Last class we focused on the breath as the first aspect of the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This week we focus on the various positions we take for meditation. There are four positions the Buddha discussed: Sitting, walking, standing and lying down.
One of the simplest definitions of meditation we are given is ‘to sit and know you are sitting.’ This comes directly from the Satipattana, the Buddha’s instructions on direct path to realization.
As we begin our seated meditation practice, we close our eyes or lower our gaze and focus our awareness on the felt sense of the body. One of the first things we may notice is where our posture is not supportive. Odd isn’t it? Because just a few seconds before, with eyes open, settling in, we had thought our posture was perfectly comfortable. Whatever happened in those few seconds of transition is the crux of the practice. Just that quickly we went from the habitual nature of mind into awareness of the reality of this moment. We set the intention to notice what is the experience of this moment, beginning with the body, anchored in the senses.
Right away we see that we are not dealing with lofty concepts but immediate direct experience. Less than a minute into it and we already have an insight into the nature of mind with this demonstration of the difference between ordinary habitual patterned mind and this quality of noticing, of being fully conscious, present. This is awareness. This is mindfulness.
The challenge is to expand the foundation of mindfulness so that it’s not just a glimpse but the vantage point of our lives, what the Buddha called Wise View. At first it may feel a bit like dancing on the head of a pin, getting a brief glimpse of mindfulness and then losing it just that quickly. But with practice we develop the ability to stay present more and more of the time. The tiny head of that pin expands with dedicated practice into a more substantial platform of awareness. We feel more stable in our practice. With intention and practice being present is our default position. We can dance here and maintain our balance.
That moment of transition into sitting with a felt sense of the body in a seated posture may lead to physical adjustments to assure a posture that is supportive of a 30 - 40 minute sit. Those of my students who sit on my living room’s cushy white couch have access to firmer cushions to bring the spine erect and sometimes more support to bring the pelvis higher than the knees. Those who sit in chairs sometimes need a thin cushion under their feet. And those who sit on a bench or zafu make adjustments to suit their own bodies. The goal is to bring the spine erect, to let the sitz bones and the spine support the body completely so that the muscles can fully relax. I sometimes offer the image of a popsicle stick (spine) and the melting ice cream (muscles) as an aid to find position.
Why so much focus on posture?
One of my dear students flatly refused to have anything to do with this erect posture. She would lounge in the couch the way she would if she were coming over for a cozy chat over tea, which she is welcome to do any time. But during meditation we have an intention that is supported by a posture that is erect but relaxed, because the longer we sit, the more important it is that our position be sustainable. She would have none of that! She would recline way back in the corner of the couch, leaning to the side with her head back and her feet up on the ottoman. We had conversations about why this wasn’t a supportive posture, but I was not going to force the proper posture on her when she was so resistant.
I was reminded of a story my teacher Anna Douglas, one of the co-founders of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, told about her own experience with sitting. Anna began her exploration of Buddhism in the Zen tradition, and in that tradition the specifications for sitting posture are very clearly delineated. She rebelled at these strict instructions. ‘Why do I have to hold my hands just so, or align this with that?’ She struggled and fought with the strictness of this posture, as my student would certainly have done had I been more forceful in my instruction. But Anna stayed with it, and eventually discovered for herself that the instructions for the posture were not arbitrary directives just to get students to conform. The postural directions are based on an understanding of how the body can be at ease while sitting in stillness.
Anna came home to the posture, and I trusted that my student would eventually discover for herself why the posture matters. And she did! Eventually, over the course of months, she began to sit up, began to discover for herself that an erect, balanced, supported posture matters, that although at first it sounds uncomfortable, actually it is the way to maintain comfort throughout the meditation. Her personal journey to the upright position was ultimately a much more rewarding one than if I had forced something onto her. We learn best from our own experience.
All my other students over the years have taken me at my word when I tell them an upright posture is beneficial. But it’s important always to remember that when sharing the wisdom of the dharma, including this second aspect of the First Foundation of Mindfulness, that the teacher offers guidance but the journey is uniquely our own.
Advanced practitioners will find their posture more readily with a sense of homecoming, but it is still important to bring the attention to the felt sense of the experience, to anchor in awareness of physical sensation. To sit and know we are sitting.
Most of the time in a class we do a sitting practice. On retreats we alternate sitting with walking practice. Walking practice is always available to us, and can be incorporated into some portion of our regular exercise routine to enrich it and bring our awareness into the present moment, anchored in physical sensation. If done before more vigorous exercise, that awareness can help to ensure we are fully present, making it a much richer experience, and a safer one for our bodies.
Again the primary instruction is to walk and know that we are walking. At first this will probably mean that we need to slow down considerably to sense into the movement, to feel the pressure of the foot as it touches the ground, the muscles in the leg as it raises up and sets down, noticing all aspects of physical sensation, internal and external.
This is all new to most of us. When we are walking we are usually either lost in thought or we are focused on our destination. Perhaps we notice things that happen within our field of vision -- a person, a vehicle, a bird -- usually moving things we are biologically compelled to notice to assess whether it is safe to proceed. Our senses might register things that are pleasant or unpleasant -- a pretty dress, a piece of litter, a favorite song, a jackhammer, the scent of jasmine or the stench of sewer smell, or a pain in a joint.
But we rarely if ever walk in a way that fully engages our sensory awareness, so that we feel the air on our skin, feel all our muscles in concert, feel fully present in our movement without regard to our destination. This is the gift of walking meditation.
Over the years attending retreats at Spirit Rock, it seemed that walking meditation was under-appreciated. Some retreatants would do it in a dedicated way, but many would do it half-heartedly, then stop and relax in the sunshine. Some would use those periods to return to their rooms to rest or take a hike in the hills. All okay, but the walking practice did get short shrift. Over the past few years there has been a burgeoning respect and appreciation for walking meditation. One teacher, Larry Yang, has really taken it on as his personal challenge to inspire this communal awakening to the rich and wondrous awareness experience of walking meditation. Now on retreats, the courtyard and the upper walking hall are full to the brim for the full period of walking meditation. The retreat experience is not just about sitting, and then time off from sitting. The retreat is a replete experience, where all aspects are done with awareness.
Students in my class are always welcome to do walking practice in the garden, and sometimes we all go out and do formal walking practice there. On our daylong retreats we always include dedicated periods of walking practice.
If there is a problem with the sitting practice, such as back problems or a tendency to fall asleep, it is recommended that the meditator practice standing. Again the practice is to stand and know that we are standing. We sense into the experience of standing. The posture is erect, the knees not locked, the feet at a balanced distance apart, and the tailbone is tucked slightly, just to assure the back isn’t over-arched. It should feel supportive and natural, not contrived. The eyes rest in a downward gaze. Closed eyes might cause balance problems.
Standing practice can be done instead of sitting practice, or one can add the idea of a standing practice to whenever we happen to be standing in line or waiting.
I am doing a presentation to a large group of public speakers, encouraging them to sense into their feet on the ground when they find their mind wandering. It is part 40 minute presentation on ‘Mindfulness tips for ease at the podium’ at a Toastmasters District Conference. The dharma has value in all aspects of life!
Most of us will do our final meditations in a lying down posture. Practice now! This is a valuable posture and if it is practiced less in formal training, it is only because of the tendency to fall asleep and space considerations in a group setting. Those of you who practice yoga are familiar with the final pose, savasana or corpse pose, which is a resting pose after a whole session of activity. The lying down meditation is more focused than the yoga pose and is less about resting and more about sensing in and being present with this position.
If neither sitting nor standing is possible due to illness or physical limitations, lying down is an excellent practice. It is not a second class practice but an intrinsic part of the Buddha’s teachings. You have no doubt seen statues of the Buddha lying down. He wasn’t ‘lying down on the job!’ He was being fully present in another totally valid posture. I emphasize this because sometimes when we are ill we might feel we can’t meditate. Not true!
If you feel you might fall asleep in this posture, then raise your knees and have your feet planted firmly on the floor. Remind yourself that you are not here to sleep, reset your intention to be present, and if you get drowsy raise your arms and lower them in a slow steady rhythm.
If you are trying to go to sleep, then get as comfortable as possible and focus on the breath, the rhythmic rise and fall of the belly, allowing it to soften, soften, soften...ah.
These four positions -- sitting, walking, standing, lying down -- are all appropriate for the practice of meditation. When we can carry awareness ‘off the cushion’ then we are able to more effectively carry it into our lives. As we do this, we bring awareness into all our activities, all our postures. We are fully awake and alive in this body. This is fully inhabiting the experience of this gift of life. Further, being present with the body, we make wiser decisions. When we feel the muscles as we exercise, we work them but don’t overwork them. We respond to the body’s need to move rather than mentally overriding the body’s own systems for self-maintenance. We can see how this applies in all areas of loving awareness of the body. Where are we not in sync with the body? That’s where we are not in the present moment, anchored into the felt sense of being alive in a human body.
I remember one time having dinner with friends at a restaurant and I was returning to the table from the restroom along a long aisle between tables where other diners were enjoying their meal. Though there was nothing particularly momentous about that moment, for some reason I felt more in my body than usual. I was fully present with the sensations of my body moving through space. I was fully present with the light and shadow, the color and texture of all that I could see. I was fully present with the sounds of talk and laughter, of platters and kitchen sounds; I was fully present with the smell of the food. And I was fully present with the feel of my feet on the ground, my leg muscles, the feel of my clothing on my skin. I felt fully incorporated, fully sensate, fully one with the experience just as it was, without any sense of destination.That moment was even more delicious than the meal because I was more fully present to enjoy it! There are no ‘ordinary’ moments, just ones in which we aren’t fully present.
So that’s what I wish for each of us: That we may come home to awareness of being here in each moment.