Staying awake – clearly, in order to know about one’s experience it helps to stay awake. Meditation is about witnessing our experiencing. Being alert in a seated meditation posture obviously helps. However, there are times, many times, when our bodies need full rest so we lie down. My students are always welcome to sit or lie down in any part of the sessions as their bodies require. Sometimes, entering that feeling of deep relaxation or half sleep is also exactly what people need to have a real break from difficult thoughts, emotions and physical pain and in those times lying down can be ideal.
Feeling the stillness – when we lie down our body and psyche know rest is intended and therefore we can be triggered into sleep. Yes, in lying down we can let the whole body settle onto the floor and let go. But perhaps letting go is only part of the story. In sitting meditation, we can gain strength, purpose, resolve, energy, and grounding through the position of our upright spine in particular. On a physical level, with each in-breath we can adjust and lengthen our spine slightly, and with the out-breath then settle into a grounded posture. Through physical positioning we find and express ways to be with ourselves emotionally, including stillness through our own resolve and focus. As the Buddhist saying goes, “soft front, strong back” – we can feel the spine supporting us and we remain strong, while open and vulnerable at the front of the heart space. This is no easy task, but so worth the practice.
Discomfort as the focus – we, and that is every one of us, are not always comfortable with discomfort. The discomfort might come in the form of thoughts, physical aches and pains, feelings, new knowledge and aspects of ourselves that we’d prefer remain hidden. When we sit down and move into seated stillness there can be many distractions, discomforts and challenges and we can use all of them in meditation. When we meditate and physical discomfort arises we can bring further focus to the area and our responses to pain can often transform in some way. Likewise, uncomfortable thoughts that we tend to push away at other times only grow if we deny them. In meditation we can process some of our own shadow by being aware when difficult thoughts arise and greet them with friendliness and compassion, or at least, less reactivity. Meditation allows our body systems to slow down and in this way provides more safety to look into our thoughts and hearts with bravery.
Non-attachment to pleasure as well as discomfort – we meditate in order to know what is – in the present. And sometimes it is quite pleasurable physically. Usually, this is the parasympathetic body system bringing that stillness about through the slowing down of brain activity. It’s nice when we get all fuzzy and tingly, but the trap is then grasping for this in future sessions, and when this doesn’t happen according to our expected timelines we can get disappointed and give up. This is why I often say that there is no such thing as “a bad meditation” – in some sessions we might have more moments of stillness, and in others our mind or body might be putting up a riotous performance of disturbance. Either way, it is a blessing to know where we’re at from moment to moment if we are committed to knowing ourselves.
Some tips for seated meditation:
Which posture is best?
The best seated posture is often the one you are most comfortable in, not just during the meditation, but when you come out of meditation. For instance, if you find you have a sore neck when you come out of meditation, next time pay further attention to the position of your chin – it might need to be lower or raised, so the head and neck are fully supported by your trunk and legs. It can take quite some time to explore different sitting positions. I experimented with different alignment to suit my body over the two years of my yoga teacher training, and I still adjust and change positions when using cushions and blankets on the floor. In all my classes, chairs are available. Many older mediators use chairs and neither sitting on the floor or chair makes one more or less spiritual. But looking after your body and mind might.
So can I move a bit?
Again, putting up with extreme pain does not make us more spiritual but awareness of discomfort can be used as a focus of any meditation and it can help to resist moving position when each itch and twitch presents itself. Most of us have days full of small and large irritations and knowing how to be less reactive to these can be learnt by resisting similar restlessness in meditation.
In a longer meditation retreat I attended earlier this year, I was told to stay with the discomfort as it would be past life stuff coming up. Rather than worrying about possible past lives, I preferred to check my physical alignment, as sometimes slightly adjusting your seated position can relieve the pain and you can return to meditation with more focus. Making a physical adjustment briefly and consciously can be quite sensible, and of course, it is always about doing no harm to yourself, so any instruction from a teacher, including myself, is an offering for you to decide to integrate in a way that is right for you. Did I mention that great quote from Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind? “If you meet the (symbolic) Buddha on the road, (metaphorically) shoot him”. In other words, use your own discrimination about what works safely for you as this is what meditation is all about, after all. And developing your own practice can be the best motivator.
So which technique works the best in seated meditation?
If you are finding it hard to sit in meditation, it might be that some practices will work better for you than others. For instance, people who are naturally kinaesthetic learners often enjoy practices that involve mentally scanning through parts of the body and noticing physical sensations. Others might become more settled through focusing on the natural sounds around them, or a mantra or music. Visually-inclined people might choose to explore an imaginative landscape of their own. I particularly enjoy a practice called Antar Mouna, which involves consciously watching your own thoughts and their interconnected patterns. And of course, watching your breath is the go-to-practice, especially if intense feelings or thoughts do bubble up.
Finally, if you find seated meditation is not your preferred option, most styles of meditation practice can of course be done lying down, or even standing up or walking. The main ingredient is to develop the witness. When we witness we gain the space to take a step back, and as we lesson our reactivity we can be more with our joy, compassion and whatever else presents itself through life.
© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications