The Buddha said that our body is like a cup, our mind like water. When the cup is still, the water is still. When the cup moves, the water moves. Quieting the body supports our efforts to work with quieting our minds. This would suggest that posture is the first important step in learning how to meditate.
When I teach my introduction to meditation class, one of the recommendations I give to students is to find a spot to call your own for meditation. While it can be helpful, we don’t want to find ourselves attached to “the perfect meditation spot” because when we are not near that spot, we’ll only use that as a distraction or an excuse not to meditate in the end. I dive deeper into tips and basic how-tos in my Meditations for Beginners Course. Click HERE to find out more.
I learned how to meditate with Deepak Chopra, world-renowned spiritual and meditation teacher. One of the things he used to say to us as students was that we could meditate anywhere on earth; be it Grand Central Station during rush hour or next to a babbling brook at sunrise. Essentially, the teaching is to work with whatever situation you are in. The essential point is to work with your mind. Anything else, favorable or not, can be used as part of your practice.
The biggest support for working with our minds in meditation is our body, not an external location. Generally, I don’t think most of us are sensitive to how much our body can support our mind in meditation.
There’s a classic set of guidelines called the Seven-Point Posture. These guidelines stabilize the body, create a foundational support for your mind and bring alignment to the energy channels that run up our spine and help our mind remain alert, open and relaxed. Each of the following suggestions are designed to help you create a sense of strength and courage:
If you are sitting on the floor or on a meditation cushion, you can attempt what is known as the full-lotus posture which provides the most stable base. Left foot resting on the right thigh while the right foot rests on the left thigh. This is a tricky posture so most meditators use the half-lotus posture, with just one foot resting on the opposite thigh. Either way, the posture will support your back and help counteract any restlessness in your body and mind. Keep in mind, sitting in either posture shouldn’t be considered the “right way” to meditate and there’s no competition with others.
Intention and sincerity are more important than posture. Just experiment with sincere intention and do the best you can. Or, sit in a chair!
The hands usually rest in the lap with one hand under the other, palms facing up. In the formal position, the thumbs just slightly touch forming an oval-shaped mudra. Your hands can also be placed palms down on your knees.
Leave a little bit of space between your upper arms and the sides of your torso. (Imagine a golf ball a few inches below your armpit). This helps keep the chest open and expansive. In Tibetan culture, this posture is called “holding arms like the wings of a vulture.” What’s most important in this posture is to give your chest maximum breathing room and not restrict in any way so don’t spread your wings too far away from your body so it looks like you might take flight!
Keeping your back straight is most important. If you allow your back to slump, your chest will cave in and contribute to a slumped mental state. When our backs are slumped over, the channels of our body become blocked which creates restlessness and discomfort. On the flip side, you don’t want to force yourself into a perfectly straight line. (The Tibetans say, “Do not sit as if you swallowed a yardstick” ) Since we are all different, the idea of a straight spine is your personal position for perfect balance.
Neck and Head
Considering that our minds often vacillate between agitation and dullness during meditation, if we allow our head to fall too far forward, the result will be sleepiness. If the chin is jutting out, it generally indicates that there’s a bit too much thinking or mental agitation going on. If you’re able to find the right physical balance in your body, it will help you counter these tendencies of your mind.
Relax the muscles around your mouth and jaw. When you do, the upper and lower teeth and your lips tend to part slightly. This is a nice resting position for your mouth. I usually then allow the tip of my tongue to rest at the roof of my mouth just behind my front teeth.
Some meditation traditions suggest closing your eyes. I typically practice in this way and teach my students likewise as it is the easiest way to eliminate distraction, especially for new meditators.
As you deepen your meditation practice though, you will want to work with your mind in all circumstances and situations. With that in mind, experiment with keeping your eyes open to aid in integrating your practice with everyday activities.
A few tips: When you blink, just blink. Trying to control your blinking only creates tension.
The gaze can be one of three ways: looking forward onto the floor about two or three feet, looking forward like you would naturally or slightly raise your gaze as you look forward. Try these different gazes intermittently so you can revitalize your practice. Using only one of the eye positions for a long time may become boring or tiring.
Find a position that you can hold for a least twenty minutes without moving. If you have to work up to this, that’s not a problem. Hold the position for one or five minutes and slowly work up to it, adding one minute a day to your practice. Remember that committing to holding your posture for one minute far outweighs the benefits of trying to do so for twenty minutes of mental wiggling!
Start with a little body scan “check in” as you settle in. Scan each part of your body for tension; shoulders, neck, hands, jaw. Release the tension. If you can, try to relax 100% but keep in mind that more important than a relaxed body is a relaxed mind. Just do your best with your posture and relax
Remember, these are ancient and time-tested suggestions to support you in learning how to work with your mind. But, while you can’t afford to overlook these traditional aids, your goal is not to sit in meditation like a marble buddha. Do what works best for you. Practice to find the posture that works best to quiet your mind.