©2000 Patrick Clark, reprint only with written permission of author
The "Meditation Posture" is easily recognized, so much so that it has become an icon. Everyday in print media about any subject, advertisers find ways to depict people sitting in a somewhat cross-legged position. Usually the head is thrown back with neck jutting forward and the face has a fake and exaggeratedly blissed out expression. This position is neither healthy, nor sustainable. This is more of a pose than a way to sit. It takes so much effort to hold this pose that it won't last a second longer than it takes to click the shutter. This false, popularized symbol for what meditation is supposed to look like is conceived by those who have neither practiced meditation nor plan to.
The reason: these people are sitting on a flat surface. When sitting on a flat surface, it's almost worse than sitting on a chair or sofa. The muscular of the front torso has to strain to keep the body from collapsing backward. If more people realized that there is a way to sit without back support that is not only practically effortless, but increases the power of concentration, lowers heart rate, decreases blood pressure, deepens breathing, and stimulates the 'relaxation response', they would probably give it a try.
The funny thing is, this 'natural sitting' technique from the outset looks almost like the first way of sitting described, which doesn't work at all for meditation or anything else other than a pretty photo. Many of us go into meditation with preconceived notions about sitting and posture.
"Good posture" is not the military tightening of the shoulders with an erect back. That takes effort and unbalanced muscular activity. In fact, 'posture' isn't even the word to describe the activity of meditation.
Meditation is an activity, not some static 'holding' of the body. In fact, holding the body is akin to 'body armor', which is just what we are trying to dissolve with meditation. Meditation is a 'neutral' state, it is a state of repose, looseness, relaxation, melting, zero, reset.
It is sitting with a relaxed body without pain, struggle or difficulty. That is: the physical body is trying to find a place where it can "let go", so the mind, spirit, or emotions can work on whatever they have to, without being hindered or blocked by the body.
There is a koan or dichotomy in this 'meditation posture'. By settling down the body in this consciously controlled way, the mind is freed from its constant distractedness. It is now has to face itself. By stopping the body's outward movement, the mind is now able to find new levels of awareness, which is a form of movement. The reason "posture" isn't the best word to describe meditation is because there is very much movement inside the sitting. The body is in a state of "tonus" which means there is an equal balance of work between complimentary and opposing muscle groups. The muscles involved from the front are working with and against those of the back. There is a constant interchange.
The reason this isn't exhausting is because when the weight of the body is balanced evenly front and back, there is very little work left to do. Basically, it is a matter of maintaining that balance, the way a tree sways in the wind. The only way these muscles can be balanced between the front and the back is by either standing, or by mimicking the angle of the spine by sitting on a sloped surface. This sloped surface tilts the pelvis almost as it would be when standing.
There is one exception to this rule--the 'lotus' position, which is sitting on a flat surface in a true cross-legged stance. In true 'lotus', the pelvis is tilted mechanically by the extreme force placed on it from the legs which are stretched under the calves and rest on top of the thighs. However, this advanced yoga asana is only for a tiny minority who can achieve such an extreme stretching of the legs, and many people have caused personal injury--mostly to the knees--who have sat lotus for a long time.
There are several obstacles to finding this state of perfect repose. 1--Improper technique or knowledge of how the body works. 2--The body may be out of alignment. 3--Muscles used in sitting have atrophied from years of sitting in chairs. 4--Your sitting equipment may not fit you or have some other technical issue. Very often, some or all of these factors will cause a one problems with finding that mythical state of perfect equilibrium until one finally gives up and finds a chair.
Chair sitting is certainly possible for meditation, but it does not provide the potential of the "meditation posture". Also, it can lead to other problems not only for meditation but for other aspects of life. 1--Improper technique: Chair sitting is completely unnatural and we have grown up in a culture that revolves around the chair. Most of our waking hours are spent in a chair. Parents force kids to sit in them. They strap them to chairs at an early age which deforms the skeletal and musculature systems, and dampens their instinctual knowledge of wise body use. (Indians strapped infants to a board to wear them on the back or hang in a tree--in standing position.) So we come to meditation with a lifetime of improper use and ideas.
Here is a very good video deomstrating the ideas in this article.
Read this website, read the books offered on this website, and find qualified instructors of the Feldenkrais Method. Yoga is very complimentary to a healthy back and can enhance meditation. Unfortunately, even yoga instructors usually do not understand the problems with chairs and the principles of wise body movement. They even use unhealthy backrests in the yoga classes for students to lean back on. These canvas floor seats are actually worse than chairs!
2--Alignment means the bones, joints and muscles are working smoothly together with symmetry and balance. It would be amazing if a person beginning this way of sitting wasn't out of alignment. Our physical environment and the way we interact with it shapes our bodies. Chair sitting creates a condition known as "adaptive slumped posture" or "front loading". The muscles in the front (shoulders, chest, abdominals) work harder than those in back, and sculpt a body that tends to pull itself unnaturally forward. This can then lead to problems in other areas of the body, like a domino effect. These problems can become severe and lead to joint degeneration from uneven wear. We have become adapted to chairs. Chairs support the status quo of a "front loaded" body. That's why at first they may seem more comfortable and relaxing than autonomous sitting. It takes an open mind and a desire for balance, health, and the benefits of meditation for a person to want to change. The transition is not always easy. In order to make it work, other practices should be considered for increasing flexibility, balance and symmetry, such as yoga, chiropractic, rolfing, massage, craniosacral therapy, the Alexander Technique. Also, there are many self-therapies that are very useful, such as the Ma Roller™, Miracle Balls™, therapy balls. and others.
3--Muscles that have atrophied from sitting in chairs will get sore. Start autonomous sitting in small bits, and work your way to longer sits as you can. Practice plenty of stretching in-between sitting.
4--The seat must fit. If a seat is too tall, it may cut off circulation where the seat meets the thighs. If it's too short, the pelvis isn't tilted sufficiently and there will be slumping. In general, the wider the sitting surface, the easier it will be to sit, because the weight of the body is spread across more surface area to prevent bruising and circulation blocks. If your legs tingle and fall asleep, try another seat.
The principles of comfortable, healthy sitting can be applied to sitting in a chair. If the seat of a chair is tilted somehow, either by placing one inch blocks underneath the rear legs, or by placing a 'wedge cushion' (Tilt Seat™ cushion with stuffing pushed to the rear) on the seat, it becomes effective for autonomous sitting.
The floor cushions and benches have a few advantages--lower center of gravity, simple, easy for a large group, humble and 'down to earth'-- but some people have trouble getting up and down or assuming the positions which take greater flexibility. For this group, and others, we have created the Tilt Seat™. Also, somewhere between a Tilt Seat™ and a Zafu or Peace Bench is the "sky position". The sitter is not as high as a chair or tilt seat™ but not as low as a zafu or kneeling bench. The knees are lower than the hips, but still not touching the mat or floor. There is minimal stretch in the thighs and no pressure on the knees. Many have found the answer with this position, which can be achieved with either an extra large bench or a smile cushion or zafu with a support cushion under it.
Back, Head, Shoulders
"Wise Use" of the body starts with the head. The head should be positioned "forward and up". That means the chin should be parallel with the floor, so you can easily look down at a 45 degree angle to the floor. (Many people make the mistake of bending the neck up. This throws the whole back out of alignment.) Correct positioning of the head should help you naturally align you back.
You should feel a slight arch in your lower back. Play with the balance until you find a place that feels comfortable. Do not strain. When done properly this way of sitting is comfortable and effortless. Your ears and your shoulders should be on one vertical line. Relax your shoulders, and push up towards the ceiling with the back of your head. Also to gain strength in your posture, press your diaphragm down towards your hara, or lower abdomen. This will help you maintain physical and mental balance.
Arms & Hands
You can place your hands on your thighs or on a small pillow on your lap. Hold your elbows freely and easily, and slightly away from your body. This helps keep your shoulders from slouching. If you would like further assistance, contact us for Meditation Tech Support.
Breath Meditation from Vipassana Buddhism
This is one of many ways to practice meditation. This is particularly effective in quietening the mind and grounding the body.
Once you have assumed a comfortable sitting position, take the first few moments to sweep through the body with the intention to relax. Soften and let go around areas of tightness and contraction.
Let all the senses be awake...aware of physical sensations, mood, sounds and space in all directions.
Then, become aware in a very soft yet clear way of the movement of the breath. Your awareness can rest in the breath wherever the sensations of breathing are most predominant. For most people, this is either the inflow and outflow at the nose, or the rising and falling movement at the chest or abdomen.
Once you decide where to be with the breath, let this be an anchor, the place you return to again and again. Bring a full mindfulness to the breath: making no effort to control the breath, discover what it is actually like, moment to moment. If the attention gets too tight or tense, relax your body again, soften back into the breath. If the attention becomes spacy, difficult to focus, then intend to bring a real precision and clarity to the awareness of the breath.
The purpose of meditation practice is to bring a mindful attention to the changing flow of life, without either clinging to experience or resisting what is happening. Let your attention rest mindfully in the breath.
When a strong emotion or sensation arises let go of the breath as a primary area of attention and open the awareness to include the waves of experience that are arising. Notice what they are like as sensations in the body, feelings in the body/mind...and notice how they change. Let your intention be to neither resist what is painful or grasp at pleasure. Rather, bring an unconditional caring presence that allows life to unfold without interference.
To be truly present means to be aware of thinking, not lost in trains of thought. Typically the mind will contract and move off into thought forms repeatedly. This is natural, and when it occurs, simply recognize that thinking is happening by mentally noting "thinking, thinking". Without any judgement, open out of thoughts and relax back into the breath. Often our thoughts are repetitive and strongly driven by emotions. When this happens, rather than returning to the breath, recognize and note the thinking and then open the awareness into the body and heart to sense what is asking for attention.
Often there is fear or longing that needs to be included in awareness. Until we touch this directly, the mind will keep contracting off into thought forms and disconnecting from the present moment.
A Few More Tips
For many people, noting or naming what is happening can be helpful in connecting the awareness directly with moment to moment experience. For instance, when a strong sensation arises you might note "tension", "tightness", "hot", "cold", "pressure", "ache", "tingling"...and if there is much pain or pleasure..."unpleasant" or "pleasant". Similarly emotions can be labeled: "sadness", "happiness", "fear", "grief", etc. Let the noting be soft and in the background, with most of your attention directly experiencing what is happening.
The quality of care or friendliness (metta) towards our experience is an essential foundation for mindfulness. Kindness allows us to open, de conditioning the tendency of our minds to resist and contract away from life. It is helpful to reflect on the intention of relating to experience in a gentle and kind way at the beginning of each sitting (and day!)
For some people, listening to sounds is a useful alternative to using the breath as an anchor. Open the awareness to include the space within which sounds arise, and listen without controlling anything. Simply let sounds happen, noticing how they arise, change, dissolve. While you may find it valuable to use sounds as an anchor for attention in this way, it is important to also learn to concentrate and develop mindfulness around the breath.
So after the attention has opened and relaxed by resting in the awareness of sounds once again practice by being with the breath.
Remember that we can start our meditation fresh at any moment. Simply take a few conscious breaths, open out of thoughts, relax the body, and come back to rest in the breath or in listening to sounds. We all have preconceived notions and preferences regarding "good meditations". It helps to recognize that this is a liberating but challenging path: Our nature is to be lost in thought, be reactive to our experience, get restless, sleepy, doubtful...Try not to judge you experience. Rather, trust that you are truly an awakening, loving being. Practice love by accepting whatever arises. Gradually the practice of mindfulness and compassion will free you to express your true nature and live each moment fully. A lotus bud for you!
Thanks to Tara Brach and the Insight Meditation Community of Washington for reprinting this guided meditation. Click here to find out about their weekly sittings in the Washington D.C. area and meditation retreats.
Burmese Position sitting on a Zafu and Zabuton
Sky Position sitting on a
Quantum Calming Mat™