The meditation retreat was not my idea. I was only going as my husband David’s plus-one, and my goal was simply to support him. That said, a couple days unplugging in nature didn’t sound half bad, either — happily, the Won Dharma Center in Claverack, New York, turned out to be as beautiful as I’d hoped. It’s a stunning complex surrounded by rolling farmland, with minimalist buildings squared off with floor-to-ceiling windows, each revealing a scene resembling a Bob Ross landscape.
“It’s puuuurty here,” I said to David. “I’m going to put some fluffy little clouds in this corner.” I moved my wrist around, air-painting the scene.
“Shhhh! No talking!” he said. He was joking, but these really were our last few hours to chat freely. Following a dinner of vegetarian Buddha bowls in the dining room, we filed into the lecture hall, a space covered with a neat grid of cushions. Here, we were to enter “noble silence.”
Our teacher sat at the front of the room. “Meditation … can be fucking hard,” he said. “You may struggle with repetitive thoughts or a jumble of mental noise. Don’t scold yourself. Just acknowledge, ‘This is just a thought,’ and let it pass by.” In the days that followed, I spent lots of time on that square cushion trying to do just that. I’d arrive in the damp pre-dawn hours, return to my pillow for various midday sits, and close out the day with a nightcap of meditation. Meditation, as it turns out, is indeed fucking hard. “You can save 15 percent or more by switching to Geico,” my brain offered at one point, rather unhelpfully, in between bubble-gum jingles and grocery lists.
But I also collected observational tidbits in my silence, little things I imagined telling David about later: my favorite tea in the dining hall, the best quotes from the instructor’s lectures, the snoring meditater. I even added little bits of commentary to these items, including punch lines: “That guy wasn’t just sawing logs, he had a whole lumber mill going!” (I’ll workshop it.)
It soon occurred to me that I could never be present in the moment unless I was somehow gathering it and framing it for David. I was segmenting my thoughts into clips I could splice together as a YouTube montage for his enjoyment. This wasn’t just mental noise. It was mental narration. I didn’t know how to exist in my own mind — how to be alone — even when my sole task was to sit alone, eat alone, think alone.
The truth is, I have always been a plus-one. David is just the latest example. All my life, I have sought out the safety of being in a duo. I was born into the sidekick role as the younger sibling to my assertive older brother. In high school, I met my best friend, Nina; our relationship was built on three-hour phone calls, elaborate secret nicknames, and Jackie Collins paperbacks, and we went through life linked together like a paper doll chain. By the time I met David, I’d had over two decades of practice in being one half of a twosome. I knew how to be a united front against the world, how to put someone’s needs before my own, and how to argue with someone while continuing to love and support them.
But being solo terrified me. When David left town for work, I’d crowd every night with reunions with friends so I wouldn’t face an empty apartment, as if a night alone with Netflix would be my undoing. I struggled to appreciate my own company, and spent my rare moments alone mechanically scrolling through social media until I passed out. That’s the headspace I was living in when I agreed to the retreat.
I wish I could say that once I spotted this thought pattern, the sky opened, a sunbeam landed on my head as I sat in lotus position, and I ascended to a higher plane, newly at peace with myself. Instead, I nattered on for the rest of the four-day retreat, collecting more snippets and weaving little stories about them for my husband. The girl with the galaxy tights; the barn cat that snuck into my room; the couple who kept whispering to each other — I was dying to tell him about all of it.
Still, once I was conscious of my brain’s drift toward constant coupledom, I was determined to reclaim these moments for what they truly were — my own private experience. I’d remind myself these were thoughts that were free to drift by. But to counter them, I’d anchor myself in the present rather than drift into a future conversation: I am not speaking to anyone right now. I can hear birds chirping outside. I can feel the hardwood floor under my folded legs. I am alone in my mind. I am alone.
Naturally, when the four days ended and the final singing bowl was struck with a metallic gong, I raced over to my husband, and launched into a crazed babble of everything I’d bottled up.
“Oh man, the buckwheat tea! And the little sitting Buddha statues in the forest! Did you find the little statues?”
But I also told him something else: “I think I’d like to come back here and try again.”
A few weeks later, after we’d returned home, David was called away on another business trip. I walked him to the front door. “What are you going to do with yourself while I’m away?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, “I thought I could try a little solo time.” I waited for the spasm of fear those words usually inspire. It never came. “Maybe I’ll watch The Crown,” I continued. “I might head to a yoga class. Or I might practice this whole meditation thing I just learned.”
“That sounds nice,” he said.
“You know,” I said, “it really does.”