Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sitting out the Old; Sitting in the New, Part IV

In this fourth installment of Laird's New Year's Revolutions, I'll focus on the turnings in my mind about gender dynamics at the 10-day Vipassana retreat.

First of all, the Vipassana philosophy is not gender specific. The advice or techniques offered men and women are the same. That said, over the years—centuries, really—Vipassana practitioners have evolved definite ideas about the best way to structure introductory courses (having only experienced the introductory course, I don't have a clue if or how course structures change as one advances along the path). My comments in this blog will pertain to the structure, not the philosophy.

As I wrote in my previous blog, one of the core tenets of Vipassana philosophy is sila, or correct moral conduct. In everyday life this includes proscriptions against sexual abuse or misconduct. During the 10-day reatreat, the request is much stricter: retreatants are asked to abstain from all sexual activity. Of course, given that we're also expected to not touch, look at, or communicate in any way with other meditators (excepting with the assitant teacher or with the course manager assigned to our gender—there is a female manger for the women and a male manager for the men—with whom we are allowed to ask questions about our meditation practice during certain times of the day), it's pretty difficult to imagine interactive sex as a possibility. Implied, though not expressly stated, is that masturbation is also a no-no during the course.

As I can see the point of asking meditators to set aside sexual activity for the purpose of focusing on concentrating the mind (samadhi), heightening awareness of full body sensations (not just those in the loins), and noticing how cravings and aversions plague one's thoughts and frustrate attempts to reach and maintain an equanimous state, I'm not objecting to this expectation of course celibacy. Rather, I'm commenting about the lengths to which course managers go to keep the genders separated, and wondering what the point of it is.

In addition to sexual abstinence, meditators are also asked to forego all intoxicants during the retreat, to not talk with fellow meditators, to refrain from bringing food into the bedrooms, and to neither read nor write. With all of these restrictions, the basic approach is to lay out the boundaries of acceptable behavior during the course, and then to trust that consenting adults—after all, no one is forced to attend a Vipassana retreat—will abide by them. To my knowledge, no is checking up on you.

Interestingly, when it comes to gender separation—unlike with all of the other strictures—the Vipassana folks do not simply rely on people having read the Code of Discipline and behaving appropriately. In fact, they go to great lengths to permit both genders to attend courses, and then keep them scrupulously separated. It's goofy. If mixing genders is so dangerous, why don't they alternate courses by gender, with all men at one sitting, followed by all women at the next?

As near as I can piece it together, they do it this way for two reasons. First, I suspect they fear (and may have had some actual trouble with in the past) meditators' capacity to resist sexual temptation if men and women are allowed more into each other's proximity. And this can be something far less blatant than groping in the cloak room or unauthorized bedroom visitors after lights out; it may not be anything more than heightened sexual tensions (Luke, I can feel a distrubance in the Force.) Thus, this policy may simply be in loco parentis, where the Vipassana managers are protecting meditators from the temptation that history has proven is the hardest to resist (certainly sex was on my mind during the retreat—see my previous blog for a mea culpa on this). Still, it seemed to me they were treating us more like over-hormoned teenagers on court-ordered silent penance than consenting adults pursuing spiritual development.

Second, there may be a vibrational explanation. On the one hand, it may be best to have roughly equal numbers of men and women in the Dhamma Hall during meditation hours (all men=too much yang; all women=too much yin). On the other, mixing genders unnecessarily (or even gender-identified objects; see more on this below) may trigger subtle vibrational disturbances that undercut the equanimity and centeredness we'll are striving for. To be clear, nobody told me this; I'm just guessing.

To give you an idea how ridiculous this got (in my assessment, when we'd come to breakfast every morning the containers of dry cereal were marked Male Granola and Male Raisin Bran. When I first saw this, for a fleeting moment I wondered if that meant these were the batches that were laced with testosterone. Upon reflection, I realized that wasn't likely, but they were going to a fair amount of effort to make sure that the container of granola we got was the same one each morning. What bad thing, I wondered, would occur if on Day Three the men were served granola from the container that had been offered the women on Day Two? There were, apparently, spiritual matters at work here that were far more subtle than this neophyte could grok.

Better yet, one of the morning choices was Male Cheerios. Now really. How could anyone take a look at Cheerios and label them "male" with a straght face? It boggles the mind.

For the duration of the retreat, the women had a route for traveling between the dormitory, dining hall, and the Dhamma Hal, and it was completely separate from the route assigned to the men. While I suspect that the isolation of pathways by gender helps reduce the temptation to ogle during the lightly clad days of summer, in January everyone was wearing so much down that you couldn't tell which way was up—much less what plumbing anyone was sporting in their underwear.

On Day Ten, after the silence had been broken and the men and women were once again allowed to sit within sight of each other—and even talk together in the Dining Hall, I was chided by the facility manager that it was still inappropriate to approach the Dining Hall by a shortcut from the dormitory that crossed a path that had been reserved solely for women while the silence was in force. Huh? How could it be OK to commingle sexes for the purpose of organizing the post-retreat clean-up and to make a unified pitch for donations to support Vipassana operations, and at the same time unaccpetable to walk across the parking lot to approach the Dining Hall? There were distinctions here I simply wasn't getting.

On get-away day, after the retreat ended, I lingered to help clean up and make sure all the dorm rooms were ready for the next retreat. (Naturally, my partner, James, was another man, and we were working solely on the male side; two women were our counterparts on the distaff side.) When James and I found a bed that needed the bottom sheet changed, we were admonished to be careful about using "male" sheets for that purpose—even though the mattresses and sheets on the female side of the dorm were exactly the same. On the other hand, it was OK for the men and women to use the same floor mop, and we could refill the spray bottles of cleanser for each suite of rooms from the same master container.

While most of these distinctions were simpy nutty and not really harmful, on a more serious level I wondered about the heterosexual assumption that underlay all these gender-based restrictions. When you take into account that about 10% of the population is gay, the carefully-constructed sexual firewalls of the Vipassana Center are not just ineffective, they were downright incendiary. By insisting that men only hang out in close proximity with other men and the same for women, they've
institutionalized homosexual temptation. Noticeably, this was not mentioned at all, either by the instructors or in the literature.

Perhaps the Vipassana folks have discovered that gays are simply more mature than straights and don't need the plethora of training wheels to keep them on the path of sila. However, I doubt it. I suspect that the truth here is that the Vipassana leaders, for all their noble commitment to seeing things as they truly are (the literal meaning of "Vipassana") are simply in denial about homosexuality and have not adjusted their carefully wrought course structures to take into account contemporary LBGT reality.

For my money, the answer here is simple enough. Stop making gender such a big deal, make no attmept to sort people by sexual orientation (it's not the Vipassana folks' business anyway and is irrelevent to the philosophy and practice), continue to ask meditators to forebear from sexual activity during the retreat, and trust that students will behave. If they don't, then deal with that.

If you want people to behave like adults, then treat them that way.


Anonymous said...

I think you've really hit the nail on the head with this - great post!

Anonymous said...

I agree...your insights are great. Good job! I stumbled across your blog a couple of weeks ago and have really enjoyed it. I look forward to hearing how your incorporate your renewed spirituality into communal living.