I really learned a lot from my Vipassana experience. I embraced the challenge to meditate for 10 hours a day and to keep noble silence in between. These were par for the course. However, in this last blog, I will bring attention to some of the negative consequences of choosing my Vipassana in India at a small, out of the way place in the state of Rajastan.
You should know I make no bones about my American (of African descent) baby boomer status. I am a child of the universe. Yep, the 70’s marked my character and all of my life pursuits from then on. I still wear blue jeans at 60 and over weight. I still decorate my hair (in dreadlocks!) People who know me appreciate the hippy-gypsy personality. I appreciate it.
So let me be honest, I went to find enlightenment in India. That I also went to find it in Indonesia between 2008 and 2010 or Malaysia in 1989 is no less so than my efforts to find it also in my own America for the days in between traveling the world over. I want to KNOW the meaning of life and to SEE the purpose of my existence.
Let me also make no bones about this: I hated India; some days actively so. Meanwhile, some days were experiences of sheer awe and wonder in being there. Thus, most days were a kind of love-hate emotional roller coaster. India was the dirtiest place I have ever been (and that is approximately 55 countries). Most importantly India has the worst gender dynamics I have ever experienced (and YES, I have been to Saudi Arabia; I’ve been to Afghanistan; I have lived in parts of the Middle East and Africa). So my conclusions are based on extensive personal experience.
There are also many, many good things about India, hence my love-hate relationship. In this blog it is my hate of India that feeds into my let down at Vipassana. What I describe here is NOT an intentional part of the Vipassana experience as organized by its founder and his students. Mr. Goenka never said anything even subtly misogynistic in our daily lessons—and trust me, I listen as intently as I observe other dimensions of gender inequality.
One of the features of the ten day retreat was gender separation. No problem. I have lived and traveled extensively in Muslim circles where this is par for the course. Nothing new, nothing exceptional and nothing I could not abide with. What I could not handle was the ways in which the conditions FOR the women, as separate from the men, also slipped into that under-stated gender disparity with no means to alleviate it. None of these are gross or abusive, but they had an impact on my experience which is why I mention them.
Our dormitory did not have a hot water heater (and the temperatures were cool to cold, as opposed to hot summers when tepid water is more than comfortable, it is preferred.) The rooms were cold too. To remedy this problem (supposedly) they gave us access to an empty room in the dormitory across from us that had a hardly-working hot water heater. By “hardly” I mean of 11 days I bathed there, for only one of them was the water actually hot. Hot enough that when we hauled it to our own bathrooms we had to add cold water to take a warm ladle-bath. Otherwise, we would haul tepid water daily, because it was slightly better than the cold water that ran from our own taps. Every day we would line up to “test” if the water was more than tepid. This meant that we had to communicate to the other women. By far the most frequent occasion for breaking noble silence was in our indications about the water temperature in that spare room.
The women’s dining hall could only be accessed by walking off the pavement into the dirt, dog-do and cow dung around over-grown bushes to get to the back of the main building. Once we arrived at the door, we had to climb stairs with no first step but rather two flat bricks precariously laid out. Then we came through a door that was sometimes locked from the inside. We were like beggars seeking permission to do what the men walked up freely to do in the same building through a broad lighted stairway and double doors. On one occasion a few additional women joined our ranks but no effort was made to add to the number of eating utensils causing the need for someone(me) to walk up to the kitchen door (through the men’s section) and solicit, silently, for additional plates so everyone could eat.
The men entered the meditation hall through an outer room in which they left their shoes. The women entered from the other side and were told to put our shoes on the porch. From there, the dogs hauled off the shoes. My sandals happened to be leather, so they were chewed on and bitten. In the end, I left them in the trash in India. I am NOT a shoe person. I wear only flat practical shoes. I only own a few pair at time, which I keep for years.
Now, here’s the thing. I’ve worked my entire adult life to distinguish between gender oppressions that are manifest because of patriarchal perspectives and practices and the fundamentals and values or principles of my faith system. I also note that religions often use the double talk of “piety” to condition women’s acquiescence to their own oppressions. As the days of Vipassana unfolded, I became more aware of my own anger regarding a life time of working to end gender inequities. Meanwhile, I was continually bombarded with them at this center. In the end, I felt that if I let my guard down, by fully buying into the discourse about love, compassion, peace and liberation I would also have to ignore these violations. I didn’t wish anyone harm, but I was so leery that a request for benevolence would camouflage my need for resilience against gender oppressions that were being condoned under the guise of religious transcendence.
In the end resistance to manifest forms of oppression interfered with my ability to surrender to the demands for benevolence. A simple sharing of both benevolent and adverse conditions by both women and men could have gone a long way to change what was so inequitable about a practice that demanded equanimity.
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.