Meditation 101 - The Meditation Posture

The following tips on meditation posture are intended to provide guidance for newcomers to the practice of meditation. 

Meditation is customarily practiced in a cross-legged pose, sitting on a cushion or folded blanket.  Meditation can also be practised while sitting or kneeling on a chair or stool. The key point about the pose for meditation is that the back is straight to enable the mind to stay relaxed but alert. The aim is to reach a state of equipoise, or physical and mental balance, which can be maintained for increasing periods of time.

Support - cushions and stools 

It is much easier to sit if the pelvis is slightly elevated by a firm cushion and the knees placed on a firm padded surface. The best type of meditation cushion is the Japanese Zen-style ‘zafu’ which sits on a pad called the ‘zabuton’.  Zafus are usually filled with a firm material, typically buckwheat husks, which helps the cushion maintain its shape and not squash flat when sat on (unlike ordinary sofa cushions). These are available at spiritual bookstores or via mail order from the Internet.

Alternatively, many of whose who can’t sit cross-legged make use of a simple meditation stool called a ‘seiza bench’ which takes pressure off the knees. These are often provided at meditation centres, and are also quite easy to make.

The Lotus Position                              

The characteristic pose of Buddhist meditation is a yoga position called the Lotus Position (the padmasana.) In this position, the legs are crossed with each foot placed on the opposing thigh. A meditator sitting in the lotus position is an iconic image of Indian spiritual culture. In this position, the spine is literally locked upright, so should the meditator enter into trance states, the body will remain in this position effortlessly. 

Sitting in the lotus position requires considerable flexibility, and not everyone can do it. There are several variations which are easier to reach and maintain while still providing stability and equipoise.

Half-  and Quarter- Lotus positions

Alternatives are the half- and quarter-lotus positions. In the half-lotus, one foot is placed on the opposing thigh, the other foot stays underneath. In the quarter lotus, the foot is placed on the opposing calf.  Many find the quarter-lotus the easiest position to maintain.  (The ordinary school-child cross-legged pose is hard to maintain, as the ankles put pressure on each other at the point where they cross).

Sitting on a Chair

If none of these options are suitable, one can sit on a chair. The key point with sitting this way is to keep the back straight and the feet flat on the floor. Sitting towards the front of the seat, or on the edge of it, is the best way of ensuring a straight back. Finally, one can meditate whilst lying on a yoga mat, however this position is also highly conducive to sleeping.

The Hands

In any of these positions, the hands can be placed one on top of the other, with the tips of the thumbs touching.

Building a Practice

There are many approaches to meditation - this one is based on the Soto Zen approach discussed in the well-known meditation manual  Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki and also To Meet the Real Dragon by Gudo Nishijima Roshi. 

Once you have worked out how you want to sit, the next step is to actually learn to maintain the posture  for some period of time and to practice regularly.  We are generally accustomed to be constantly occupied so the act of sitting still and ‘watching the breath’ will usually  not come naturally. Many beginners find that time passes very slowly in this position, and that maintaining it for even 10 minutes seems a struggle. You may experience discomfort - the  legs will begin to tingle and you will naturally want to move them. At this point, persistence is required.

Advice varies on how long to sit for. However a 20 minute period is quite an achievement for a beginning meditator. Soto Zen texts like those above, nominate 45 minutes as the ideal period, at least once and preferably twice daily. It might take some time before the position can be maintained for that period but with persistence it is possible. Take your time and realize that it is skill that benefits from patience and persistence.

Timing Devices

Naturally a wristwatch or clock can be used for measuring the period of sitting practice. An hourglass is a nice option as it is aesthetically pleasing and silent. There are also smartphone apps available which track not only session times but also statistics and goals.

You will benefit from having place set aside for sitting practice and a small bench or table where you can put the hourglass, a Buddha, and some verses for chanting, if you wish. The formal or ‘liturgical’ aspects of meditation are a part of the practice - they serve to symbolically connect you to the  sangha, the other meditation practitioners who are on the same journey wherever they may be..

Once you have a place, a posture, and the ability and commitment to practice regularly, the key thing is to stick at it. Some people will say that any deliberate attempt to ‘practice’ meditation undermines the essential spontaneity of the state of mind that is being sought. However in practical terms persistence is necessary.  As Buddhist scholar and translator Bikkhu Bodhi says:

All human activity can be viewed as an interplay between two contrary but equally essential factors — vision and repetitive routine. Vision is the creative element in activity, whose presence ensures that over and above the settled conditions pressing down upon us from the past we still enjoy a margin of openness to the future, a freedom to discern more meaningful ends and to discover more efficient ways to achieve them. Repetitive routine, in contrast, provides the conservative element in activity. It is the principle that accounts for the persistence of the past in the present, and that enables the successful achievements of the present to be preserved intact and faithfully transmitted to the future.

Ongoing Reading and Practice

Once you’re on the road, the key is to keep at it. Reading and contemplation of the ideas you find in spiritual books is an important part of it. You will learn as you go along that in any serious engagement with meditation, ‘things come up’. This means, aspects of your own mind and the nature of life will become more evident, sometimes in dramatic ways, sometimes gradually and peacefully. There are times when it is good to have a "spiritual guide" or teacher to discuss these things with.  

Be confident that if you practice steadily with the right motivation and intent, the path will unfold before you.

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