FOR QUITE SOME time, I’ve been on a search for a place or group in which I feel a sense of belonging, an ease. Often this takes the form of a search for labels to which I can finally claim, “Yes! It’s me!” This applies to my culture (Xicanx? Latinx? white?), gender (man? nonbinary? queer?), and spiritual practices (???)—you name it. While at one time (many times) this has manifested as an angsty teen “I’ll never be understood,” it has settled into more of a consistent curiosity: “Who am I?”
This question has been with me since I was eleven, when I began searching for a spiritual community. I was looking for a group of folx who wanted to ask big questions and maybe have some of the answers—or at least want to discuss possibilities. (Clearly, I was a very popular kid in middle school.) After a few decades and quite a few different groups, like Bono, I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.
A few years ago, as I turned 30, I finally yielded to my partner’s loving persistence and began exploring meditation and mindfulness. But not without reservations. I had willingly and wholeheartedly internalized broader cultural messages that this practice was likely just for hippy-dippy-love-and-light folks who had too much time on their hands. I had assumed it would be another drop in the doesn’t-quite-fit bucket that had become my spiritual experience thus far.
My first few tries affirmed those stories, but likely those experiences had more to say about me than the other practitioners. I halfheartedly continued to piddle with the idea until I was gifted Dan Harris’s book, 10% Happier. Like all good books, this one was written specifically for me. It was an account of meditation and mindfulness that didn’t tout enlightenment or magic solutions but that detailed the struggle to utilize these tools in our exhausting Western culture. After reading Harris’s book, I found a formal sitting practice, discovered the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, and enrolled in an MBSR teacher training scheduled for the following year, early 2021.
Thanks to our fast-paced culture and many obligations, meditation quickly became a box for me to check, another item on the ever-growing to-do list. Yet another instance of my humanity being edged out in pursuit of more productivity. So I dropped my sitting practice, having experienced enough to know that meditation and checkboxes are two great things that don’t taste great together.
Apparently, January 2020 was not the best time to drop a meditation practice cold turkey.
I live with chronic kidney disease and was lucky enough to receive a transplant about ten years ago—not a cure-all, but a gift to continue life relatively uninhibited. Until recently. This past year has brought my partner and me a strict home quarantine, along with a new set of coping habits to protect our hearts and minds from the stress of the eighteen percent mortality rate for organ transplant recipients. (Thanks for crunching the numbers, NIH!)
As we entered 2021, a vaccine appeared, and my circumstances found me inching towards the top of that list. The waiting game began, the cabin fever finally set in, and the anxiety increased ten-fold. And along came that MBSR teacher training I had enrolled in over a year before, requiring a five-day silent mindful meditation retreat. Offered on Zoom, of course.
Five days of silence.
No phone, computer, email, to-do lists. My supportive partner would care for the house and our furry family members. Upon hearing the title of the event, most people, including myself, immediately respond, “Oh, I don’t think I could do that,” as if the silence is an opponent or the stillness a feat to conquer.
And so, before it started, I raced through my week in order to “hurry up and stop.” I had to earn my break, right?
My mind still racing from a trying day, I listened to one of the leaders open the retreat with a story of one of his first retreats. He detailed its remote location and the unlikelihood of catching a bus out of town—and his similar feelings of unease. Then he offered an invitation to lean in as if you’re on the tip of an arrow, going straight into the heart of the experience. “Why not?” he offered.
My mind had many answers to that question in the forms of “but what about!” and “did you add that to the list?” But I quickly returned to the invitation, wanting to be the tip of the arrow so I could earn my A+ in silent retreat. Gotta check that box!
On the second day, a shift occurred.
No white light. No enlightenment.
Simply an ever so slight widening of my perspective.
My heart and my mind wanted space. Craved it, really. To stop the distractions that so kindly helped me survive a long year and the stress of quarantine. To stop the anticipation of “when this is over.”
To be still and rest.
And to grieve.
What was lost in this year.
The loved ones who passed on.
The plans we made.
To sit with the uncertainty of what’s next.
A safe, comfortable space to be. Without reaching or searching or grasping.
Mindfulness and meditation may be paths to enlightenment, or at least that’s what others tell me. For me, I've found it to be a space to be myself in this world. A space to be more compassionate in my journey between what has been and what might be. A space to ask big questions like “who am I?” and sit without answers.
There is a story from the Zen tradition about a master speaking with some students who were sidetracked by a large storm during a pilgrimage:
Master: “Why do you go on pilgrimage?”
Student: “I don't know.”
Master: “Not knowing is most intimate.”
May each of you be safe, be well, and live with ease.
Top photo of trees along the water © Cameron Navarro.
Top photo of trees along the water © Cameron Navarro.
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