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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Meditation Posture.

When I was first studying Buddhism I was daunted by meditation because I read so much about having the right posture, sitting in the "correct fashion." I read about the Full Lotus position the Half-Lotus position and the Burmese position. I was over-whelmed by the detailed nature of meditation positions and I was worried that I was going to "make a mistake" I read about teachers who would hit you on your head or back if your posture didn't adhere to the complicated "rules."

I was so intimidated that I didn't attempt meditation for a long time. I don't know how many times I tried the different "sanctioned" positions, only to fall off the cushion. I heard about monks who meditated for days on end in these positions and I wanted to sit like those great monks that I was reading about. I thought that If I didn't sit like a master Yogi then I wasn't a "good Buddhist." Or that I wouldn't realize "Enlightenment." That was before I understood more about the nature of so-called "Enlightenment." By the way, I prefer saying "Awakening" as Enlightenment is such an over-used, little understood word.

But let's face it, not many of us are contortionists so we have to find a position that is both relaxing yet still beneficial to our meditation. I'm not a very flexible person and have short legs and a long torso/back so the first thing that I set out doing was to find the right cushion. I tried many different ones and finally settled on The Mountain Seat Zafu from The Monastery Store.

The Monastery Store store set out to design a revolutionary series of meditation cushions in response to over-whelming demand for cushions that minimize discomfort for those who have injuries or are not so flexible like myself. Their final products were the result of extensive orthopedic research which align your spine while maintaining optimum comfort. The cushion starts with the familiar buckwheat base which helps cradle your hips and weight with a top layer of memory foam that conforms to your backside to assist in maintaining a restful meditation posture.

I chose the large size which is a taller cushion than most (it's their tallest size). It is recommended for those with less flexibility, chronic injuries and knee problems. It relieves back stain for those of us with long torsos. These cushions are a bit expensive but I found it worth the price as it has helped my hip strain (I have bad hip joints) greatly. Plus, I went through regular meditation cushions like Kleenex tissue so in the long run this is a better buy and it's made out of quality material so it is built to last.

I then experimented with different postures and finally settled on just sitting simply on the front end of the cushion with my legs crossed in a basic fashion. It was more comfortable and reduced fidgeting throughout my meditation and thus keeping me from being able to focus on my breath and center myself. So my advice is to find your own way of sitting if you can't do the traditional styles. Don't let anyone tell you that you MUST meditation a certain way. I understand that there are "recommended" positions but no one body is the same.

Here's another tip that I discovered to be useful for me. Don't worry about sitting absolutely still like a statue because not many people can do that I personally do not think that is the most important aspect to meditation. Of course sitting still is important to help maintain a feeling of calm, balance and focus on one's breath and the present moment. However. If your leg falls asleep then by all means, PAY ATTENTION TO IT!!! Meditation isn't about suffering, after all the point of meditation is to alleviate suffering not create more. If you leg falls asleep (goes numb) then just simply extend it out to bring the circulation back to your leg and return to your breath. Then when your leg feels less numb and more comfortable then you can fold it back with the other leg again or just keep it out front. Similarly, if your hip hurts, then rub it a bit and breath deeply to connect your body to your breath. Or stretch your back out for a few seconds if you feel your muscles strain or tighten.

It is OK to pay attention to your body this way, a big part of meditating it to pay attention to subtle changes in the body and mind. If you leg is sore in the present moment then that's fine, give it a gentle, loving rub. The present moment is full of any number of varied experiences. Once your feel your body relax a bit more after rubbing the sore area then you can fold your hands together again. The main thing is to be aware--awareness through being mindful of all the changes around us during meditation is part of awakening and liberating the mind.

If you can do the traditional meditation postures then by all means maintain that routine but only if you it doesn't hurt your body so bad that the pain is all that you can think about during your session. Suffering through pain is not what meditation is about. No one is a "better Buddhist" because they can sit through shooting pain, that's just stubborn and (in my opinion) a waste of time. So find what works best for you and enjoy!!

Oh and more one item. I don't want to make a big deal out of this but if you would like to make a donation to the blog then you can find the button to do so below my profile on the right hand side of the screen. Thank-you in advance for your donation should you be so kind to offer it.

Addendum:

I felt like I needed to add something to this post to clarify some things that have been mentioned in the comment section. I didn't mean to come off as an ordained teacher. I was just offering up some tips that I have found useful in my humble practice. I'm by no means any kind of Enlightened Master, just a well meaning practitioner.

I can't meditate in the formal, traditional manners. So I developed my own style to enable me to meditate. Otherwise I most likely wouldn't sit at all. And i know that this might not be acceptable to some but I am just trying to do my best. So right now this is my best, sitting the way I described.

Maybe in my next incarnation I'll inherit a body more flexible but until then I'll meditate the best way that I know how. All I know is that many have taught me to "start where you are" and well, this is where I am.

~Peace to all beings~

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28 comments:

Anonymous said...

It can be useful to hear about your initial problems with the posture, but then you proceed to tell other people they should PAY ATTENTION TO IT!!! (your caps) and to alleviate suffering not create more etc. At the same time, you should tell your readers, if you're into explaining stuff, that meditation is not about feeling good, or even avoiding unpleasant sensations, right? Isn't meditation about being present to whatever presents itself, including a leg falling asleep? It's not a leg falling off, right? You say towards the end, "So find what works best for you and enjoy!!" Are you for real? No donation.

Greenwoman said...

Good advice James. I'm going to check out the store. Thanks for the link!

They call him James Ure said...

Anonymous:

Thank-you for your comment. You're right that meditation isn't always about "feeling good." I guess the angle I was going with on this post was not to worry if you're body can't do the main positions.

That it's o.k. to want to adjust your posture a bit. I would say it's better to meditate without the "best" posture than not meditate at all.

I don't see the point of trying to meditate if it just hurts like hell every time you do it. Sure it's important to be present with a certain amount of pain and sit with it. However, I don't think we have to suffer throughout a good portion of the session just to maintain the "correct" posture.

Now maybe that doesn't make me a "real Buddhist" but I'm not concerned about being a "real Buddhist." I'm concerned about maintaining peace in my life and meditating in this fashion is what I've found helps me maintain that peace.

I don't claim to be a "guru" or any kind of teacher, just another traveler on the path and I posted this post to maybe help those who are just getting started and who are worried they can't do the more formal, difficult postures of meditating.

And I assure you, I am real or at least as real as anything can be. :)

But one more point, you have every right not to donate and I would never expect people to do so. I just don't understand why you didn't just keep that feeling to yourself?

I didn't find that to be very kind.

Christian said...

Fro the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

"Now this, bhikkhus, for the Noble One(s), is the reality which is pain: birth is painful, aging is painful, illness is painful, death is painful; sorrow, lamentation, physical pain, unhappiness and distress are painful; union with what is disliked is painful; separation from what is liked is painful; not to get what one wants is painful; in brief, the five bundles of grasping-fuel are painful.

"Now this, bhikkhus, for the Noble One(s), is the pain-originating reality. It is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and attachment, seeking delight now here now there; that is, craving for sense-pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination (of what is not liked).

"Now this, bhikkhus, for the Noble One(s), is the pain-ceasing reality. It is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.

"Now this, bhikkhus, for the Noble One(s), is the reality which is the way leading to the cessation of pain. It is this Noble Eight-factored Path, that is to say, right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right mental unification."

=

All the pain and suffering in the world and you cannot take it for 20 minutes? :)

I think it might be more helpful if you did not try to teach yet. Just explain what you are going through. There are already enough people spreading incorrect Dhamma which injures the Dhamma. But thank you, I know you mean well.

Terri said...

What you described with your experience seems to be similar to what I went through. But then, after reading a couple of BUddhist magazines (Tricycle and Shambahla Sun), than also taking a yoga class helped me with postures. I Still get that sleepy feeling in my left leg a lot, but now I know that its ok to move it and I shouldn't push myself farther than what I have attained so far in terms of flexibility and posture.

They call him James Ure said...

Christian:

I didn't mean to come off as an ordained teacher. I was just offering up some tips that I have found useful in my humble practice. I'm by no means any kind of Enlightened Master, just a well meaning practitioner.

I can't meditate in the formal, traditional manners. So I developed my own style to enable me to meditate. Otherwise I most likely wouldn't sit at all. And i know that this might not be acceptable to some but I am just trying to do my best. So right now this is my best, sitting the way I described.

Maybe in my next incarnation I'll inherit a body more flexible but until then I'll meditate the best way that I know how. All I know is that many have taught me to "start where you are" and well, this is where I am.

Terri:

Yeah I don't think pushing it past what we can do is beneficial. I think it just causes frustration and risks halting one's meditation practice altogether.

david said...

I highly recommend meditating with your hands raised in the prayer position, centered on your chest. Really can help you out,

I also think it is helpful to rotate silent meditation with mantra meditation. The power and transformative nature of mantra cannot be under estimated.

"Om mani padme hum" , do 3 malas of this a day for one year, your being will completely changed.

one love,

Mike said...

Wow, I had no idea that this was a controversial topic until I came to the comment page.

I spent many sessions trying to force myself into the half lotus, and would spend 75 percent of my meditation time trying to ease into the position, and the last 25 percent dealing with sleeping legs. I just felt too focused on the physical aspects of meditation.

I can appreciate why these poses are important. They allow the person to be in a very balanced, centered position that is conducive to a quiet mind. But in reality, I’m no yogi, I’m far from flexible, and in fact, I now sit in a chair (GASP!). I place my feet on the ground, try to maintain a straight back and neck, and I get comfortable. My body is at ease, allowing my mind to follow suit.

Like you said, maybe in another lifetime it will be different, but for now, where I’m at, I do what works best for me.

p.s.- a position that I did use for some time that I would still recommend for people with problems crossing their legs is the Japanese style where you kneel. I would use 3 pillows stacked up between my legs for support. You can also buy small benches made specifically for this purpose. My body felt balanced in this position, without much pain or strain.

Christian said...

Please keep in mind while you read my words that I only have the Dhamma in mind, not me or you.

You are giving tips on what helped you, but where are you? You are "not an enlightened master" so what good is what you say? If you were asking directions in New York City who would you ask? Someone who lives in the city or some one who has never been?

While a comfortable sitting position is important, you did not express the idea skillfully. For instance, how comfortable should one be while sitting? Can I sit in a chair? Can I do walking meditation?

And to fail to point out the tremendous mental pain and pysical pain encountered on the path is to to the Dhamma a disservice because you do not distinguish between pain and suffering! We can have pain, and we will, but we do not have to suffer. A Zen MAster once said; "Leg pain is the taste of Zen!"

This is not a game or some relaxation exercise to make you a better person.

Now we have David commenting below that all you have to do is say mantras for a year and you will be all set!

A hundred teachers yet none enlightened!

David said...

Christian,

How do you know that none of the bloggers here are enlightened or not? Perhaps the questions and methods posed are there for your benefit for you to dissolve your own delusions.

Remember, there are as man paths to enlightenment as there are beings who seek it.

We know sakayumni sat under a tree, and we know he followed his own path. Codified structure is just another delusion.

As it has been said, once you have caught the fish you realize that the trap is no longer useful.

What works for one, may be utterly useless for another. What I love obout James's blog is that it is a nurturing place for all methods and paths.

one love.

Christian said...

Yes, Ajahn Bloggers! Silly though..what you said...because no one outside of us can break our delusions. That is your job.

There is only one path to enlightenment. Sorry. The Buddha did not describe any others.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/index.html

There are many ways on the path, but only one path. If "Codified structure is just another delusion" then why all these rules?
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/ariyesako/layguide.html

Do you follow the Dhamma as well? Or are you a spiritual shopper? Pick one and get started...your life is ending!

And who is this Sakayumni? :^)

Charline said...

James,

Thank you for this post. I, too, have not been able to sit in the traditional postures (or for as long as deemed optimal-more due to the pace of my life than desire).

Frankly, I meditate as my day allows. Somtimes it is on a 'cushion' on the floor. Sometimes it is at my desk at work or in my car or standing in line. Often, it is not more than 5 minutes at a time. I take moments of meditation where ever I can get them. There is the ideal (which has merit, of course) and there is the practical for my life. While I may some day get to the ideal, I won't stop my journey on the path to force my body into the Lotus position or to meditate for hours on end. Maybe someday, but not now. Do the best you can do until you can do better. I agree with the spirit on your post and appreciate it.

david said...

With Apologies to James, don't mean to dialog with Christian on you comments, I respect your blog too much, but one last answer.

I like to think of what the Buddha(Sakyamuni ..sorry for the typo) offered, the 4 noble truths, the 8 fold path as the path he found to enlightenment. But I think it is not THE path to enlightenment. That seems a little too "religionistic" for me.

Old story, ...God and the devil are walking down the street, they see a beautiful light, God says "oh look the truth", the devil says "great, let me organize it".

In the Tibetan tradition we have many new Buddhas...who followed some kind of similar path to Sakyamuni , but not the exact path. Certainly there are enlightened Sufi's and Hindus and Shamans. They say needlepoint can be pretty far out!

Lighten up ... let go , The Dharma is only a relative group of concepts, it, like "you" and "I" have no intrinsic nature. Read some Nagarjuna on that one. It's all good.

Christian said...

Dear Charlene, yes, you have it right. But that is not the issue I had with the posting.

David, concepts, while having no separate identity, still are useful.

And I part with this problem of your ideas with conceptualization:
If it is all just concepts, and concepts do not matter to you, how can you disagree with me when I say you are wrong?

Feel free to email me.

Carla said...

James, I agree with you that there is no right or wrong way to sit when meditating. Arguing over it seems to me to be entirely pointless and definitely unskillful. I do think it's a good idea to sit with a sleeping leg and discomfort for a time, but I agree with you that if you feel the need to straighten out a leg or whatever you need to do.

You and I are followers of the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. Here is his teaching on sitting posture:

“Sit or lie down in a way that allows your body to rest. Sitting, your head and spine form a straight line. Relax all your muscles. Find a way of sitting that allows you to sit for at least 20 minutes without becoming too stiff or tired. As soon as you sit down, pay attention to your breath. Then notice your posture, a little bit everywhere. Relax the muscles in your face. If you are angry or worried, those muscles will be tense. Smile lightly, and you will relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Then notice your shoulders, and let go of the tension there. Don’t try too hard. Just breathe mindfully, and scan your whole body.”

He also said, "Sitting is for your pleasure, so relax. If your posture is causing you too much pain, feel free to adjust your position, moving slowly and attentively, following your breathing and every movement of your body so you will not lose your concentration. You can even stand up slowly and mindfully if necessary, and when you feel ready, sit down again. At the end of the period, allow a few minutes to massage your legs and feet before standing up again."

In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind Suzuki Roshi said, "the most important thing in taking the zazen posture is to keep your spine straight."

So, as we follow these teachers, I think what you have said is perfectly acceptable. Personally, I sit in half-lotus position on a Tempur pillow (because that's what I have), but each person will find his or her own good posture. Straight spine and awareness of the body and breath seem most important.

A lotus to you, a Buddha to be.

Christian said...

James, a question;

Would Carla say it was wrong to sit with your spine crooked?

Keep your eyes open. Flattery builds the ego, as do there blogs.

They call him James Ure said...

David:

The mantra that helps me most is the Lotues Mantra: Om gate gate parasamgate padasam gate bodhis swaha.

And yes, there are many paths--84,000 as taught. Which I believe is meant to symbolize that no two paths are the same. One only need look at our different karmas.

Mike:

Yeah, me neither. Thanks for the tip on the Japanese style. I've heard of it before but just never tried it but I will now.

Christian:

The teacher that I follow, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that one can indeed sit in a chair if they have injuries. And walking meditation is a big part of what he advises and I have found it to be very helpful.

And I never said that I was Enlightened.

Charline:

I know what you mean, I meditate whenever I get some time no matter what I'm doing. Whether washing dishes, gazing out the window at a fresh snowfall or practicing my breathing while driving to relax myself more.

You said: There is the ideal (which has merit, of course) and there is the practical for my life. While I may some day get to the ideal, I won't stop my journey on the path to force my body into the Lotus position or to meditate for hours on end.

And I couldn't agree more.

Carla:

Thank-you for reminding us of the words of our teacher, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hahn.

Christian:

I know know, why don't you ask Carla? It seems your question is addressed to her.

Wade M | The Middle Way said...

Hi James,

I found the human qualities addendum to be really refreshing, thanks :)

We both share a love for the Large Mountain Seat by the way. I spent a month working for The Monastery Store in ZMM, and played with all the different zafus/kapoks/tibetan seats etc. The combination of the buckwheat and the cushion on top makes it perfect.

With time and practice we will all become flexible. Yoga is a great practice to help with this.

It's interesting to see what traditions place certain importance on position, but all seem agree to start where you are.

They key of posture IMO is being still in it, or being conscious of movements. A restless body is a restless mind as they say.

No one starts full lotus, some may get there, some may not. It's not really about the physical side of things, as you've said.

Gassho,

Wade

Ginger said...

wow...james, i just want to thank you for all of your posts. i thought this one was informative and helpful.

i personally like to sit on a cushion or my bed with my legs crossed and my hands in my lap or palms up on my knees. i also love contemplative meditation in motion. i think that good posture should be maintained as the physical body will allow, but comfort is important so you can relax. it's pointless to spend 20 minutes concentrating on pain rather than something constructive.

being buddhist means embracing your suffering so you can heal it, not so you can wallow in it and never know joy.

peace james....

Doug said...

The shouting and pain of this discussion makes me wonder if only the esoteric core of the world's religions are worth pursuing. The rituals and customs of each seem like too much clothing for the hot house or steam room.
Whisper Message
There is no hope
if I must shout
a gentle message that
is not the same
in anger
even a shush

I have a whisper of a plan
to save the world.

In a cakewalk
I wanted to show you
but you made me
stalk the bird
of your acceptance,
caged in requirements,
like a cat who measures
an opening to speak it
with a whisker brushing
brusque refusals

I have swallowed the bird,
who sings too much
from a staid repertoire; no one
listens to whispers anymore,
not any more than
purrs are heard
from a pearl
or a clam
stomached in vain
My Poetry Blog

Mellyagaunce said...

Christian,
I'll preface this by saying that I am not a Buddhist. Nor am I anything else for that matter; however, I once was a Christian. Things changed though and I am not, what you would call an apostate.

I recently left Christianity because I didn't feel that I could live up to the expectations presented by it. I felt that no matter how much I tried, it all just lead to more and more suffering with no pay off. Where was this God that everone said loved me? Where was He to help me do what He commanded - these rules that are supposedly here to guide us simply end up being additional laws used to snare us. In short, God resembled a tyrant and not a loving teacher.

Christian, you remind me of Christianity. The kind of person you are henders people from truly experiencing freedom. You are more wrapped up in tradition and legality that you miss the point of enlightenment.

While I may not be a Buddhist, I at least don't have a bitter taste from it yet. Let's try to keep it that way!

Red Flashlight said...

Wait . . . I thought 'all paths lead to enlightenment!' One must simply be aware of the path, and that our particular experience is grist for that mill, if we make it so? Even dogma?

What does it mean to be a good Buddhist, anyway? What does it mean to be a Buddhist at all?

Great poem, Doug. "There is no hope if I must shout a gentle message that is not the same in anger." Inspired.

Doug said...

Thanks very much Red Flashlight.

Anonymous said...

Do you think that everyone who joins a yoga class can already do the postures? The Vajra-posture is the only yoga posture a Buddhist is taught to learn. And it's taught because of it's beneficial nature. It's solid, and you can really expand your time in meditation in a solid posture. If you were wanting to learn the posture my advice is to get into a normal exercise and stretching routine. And to buy a bottle of "Icy Hot". Just like martial artists who are trying to reach a goal use Chinese ointments with Mentol after hard exercise- so too should someone trying to accomplish a new posture apply it after practicing- extending the time they are in the posture little by little. Because it's important to heal well before each training session. Or you'll just degenerate each time if your really not flexible. Great yogi's weren't born in these postures, they used things like meditation belts, ointments, streches unique to the muscles used in a posture- basically anything that worked to move towards the correct posture on a daily basis. If you made a real resolution in addition to your normal meditation routine, I think you can accomplish the posture you want in about 3 months. But it would have to be practice appart from everything else exclusivley.

Anonymous said...

Also don't under-estimate the power of water and air. If you are even slightly dehydrated your flexibility will suffer. And while your streching into these postures you need to breath strongly into your abdomen so as to bring oxigen to the legs along with many other benefits. Breathing into the posture is the way to reach it. Futhermore you should stretch further than the meditation posture. If you stretch forward in the meditation posture you'll loosen those muscles to an even further extent than you need. So that when your in the actual meditation posture you'll feel nice and comfortable. If you only try to reach the meditation posture you'll be fighting with balance and pain the entire session in your hopes to improve. In this case you have to shoot further than your intended target so as to have power over the targeted posture. I'm not saying that there is something wrong with the easy way out- such as buying a super-designed meditation cusion. But as a person you'll feel less benefits if you take the easy way out. Small accomplishments lead to large accomplishments, but if you try to build the foundation of your meditation life with 'short cuts' it won't be very stable. There will be a subtle yet tangible difference.

MJ said...

Reading this makes me see how much Western "Buddhists" need to lighten up. There is no magic way to sit or do anything - that's like saying there is only one way to worship the one God (hello, Methodist Christianity, hello Pentecostal Christianity). Human beings came up with the Dharma and Dhammma and the poses and mantras and mudras everything else. Fallible, mortal human beings. This is all a human created construct on our fears of what we can't understand and our need for hope and answers.

Sit in the best, most comfortable way for you. Work on your inner work and compassion and worldview. If this process only works if you do the super-secret-spy-seating posture, than it is bullshit. That's magical thinking - probably the kind that most former Xians fled. If it works, it works. If twitching your toe breaks the magic, then so be it.

Big picture, people. Big picture.

Thank you James for being open about your "imperfection" in sitting. More power to you.

Anamika said...

Great Post and Information. I have not been able to dedicate much time on meditation. But whenever time permits i indulge in a 10 minutes meditation. But i would like to try this. Thanks for sharing.

Mel said...

I'm not sure why "Christian" reads this website if he is so offended by the information, seems to cause him some anguish. A true buddhist would live and let live would they not and it is the spirit in which things are done which is important - a Lama recently told me to question everyone. So it is natural to do this, but not to knock anyone for their good intention.

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