By Jane Powell
Sitting meditation is a central practice in Buddhism and it’s worth looking close at how we sit, because that sets the stage for everything else. What posture should we adopt, and why does it matter?
There are two main things to think about when we settle ourselves on our meditation seat. One is that we need to be able to hold our position for 30-60 minutes or more without getting uncomfortable, and the other is that it needs to be a posture that puts us in the right frame of mind, getting us off to a good start.
Starting with the first point, it’s important that we do not rely on excessive muscular tension to hold us in place, because if we do, we will quickly get tired and uncomfortable. It’s also important that we are not pressing too hard on our limbs and cutting off the blood supply. And of course we may have particular injuries or physical problems that we need to look out for, such as a bad back, in which case we may need to get professional advice.
Assuming though that we are in good health, we should be able to find a suitable position if we experiment a bit. Sitting on a chair is perfectly acceptable, though it does need to be one on which we can sit upright, with the knees no higher than the bottom. The sort of chair you find in a classroom or an office is ideal, and it might help to sit on a cushion if the chair is very hard.
Then there is sitting on the floor. The important thing here is to ensure that the spine is straight, which means that the bottom needs to be higher than the knees, and so a cushion or stool is essential. You could use a yoga block, a meditation cushion, even a rolled-up blanket or a few bricks with a cushion on top – anything that will raise your bottom and allow you to sit comfortably. Your legs should either be crossed in front of you with your knees on the floor (again, you might want to rest them on cushions) or tucked under you if your stool or cushion allows, as if sitting astride a horse.
Finally you might want to support your arms by resting them on a cushion on your lap, so that your shoulders don’t get pulled forward by their weight. Your head will be looking at the floor a few feet in front of you, gently balanced on your neck. Take a few minutes to find a comfortable position, and if it becomes painful after sitting for a while, adjust it, but try not to move too often. Give each position a fair try and make adjustments in a way that doesn’t interrupt the meditation.
The other important thing about posture is that it is a way of setting ourselves up for the session and giving meaning to what we are about to do. It’s perfectly possible to meditate lying down for instance, but we don’t normally do that, because lying down is associated with rest and going to sleep, and sitting practice is about waking up and being more fully present. It’s important therefore to assume a position of dignity and confidence, one which says ‘here I am, taking my place’. It’s not a time to slouch or apologize or be half-hearted.
Other aspects of posture have their own symbolism. Closing the eyes means going inwards, focusing on the body perhaps, while keeping them open means staying connected with the outside world, and both are good. Joining the hands completes a circle; placing them one on each knee leaves the body more open. Kneeling astride a cushion may remind us of Christian prayer, while sitting cross-legged is more oriental, or perhaps it reminds us of junior school. Find a posture which links you to something inspiring. If you go along to a group run by a particular Buddhist tradition they will tell you how to do it their way, but otherwise it’s up to you.
Finally, meditation is not about concentrating on the mind and forgetting about the body, though it might sound like that sometimes. In fact the body is central to all that we do, meditation included, and it is important to look after it. Diet, sleep and exercise are all important to keep it in shape and support meditation practice. In particular, yoga and tai chi have been developed in the eastern traditions as a form of moving meditation, and both can be a very helpful addition to sitting practice.
There are plenty of opportunities to practice yoga and Tai Chi in Aberystwyth. Local yoga teacher Alyson Tyler has posted a list of classes on her blog so you can find one to suit. For a series of yoga positions devised by the Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham of Shambhala International, see this YouTube video. These are just some I know about, and if anyone has others to recommend, let me know and I’ll add them here.