Many teachers encourage us to begin meditation practice with awareness of the body. The body is familiar and accessible, so maintaining an awareness of what’s happening there can be a primary gateway to other realms of experience.
When I first started my meditation practice, I decided to sit on the floor in a cross-legged position. I liked the idea of a floor seat. It seemed simple and minimal, even humble. But after the first two minutes of sitting, it was clear that the body did not appreciate this meditation seat. The knees sent sharp, shooting pains into the hips. The shoulders rounded and the upper body tipped forward, which put intolerable pressure on the lower back. Sitting up straight was also very difficult. I wasn’t able to concentrate on the breath because the pain was distracting. After a few minutes, I uncrossed the legs and sat back in a huff.
Some teachings suggest that the mind is located in the head as well as the heart, and even throughout the body. Pain in the body often feels like tension, waves of tightness that come and go (in the form of cramping), or compression. There can also be a general sensation that feels like a lack of space in the center of the chest or in the throat. In my practice, I’ve discovered that it’s only after I relieve the tightness in the body that I can begin to detect space in the mind and heart. In order to do this and build a sustainable meditation practice, I first recommend evaluating your initial choice of seat, and then choosing a meditation seat that the body prefers.
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When I started deconstructing my own experience, it soon became clear that first I needed to have a better understanding of my relationship with pain. When I felt aches during the first few minutes of sitting cross-legged on the floor, my reaction was denial. I’ll ignore the pain, I thought, and continued to sit with the legs crossed. I also hoped the pain would fade on its own, so I tried dismissing the messages that the body was sending. When the pain intensified, I felt angry. Very angry. The body’s refusal to cooperate with me filled me with rage. My last reaction was surrender. I gave up. I stopped my practice, stood up, walked to the kitchen, and ate some Triscuits.
I repeated this process for some time, assuming that this was the way it would have to be. I accepted the pain I experienced as an inevitable reality and, as a result, my meditation experience felt quite limited.
After several weeks, I talked to a yoga teacher and friend about the pain I was feeling. I learned that not everyone is capable of sitting cross-legged on the floor—especially people who regularly feel tension in the knees or hips. A cross-legged seat may also be difficult for people who, after taking this seat, discover that the knees are elevated higher than the hips. She told me there are other ways to sit and encouraged me to experiment and choose a position that felt the most comfortable.
She also introduced me to a helpful motto: make it nice. Create environments for meditation that feel comfortable and supportive. She meticulously built what I called a “meditation throne”—an elaborate floor seat padded with 10 thick blankets and several plush cushions. When I sat on the blankets, my crossed legs and knees well supported with cozy fabric, I felt like a meditation queen wrapped in luxury. Compared to the bare hardwood floor of my apartment, this setup felt extravagant and lush. I discovered that I was able to sit much longer with the support of the blankets than without.
While this was a setup I could recreate at home, it didn’t feel like something I could commit to building on a daily basis. The idea of comfort stuck with me, though, and in the light of my teacher’s gentle approach, my process of sitting painfully on the hardwood floor and berating myself suddenly seemed harsh and unforgiving. I needed to give myself more support. The pain I felt was sending me messages about the body’s limitations that were genuine and real. If I honored those signals and chose comfort, perhaps the relaxed body could also help me uncover insights about myself.
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I decided to try sitting in a chair. I chose a well-balanced chair with a tall back and a small cushion on the seat. I dressed in loose clothing and wore cozy, thick socks to keep my feet warm. I sat upright, pulled my chest forward, and placed both feet flat on the ground. I turned my palms face-up and rested my hands on my thighs.
I closed my eyes and started to scan the body. In that position, the hips and knees were completely relaxed. With the chair supporting my upright posture, the chest felt expansive. The breath was smooth and uncompromised, and I was able to sit comfortably for the duration of my practice. After a few more sessions in this setup, it was clear that this was the seat for my body. I’ve been meditating in a chair ever since.
Pema Chödrön has said that it is a gesture of enormous bravery to sit up with an open front. For a long time I thought being brave meant fighting through pain and beating it down without mercy. Perhaps meditation takes a different kind of courage, one that requires us to seek out support, accept it, and practice sitting up tall in the face of our own experience, uncertain as it may be. In my own practice, this means providing the body with enough support so it feels comfortable and spacious. When we discover this kind of space, I believe our meditation experience can also expand to include and accommodate whatever might occur.
[This story was first published in 2016]