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?