Saturday, November 3, 2012

Finding stability for sitting meditation Part 2: The evolution of a comfortable position: my personal journey

When I first started meditating I used a low bench I built. It was simple, portable and just high and wide enough that I could sneak my feet back under it and settle on its sloping top board. The angle of slope helped me hold my head and torso upright easily. I folded my hands in front of my waist. I don't think this bench was even padded, but it felt pretty good, at least for short periods. By spreading my knees some I formed a sort of triangle between my butt and knees. I was stable to a point, but not really. I needed to actively engage a few muscles to keep myself from falling to either side, forward and backward. It worked passably well given that I didn't have much to compare it with except sitting cross legged directly on the floor (which didn't really work well at all) or sitting in a chair which seemed too ordinary to serve the pursuit of a state of deep meditation and wasn't stable except when I slouched. So either I was fighting to stay erect seated directly on the floor or fighting to stay alert when slumped in a chair.

After several years and after the bench got left behind during a nomadic move, In my next home I decided I wanted to begin to sit cross legged, but on a cushion. I was ready to explore all the variations of seated postures I had read about in yoga and meditation articles.  Always fairly flexible and recently even more so due to regular yoga practice, I could experiment with half lotus, full lotus, Burmese posture with one foot tucked behind and one in front or both tucked behind sort of like sitting on your haunches while supported from below. 

In the end I adopted a simple posture with my left foot pulled in close to my torso and my right placed on the blanket out in front of the first. The knee of my left leg cooperated nicely by folding inward completely and coming to rest on the blanket I put under my cushion. My right knee, the one farther out, didn't have enough flexibility to settle do this and after a few minutes got sore from the subtle twist put on it.  I also noticed the unsupported knee gave rise to tension in my thigh as the muscles automatically became engaged holding it aloft. I began placing a rolled up towel under my knee to lift it just a hair above where it was when unsupported. The pain and distraction disappeared immediately. Supporting this knee at its level of comfort was truly necessary if finding stability and lasting comfort was ever going to be an option.

Things evolve no matter what. So in another few years down the road I am now sitting on a lower cushion I made for myself.  I now draw my left foot in snug to my torso and then lift my right foot up and gently place it on top of my left.  The heel of the top foot nestles nicely into the upturned arch of the lower one. So simple.... and so stable!  

Friday, November 2, 2012

Finding stability for sitting meditation: Part 1

We all want to find a way to be stable and comfortable while we sit in meditation, just like we do when we sit at our desk or when we watch an athletic event or sit on the grass at an open-air concert. In sitting meditation it is especially important to find that place of dynamic stillness when we meditate. In stillness, movement… in movement, stillness.

What does it feel like to be very relaxed and very stable? How do we bring it about on a repeatable basis so we can go there almost at will and not take forever in the process? 

First attend to the external factors.  Are we warm enough? Are the clothes we're wearing loose, comfortable and not restricting us in any way? Have we opened up this small block of time free of interruption (did I put the cat out?). Are we hungry or thirsty? What other things might get in the way for you? Take a moment to notice what they are. Make a note to come back to them after meditating. Often really important tasks and deadlines I have forgotten about will pop into my head as soon as I quiet down. After all of these external factors have been taken care of, you can turn your focus to your posture and balance.

The saints and sages sought to effectively exit their bodies and go into the realm of consciousness so completely that the physical self was left behind to care for itself in many ways. The postures they adopted rely heavily on triangles for the stability they needed. Sitting cross-legged creates several triangles that connect to form a tetrahedron.

This is easy to see if you sit with your hands resting on your knees. Lateral triangles magically appear from the shoulders down the arms to the knees and back along the thighs to the upright torso, when you do this. Any tendency to collapse to the side is arrested, as is falling forward.  If you sit towards the front edge of a cushion with one foot drawn in close to your body and the other placed on top of it or in front, then your knees and calves are touching the floor and forming a stable base.  

Your head and torso are in now an effortless neutral. Leaning very slightly forward before lengthening upward is one way to find this.  Let your breathing take you there. When your breath is free to flow fully in and out as your chest and torso rise and fall with each cycle. You have taken your seat... so simple.

In the end all this is about supporting the breath. Finding dynamic stillness where we inhabit our physical body so it that it seems to disappear and become a minimal focus. Then we are free to open to primary awareness and explore other fields of consciousness.