’t speaking, an hour is an eternity. When you aren’t doing anything at all except sitting in silence for thirty minutes and then walking in silence for thirty minutes, an hour is excruciating. To anyone who thinks there isn’t enough time in the day, stop checking your phone and sending emails and watching Netflix, and just sit… Then tell me there isn’t enough time in the day. [PQ]Time is long, short, or as vicious and never-ending as you need it to be. Einstein wasn’t wrong, time is absolutely relative.[PQ] A minute sitting on a hot stove versus a minute next to the person you love—relative.

Six hours in and I hit a wall (yes, we are still on Day 1 here). Chris, quit now and tell her the truth or figure it out. I choose to figure it out. When not speaking, you can figure out a lot of things. But one second, you know everything—you are tapped in, tuned in—and the next, you are convinced that you know nothing, nothing at all…

On Day 2 I become obsessed with Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.” I start analyzing it word by word, like it’s some great philosophical essay:

I wanna rock with you (all night)
Dance you into day (sunlight)
I wanna rock with you (all night)
Rock the night away

Basically, what he’s saying is he wants to be intimate with this person—not just sex, but like true close intimacy all night until the sun comes up. He doesn’t care about being tired the next day; he is present in the now. And what matters more than presence?

Later that evening, while everyone was sleeping, someone grabbed as many Post-it notes as they could find and placed them on every inch of the creaking wood floor: “Don’t step here,” or “Careful, this one squeaks.” One of the retreat facilitators told us that this happens because your mind does not like being watched, so it makes up these epic stories and missions in order to hide. Don’t look at me, look at everything squeaking around you. Focus on that for a while.

At this point I was convinced that my girlfriend was mad at me, that she knew I had lied—mainly because she wouldn’t look at me, even though one of the rules of the retreat was to not make direct eye contact so as not to take people out of their experience. My rational mind understood that she was just following the rules. But my guilt-ridden, tiny ego mind—the get-obsessed-place-post-it-notes-everywhere, doesn’t-like-being-watched mind—did not understand this at all. She was definitely mad at me.

I wrote her a letter asking her if she was OK, telling her I missed her and sharing fun thoughts I had, and I sneakily passed it off to her in the hallway like a prison shank. I knew it was against the rules, I just couldn’t help myself. Much to my surprise (and relief), she wrote one back. So it became a thing.

The note-passing was easily the most entertaining part of my life over the next couple of those long, dreary days. It really stole the focus. All this back-and-forth eventually leads to us in her dorm room, together and silent, engaging in what can only be described as very quiet sex. And now the thing I feared in that initial letter has come true. Now she’s actually mad at me. She feels horrible because I distracted her, I took her out of her place; I made it about the outside versus the inside. I brought her down with me.

In order to release some steam, I whipped out my jump rope. Yes, I brought a jump rope to a silent retreat. Who does that? Me. A jump rope. Jump ropes are exceptionally loud when nobody’s talking—easily the loudest thing in the building. In the middle of our morning sit I got called out, in a very passive-aggressive way: “For the person jumping rope… Please stop… Thank you.” It was very Zen-like, very Buddhist… I stopped jumping rope.

It’s Day 3.5 now and I am not feeling happier. This isn’t what Eckhart Tolle and the self-help books promised. This isn’t working. I can’t do it. I have to come up with a reason to like being here or I will lose my mind. I tell myself, “I like meditating because it makes me a better artist.”

I’m an artist. At this point in my life, it is the one thing that makes it all make sense for me. It’s the glue that holds together my definition of myself. I say, “Meditating is an art lesson. Be present, be in the moment, and listen… That’s art.” This reasoning carries me for a few days.

On Day 5 a woman yells from the back of the meditation hall. She yells like she just lost everything she loves. A blood-curdling yell. She yells a yell that even now, just the thought of it brings tears to my eyes. She has to be dragged out. Dragged and yelling the whole time. The facilitator says very peacefully, “It happens, it happens, may we continue to practice and send love.”

It happens. It happens… All the questions in my mind, they just keep on coming. The doubts are endless. The revelations about who I am, what I am, and why I waste so much time concerned with frivolous but also important and completely tiny things are exhausting and daunting, and I still think she hates me. I still haven’t told her the truth, and I’m not sure if I ever will.

I make it to the end of seven days and I’m not sure if I’m a better person or not. I’m not really sure what happened, and yet I felt changed. Internally, like I traveled. That’s how they talk about it in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Tibetans refer to themselves as psychonauts—less concerned with exploring outer space and much more interested in the depth of inner space. And at the end of the retreat I had found a little more inner space, like something new had dug its way in and something old had dug its way out.

One evening during a dharma talk there was a Thich Nhat Hanh quote that was shared that has stuck with me ever since: “I knew early on that finding truth is not the same as finding happiness. You aspire to see the truth, but once you have seen it, you cannot avoid suffering. Otherwise, you’ve seen nothing at all.” Or as I like to put it, ignorance is bliss until you’ve tasted bliss. Then the rest is just ignorance.

When the retreat was over, so was our relationship. Not immediately, but soon enough after. I told her the truth. I couldn’t walk back without moving forward, and I couldn’t move forward walking backwards. When words returned, we had none left for each other.

On the day we decided to go our separate ways, I told her, “Thank you for the greatest gift I ever received. Meditation changed my life and I likely never would have found my way to it without you. Thank you for changing my life.”

Since I left that first retreat thirteen years ago, I have, for the most part, meditated every morning since. Nothing crazy—started at five-minute daily sits, now it’s somewhere in the thirty-to-forty-minute range. Sometimes I meditate on my own death, sometimes I try to just breathe and smile (as Thich Nhat Hanh advises). Sometimes I can’t stop thinking and stop before the timer is up, and sometimes I just fall asleep.

I have had Post-it note moments. I have had scream-it-out moments. I have had beautiful sits and torturous ones. I have gone deeper into my practice, studying different teachings with different teachers in different communities.

Sure, I started this practice to hang out with a cute girl, and I’ve since found all sorts of benefits: stress relief, calm, patience, peace. But that’s not why I keep sitting.

I sit for this moment. I stick with it to quiet the noise. To see this moment for what it is. If meditation has taught me anything, it’s that to be mindful is to forgive oneself. To be mindful is to walk through the world with compassion and intimacy, allowing the world and its truths to move me. Because ignorance is bliss until you’ve tasted bliss. Then the rest is just ignorance.

Adapted from Brown Enough: True Stories About Love, Violence, the Student Loan Crisis, Hollywood, Race, Familia, and Making It in America by Christopher Rivas. Reprinted in arrangement with Row House Publishing.

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