Most standard instruction in meditation begins with the posture. Nevertheless, we should not make the mistake of thinking that there is something rigid or fixed about what the posture is. For example, Buddha statues demonstrate sitting cross-legged, but these days many people practice meditation on a bench or in a chair. We should practice our meditation in a way that works not for some abstract or ideal body, but our particular body.
Inner Meditation Posture
Although you can hear instruction about meditation posture, the real source of posture comes from inside, from the sensation and awareness of actually doing it. By coming to our posture again and again, week after week and year after year, this “inner” instruction and guidance slowly emerges.
In the end, posture is just you. But who and what is “you?”
This is posture in its deeper sense–an inquiry that begins with the sensations of the seated, balanced body, an inquiry that grows and develops, and never ends.
The first thing to say about meditation posture is that the structure of the human body is non–random. We have two legs, two arms, eyes, nose, and so on. It’s quite particular. The teachings about meditation posture are the distillation of thousands of years of meditator experimentation with this non–random thing called the body.
At the same time, meditation posture is not a gymnastic exercise in erectness. It’s a crucible for transformation. It’s not only about your physical body but some deeper or subtler body, the body of your awareness—”awareness–body,” maybe. And this awareness–body sits in the center of everything, in all directions––three hundred sixty degrees.
So we don’t lean one way or the other; we don’t favor one direction over another.
You’re in the center, literally and metaphorically.
Best Position for Seated Meditation
Let’s try it now, however you are sitting–on the floor or in a chair.
- First lean back, look up at the ceiling and then feel how that feels.
- Now try leaning forward so you’re looking at the floor.
- Close your eyes and slowly bring your body back to the center. Now open your eyes. Each way feels different, doesn’t it? Each direction of leaning has its own feeling, its own preference. And sitting without leaning has its feeling too. Developing sensitivity to these feelings is what we’re interested in. Inner posture is about developing the subtlety of that feeling.
Head Position for Meditating
Let’s try the same experiment just with your head.
- Close your eyes, and lift your chin as high as is comfortable. Now just feel that feeling for a moment with your head way in the air.
- Now let your head fall so your chin is nearly on your chest.
- Now, keeping your eyes closed, lift your chin slowly and sense the absolute balance point, where your head is not leaning either forward or back.
- You can move the chin up and down a little bit to adjust and find the exact spot where the head is perfectly balanced. You should be able to feel some energy or sensation in the top of your head.
Now slowly let your eyes open. How does that feel? Is that different than the way you’re used to holding your head?
This is an important point because when your head is some other way––particularly when it’s inclined forward—it typically means your mind is involved in thinking.
Every time you start meditation, it’s not a bad idea to do what we just did: lean forward, lean back, close your eyes, let your chin rise and fall, and find that center point; then let your eyes open. Don’t sit habitually; instead follow the inner feeling of balance, the sensation being in the center. In this balanced, centered posture you can relax your conditioning, your history, your sense of who you think you are. It all begins to attenuate and soften, so some other kind of experience can emerge.
Open or Closed Eyes?
The next important point is what we do with our eyes. When we open our eyes fully and look out, we see the outer world of engagement and distraction. When we fully close our eyes we leave that world behind and enter a state of sleep, dream, or trance, where we’re not connected to outside stimuli anymore.
Sitting with the eyes half-open is a compromise approach. We neither open the eyes all the way, nor close them all the way. There’s a quality of being in the center, in the middle.
- Start with eyes closed. Now, very slowly, let the eyes open. Light comes in. Let your eyes open enough to see vague shapes. The feeling combines how it is when the eyes are closed, and the visual stimulation of the eyes open.This is sometimes called the “soft gaze”: you’re seeing but you’re not looking.
- Now suddenly, let your eyes open wide, so you can see everything. Do you see the difference? That’s looking.
Close the eyes: that’s withdrawal inward.
Let the eyes open again halfway: that’s seeing but not looking.
Sitting with the eyes open reflects a compromise approach to looking and seeing. This approach balances two things: remaining connected to the world, and being receptive to innerness and the light of wisdom.
Meditation Hand Positions
The last aspect of posture I want to mention is the position of the hands. The hand position I am going to describe is traditional in Buddhist meditation. It is not the only way to position the hands, but it is a good way.
- Rest the right hand palm up in your lap, making sure that your wrist or lower arm is supported against your thigh.
- The fingers of the left hand rest palm up on top of the fingers of the left hand. To be precise, the middle joint of the middle finger of the left hand is over the middle joint of the same finger of the right hand.
- Now let the tips of the thumbs touch very lightly in a straight line. Concentrate on the sensation in the tips of your thumbs. Can you feel the subtle connection there? There’s actually a flow of energy through your thumbs. The inner practice of posture has to do with becoming sensitive to subtle sensations like this.
- Now let’s disturb that subtlety. Press your thumbs together hard and feel the disturbance, or the roughness, of that energy. That is the position of cogitating, of being disturbed or agitated. It’s like a lawnmower in your mind.
- Now, let that energy release and come back to a very slight touching of the thumbs. You might rub them together a little bit to feel their connection. Now let them separate and droop down toward your palms. I think you all know what this means: it is the posture of being sleepy.
You can see that just as with the spine, the neck, the head, the eyes, the thumbs—it’s all the same principle, that of balance, or centeredness. Every aspect of your body comes to rest in the center—of you, of everything, of the universe. Meditation practice is deeply connected to the body, so these precise and subtle details of posture have to do with bringing the mind and body into complete harmony.