In the Buddhist tradition, mind and body are considered interdependent facets of our experience. A relaxed body helps relax the mind. The traditional meditation posture is designed to create a supportive physical structure for your awareness practice.
Many people experience some physical discomfort when they first begin sitting meditation. This is due partly to the unfamiliarity of the posture, and partly to the practice of awareness revealing more deeply held tension. We recommend that you sit comfortably and experiment until you find the posture that best supports your clarity and mindfulness.
If you sit on a chair, try not to lean your back against the backrest. Keep your spine as erect as possible without straining; your feet should be flat on the floor in front of you. Traditionally, Buddhist meditators have used a seven-point system to help them develop an optimal sitting posture on a cushion:
Cross your legs loosely in front of you, just at or above the ankles. Your knees should be lower than your hips and on the ground. If your legs go to sleep during meditation, try crossing them the other way around—you can sit with one leg in front of the other without crossing them at all. You can also kneel, turning your cushion on its side and placing it between your thighs and calves.
Let your arms hang loosely at your sides. Now bend your elbows, and let your hands fall naturally onto your thighs. Don’t use your arms to support the weight of your torso, or “hang on” to your knees to keep from falling backward. Some meditators prefer the so-called “cosmic mudra,” a gesture that is formed by cupping your right hand in your left, palms up, with the second knuckles of your right hand roughly aligned with the first knuckles of your left. The tips of your thumbs should just barely touch one another, forming a triangle with your hands. If you’re feeling sleepy, it can be helpful to keep your thumbs slightly apart, so that they warn you of an imminent nap attack by colliding with each other. In this mudra, your hands are resting loosely in your lap, close to your belly.
How you hold your back is the most important element of your meditation posture. Imagine that your vertebrae are coins piled on top of one another. Let your back find its natural erectness; don’t strain. You’ll find that the innate concave curvature at the small of your back helps to support your weight. As one teacher has suggested, “Imagine that your spine is a strong oak tree. Now lean against it.” Experiment with tipping your pelvis slightly forward and back to help find the natural curve of your spine.
Let your eyelids fall closed without squeezing them shut. If you find yourself dozing off, open your eyes slightly and let your gaze drop to the ground about six feet in front of you. Resist the temptation to let your eyes glaze—but at the same time, don’t focus fiercely on whatever’s in your field of vision. Let your gaze be soft.
Relax your jaw and mouth, with your teeth slightly apart. It’s said that your lips should be parted enough to admit a grain of rice.
Let the tip of your tongue rest behind your upper front teeth. This reduces the flow of saliva, and hence the urge to swallow.
7. head and shoulders
When you first take your seat, position your head by gazing levelly in front of you. You’ll find that this drops your neck very slightly forward. When you close your eyes, maintain this position. Be aware of your shoulders, and keep them relaxed.
Many of the teachings included in this program have been adapted from Insight Meditation: A Step-by-Step Course on How to Meditate, with Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, an interactive learning program from Sounds True.
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