A Path of Love and Wisdom one day retreat. Q & A with the teachers

Because this retreat is aimed at a particular audience, Sheffield Insight asked Bernat and River to respond to some questions about the retreat:

1.     Why put on a retreat particularly for LGBTQ+ people and allies?

RW: For some of us who identify as LGBTQ+, a meditation retreat that specifically names and welcomes us can feel like a relief and a refuge. Although there have been positive changes in LGBTQ+ human rights (at least in the UK and some parts of Europe), many still experience homophobia in our families or communities of origin, workplaces and spiritual settings. A 2017 report by UK LGBT charity Stonewall found that one in five LGBT people experienced hate crime because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This figure rises to two in five for trans people. Our society is still, for the most part, ‘hetero- and cis-normative’, and this also extends to spiritual practice. Meditation and mindfulness emphasise the importance of embodiment, of contacting the breath in the body as a primary anchor for settling and calming the mind, but traditional guidance often falls short of addressing the particular conditions of those whose bodies, sexualities and gender identities are the sites of trauma and the targets of aggression. The Dharma (buddhist teaching) has true relevance for the multiplicity of our human cultural diversity, and a current challenge is how it can expand and become meaningful for all of us, however we are embodied and however we identify.

BF: Recently, I assisted on a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in the US, where everyday I held a silent meditation space for LGBTQ+ practitioners. It was just a regular sitting. But on the last day we did a sharing round and the feedback was as wonderful as it was revealing. Comments ranged from having found a deeper sense of community, the appreciation of feeling mirrored in a teacher, to discovering that for years they had been leaving a huge part of their lives at the main door and now, for the first time, they had integrated it into their practice. Connection, mirroring, integration of the romantic-affective side, among others, are essentials that not everyone can take for granted.

2.     What might be the differences and similarities between this and other one day retreats?

RW: To an onlooker, it may look similar – people sitting or walking quietly, listening to guidance and reflection, discussion and questions. However, there is a palpable difference for participants to know that they are in a group where there is more freedom to relax and be themselves, led by teachers who identify as LGBTQ+, and in the company of others who may share a similar life experience.

BF: In principle, it need not be much different from other daylong retreats, except for a very significant little thing for some: being explicitly welcomed and accepted. Discussions will depend in part on what meditators bring. We don’t know!

3.     Why identify a particular group – isn’t that divisive?

RW: For some people, it can feel that there is more freedom in not needing to identify as anything in particular, and there are, of course, many retreats which are open to everyone. However in many settings where hetero- and cis-identity is assumed, LGBTQ+ people face the dilemma of whether to ‘out’ ourselves or not. If we don’t identify ourselves, we risk that certain assumptions may underlie how we are treated by others, including our teachers and companions on the path of meditation, and we risk feeling silenced and invisible. In his book ‘Awakening Together: the Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community’ Insight Meditation teacher Larry Yang writes: ‘Identity can be a door into Dharma practice and spiritual freedom. The beauty of the Dharma is that everything – everything– is integral to our spiritual practice. Accordingly, freedom is not just about transcending identity but embracing it until what is beyond the experience of identity reveals itself.’

BF: I remember once I suggested to a friend to watch a gay-themed movie. In my friend’s expression I could see the hesitation: Do I want to see something so specific? I realised in that moment that all my life I had been watching straight-themed cinema. I also remember my first trip to Asia in my late teens, when I heard a Thai friend make a racist comment and I said: How can “you” be racist? And thought (but hopefully didn’t say): …you’re also a race. There are moments that challenge our assumptions of what’s normal. A meditation activity catering to a specific group may challenge whether the usual spaces are as inclusive and neutral as we think they are – and want them to be. But no true path of growth can avoid questioning held assumptions. This is also a path of widening our capacity to hold discomfort, pain, imperfection, and doing it spaciously rather than tightening around it; and this quality is fundamental if we are to open to others, to ourselves, and build a world that is more diverse and understanding.

4.     I don’t identify as LGBTQ+, am I welcome?

RW: Yes, allies are welcome! Participants will not be asked to declare their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

BF: Absolutely! This can actually be a wonderful opportunity to gain perspective and come out with an enriched sense of what is it to live in this world, as well as learning or deepening in your meditation practice!