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The Heterosexuality of Silent Retreat

The Heterosexuality of Silent Retreat

I once rather directly asked one of my Theravada meditation teachers why men and women had to be separated for the duration of our silent laypersons’ retreat. Instinctively I understood the heterosexual nature of the practice before asking, but I wanted to hear the explanation.

The response was of course that if men and women mixed during the course of a retreat—where the goal was to practice and appreciate the benefits of deep concentration and mindfulness—there would be a tendency towards distraction. The implication was that such a distraction was natural and inevitable, and had to be minimized.

I recall friends who identified as queer or LGBT laughing at this kind of reasoning. Sure, put me in with the other women!

Retreat settings where men and women are separated are implicitly heterosexual and based on the traditional gender binary. I don’t know what people of other genders do in such situations. In some convert US Buddhist meditation centers, genders are not separated, which relieves some of the pressure of conforming to conventional gender and heterosexual norms.

Yet, I do wonder what other methods can be used to create a strong container of Noble Silence that is as free of distractions as possible. In a larger sense the issue of gender separation on retreat is about cultivating Noble Silence, on which a strong foundation of concentration can be based. It’s just that the assumption of what constitutes a distraction for everyone is incorrect.

One of the great benefits of a monastic-style retreat where Noble Silence is very strictly followed is the immense concentration it allows. When I have attended silent retreats where some kind communication is permitted, I have definitely found it less conducive to sinking deeply into anapana sati.

While no retreat center should assume that everyone is heterosexual or of the conventional gender binary, I wonder what other ways a disciplined sense of solitary contemplation can be cultivated. The ideal situation is to provide each meditator with a separate, isolated meditation cell, but of course not many centers can offer this.

In the end, it’s up to each meditator to rein in the monkey mind no matter what the situation. But what retreat structure offers the best conditions for a minimally-distracting environment?

Comments (10)

  • Lauren Brown

    thank you so much for naming this issue! it has always bothered me, but i hadn’t been able to put it into words. i feel a visceral sense of relief.

  • Ian Mayes

    Thank for putting all of this into writing! I have also thought about this very same issue, in particular regarding the Vipassana Meditation S.N. Goenka tradition that I am most familiar with. I recall once telling someone about these meditation retreats, and they were into the idea of doing one of them, and then I mentioned the gender segregation based on “males” and “females” and any possibility of doing a retreat was immediately gone. This is because this person is genderqueer, not identifying as either “male” or “female”, and the structure of these retreats said to them that their existence is not recognized or seen as being valid.

    What I would suggest then is having meditation retreats based on both Noble Silence as well as complete segregation for everyone regardless of gender. That is, each person would have their own room for sleeping, their own meditation cell, and would only use the bathroom at previously specified times. Total regimentation and total segregation, thereby leaving the space open for each person to focus as deeply as they can on their own practice.

  • Bob

    Yes I totally agree. I lived at Gampo Abbey in the late 90’s. A time when a clear majority of residents were not heterosexual. Yet the gender segregation went on. Perhaps this is okay, but the standard explanation of why the practice goes on, is a joke. It can’t be to reduce sexual tensions or something. Maybe there are other reasons why to do it.

  • seth nathanson

    To protect your feet from stones, you can try to cover the earth in leather. But its much easier to just cover your soles.

    If the mere presence of an attractive object is enough to cause distraction, your mind will create distractions even if you are completely isolated.

    How does one practice controlling their mind, if not by practicing controlling the mind?

    Distractions are not obstacles to practicing concentration, in much the same way that unpleasant conditions are not obstacles to practicing patience. Neither distractions nor unpleasant conditions can be completely eliminated, except through the practice of concentration and patience respectively.

    Certainly, if we are trying to improve our ability, and achieve deeper levels of concentration, it helps to minimize distraction. We move to more remote areas, eliminate unnecessary communication, engage in simple repeating rituals of rising, eating, prayer and meditation.

    But there will always be things that cannot be eliminated, and a distracted mind will find them. To blame the singing bird is foolish.

  • Mushim Patricia Ikeda

    I have heard that Thich Nhat Hanh’s organization is dealing with related issues, at Dharma talks/meetings where women/nuns are asked to sit on one side of the space and men/monks are asked to sit across the aisle from them on the other side of the meeting space. I would guess there are strong feelings on all sides of whether this should be changed or not. There are thousands of years of forms embodying various binaries (monks-nuns, women-men, parents-children, senior monastics – junior monastics) in Asian Buddhist cultures and Asian cultures, and these have been transmitted with the Dharma from the various countries and cultures where the Dharma has flourished. There have already been many changes in these forms in the U.S., and many more to come. However, swimming against the stream(s) is not easy or fast.

    In regard to the distraction issue — in the U.S., I personally think that electronic media, particularly smartphones, are the main thing we need to deal with. I see an increasing trend towards people in “silent” meditation retreats posting on Facebook, texting their friends, Tweeting, and so on.

  • donna

    My feeling is that it’s good to try to loosen around our preferences. If we can do this we may be able to use the things that push our buttons (or distract us) as an object of meditation. There are such a huge variety of practice settings, most of which will have some aspect that doesn’t fit our view of how it should be. The gender separation thing has been useful for many for a very long time. Of course, in the best of all worlds it shouldn’t be necessary. Best to respect that there may be good reason for this, even if it doesn’t seem right.

  • Ian Mayes

    Mushim, I am aware of that phenomena regarding people using smart phones during silent mediation retreats. That is why I am a big fan of having a policy of complete confiscation of all cell phones, smart phones, iPads/pods, etc. at the very beginning before the retreat begins. And then if anyone is caught with one during the retreat, they are then asked to turn it in. If they do not, they are thrown out of the retreat.

    I may be an anarchist in my politics, but for silent meditation retreats I am a total fascist. ;-)

  • John Eden

    Thanks for this! We have this same issue in the Vipassana (Goenka) centers. It’s really carried to an extreme, and in today’s world, makes no sense. But as you say, what other structures will work? We haven’t found them yet.

  • Bezi

    Hm! Really? The absolute lightning-strike of a meditation I did with Goenkaji in Joshua Tree… well, women and men were segregated in the bunking accomodations but not the meditation hall, as I remember…

    um… for me, this worked out for the best I think. Whereas the majority of my surfacing stuff had to do with women… being in a coed cabin probably wouldn’t have been the best look ~

    I get the protestation from the LGBT point of view. But yeah, what’s the alternative? Considering today’s realities, dedicated gender-sensitive retreats would seem a reasonable and compassionate response. But would that comport with Vipassana’s traditions?

  • Crystal

    This is a good question.
    I tend to agree that the sexual attraction concept is not a real concern, especially in societies where sexual repression is not the norm. However, I think the separation might also have something to do with a sense of sameness. If the separation is about a lack of distraction, it might be that there is a sense of solidarity or ? amongst those who share the same physical gender that minimizes distraction regardless of one’s sexual orientation.
    I’ve recently taken a sociology and psychology course and have been wanting to take a complementary course that explores genders in society. I’ve always felt this would be most enlightening as I’m sure there is much that my monkey mind has not considered on the subject. I’m thinking that the answer to this question is probably paradoxically a lot more complex and simple than it may at first seem.

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