By Guenevere Neufeld
My work day was over. Dinner time.
I clomp over the boardwalk toward the dining hall and, drop my bag in the coatroom, and slide toward the dining room. Sole, Roasted Potatoes, Local Corn, Green Beans and Plum Cake says the menu board. White fish—yech. That always creeps me out. I’m slightly irritated for no reason at all today—restless. I turn the corner to the buffet lines,. and see a crowd by the plates. I’ll get a glass of water first.
I live at Yasodhara Ashram. It is a yoga retreat and study centre where we enjoy refreshing silence at every meal. It’s a custom I appreciate immensely. There is no need for casual small talk, for a dining hall full of uproarious voices; just delicious, smooth solitude in a room of people not talking to one another.
“Hi,” says a tall stranger standing near the sink, slightly in the way. “Do you want this?” he asked, gesturing to the filtered water jug. He smiles in the way that men smile at women. I’m startled. I’m not used to that kind of invitation in the crinkling corners of men’s eyes. It’s a celibate ashram after all. His voice cuts into my bubble of imagined solitude. Loud and overbearing with hint of something else. “Oh! I forgot, meals are eaten in silence!” He continues in a regular speaking voice, “I’ll try to remember.”
I nod vaguely, without making eye contact and walk away, with a glass of fresh tap water in hand. I’m in no mood for tall men and their booming voices.
With my food plated, I make my way to a table. Oh I hope I wasn’t too rude to that man. I will definitely apologize after dinner for not responding to him. Stories are playing in my head. I start thinking that I should welcome new guests and ensure they feel comfortable. That I should be polite. I’ll wait for him in the atrium after I finish eating. I’ll engage with him then.
I dig into dinner—sweet corn first. It is delicious. Thoughts churn and galvanize in the silence. How hard is it remember to not speak when no one around you is making a peep? Okay, I’m not here to judge. But geez, would he have even spoken to me at all if I were a man or an elderly woman? Did he simply want to flirt?
The origin of my discomfort finally dawns on me: I’m conditioned to respond to men who initiate conversation. It doesn’t matter if I want to or not, or if I think they’re asking for something I don’t want to give. Once contact has begun, I don’t always feel as if I have a choice. Instead, an oh-so-quiet voice says it’s more important to be seen as polite and cooperative.
Pausing with these realizations, the cob stalled halfway to my mouth. What a disempowering thought—that I have to respond to him in order to be polite!
Enter the patriarchy, the silent code that outlines how all genders are meant to behave, especially in relation to each other. For so long in Western history women have existed in relation to men. Unable to vote or own property, women’s value was a cultural commodity given to women based on marriage and family status.
Of course there are exceptions: the tenacity of women is not based on their acceptance of these confines. Strong women have always existed within them, as well as fiercely broken out of them.
I’ve heard it will take 400 years to reach gender equality. I certainly hope it won’t be that long. Yet I watch how gender relations live deeply within my own behavior. I see how uneasy I am at times to discover where I still fall into the traps of an outdated hierarchy with tall, white men at the top, handing out passes on what is socially acceptable.
Rooting out the ways the patriarchy lives in me is an uncomfortable but ultimately satisfying endeavor.
The interaction in the dining room made me feel powerless, like I was subjected to a man’s whims simply because he decided we should interact. But I’m not. I’m not required to respond to a man so that he deem me polite. I get to choose who I speak with—or if I speak at all. Especially when I’m in a silent space. It was such a relief to understand those thoughts lived in me. And even more so to release them.
Dinner was over. Free time. I drop off my dishes in the bin. Utensils land with a clang clang into place. I slide out of the dining room. Time to play some guitar. Or read. Maybe I would go for a walk and release this edgy energy. I don’t stop in the atrium to chat with anyone. I realize I am self-possessed. I am in control of what I allow into my sphere.
Being polite has nothing to do with it.
Guenevere Neufeld spends some of her time travelling and some of her time living in one place. She likes to sing bhajans, swim in the ocean, and ask questions. With an undergraduate degree in English literature and a post-graduate diploma in journalism, her work has appeared in places like Elephant Journal, Geez Magazine, Yasodhara Ashram’s blog and Heartfulness Magazine. Connect with her on Facebook and Instagram or watch her TEDx.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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