The Integral Posture of Meditation
“You should not be tilted sideways, backwards, or forwards. You should be sitting straight up as if you were supporting the sky with your head… It is a perfect expression of your Buddha nature. If you want true understanding of Buddhism, you should practice this way. When you have this posture, you have the right state of mind, so there is no need to try to attain some special state.”- Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
The Zen tradition is peppered with instructions for the sitting posture going all the way back to the Buddha. Dogen called correct posture of “primary importance” and Daichi Sokei more eloquently wrote, “If someone should ask you what true Zen is, you don’t need to open your mouth. Instead demonstrate the aspects of zazen posture. Then, spring breezes will gently coax the marvelous flowers of the plum tree to blossom”.
The Buddha gave very simple posture instruction- sit cross-legged with a straight back. But here is something to consider; unless we directly know what correct posture is through trial and error and our own felt experience, it is unlikely that we’ve found it. It doesn’t usually just happen. Think of it like your relationship to enlightenment; better to be humble and open to a surprising insight than to assume a posture of stubbornness or arrogance!
One major integral addition we could consider since the days of traditional Buddhism is that before we became so highly cognitively, emotionally and technologically developed, we mostly sat on the earth in everyday life. We had a strong sense of the “down” and it was uncomfortable to sit out of alignment so most people would easily, even unconsciously, exhibit a straight, relaxed back. Since then, we’ve seen 2-3 major evolutionary shifts in ego development which means much more “up” complexity to consider in the body-mind. Many of the pathologies in the “up” of higher development pull us away from the earth which, in shorthand, we call “disembodiment”. Awareness of posture, especially revisiting the “down” can help mitigate and integrate these pathologies as we experience pure awareness as fully embodied.
It is not only true that, as Suzuki Roshi wrote “when you have this posture, you have the right state of mind” as an expression of enlightenment, but your posture can teach you much about where you are not living your enlightenment in all stages of your development. One major advantage of straightening and relaxing your spine through a felt sense is that when experimenting with your posture you can find habit energy contractions in your body and release them up the spine, or out the lower half of your body, much more efficiently. If you are unwittingly sitting the same way each time you practice zazen, you are likely covering your developmental vulnerabilities; a gentle but continuous practice of lengthening, feeling and relaxing your spine will assist in breaking the rehearsal of these unconscious patterns of your ego activity.
Here’s an example. Recently, I noticed an almost undetectable rounding in a student’s spine directly behind her heart. As far as she was concerned she was sitting with a “straight back” and she was experiencing no discomfort. I directed her to find more length in the vertebrae I was touching behind her heart and in her initial response she reported awkwardness, vulnerability, and a “do not go zone”. A day later she’d processed intense hidden grief followed by joy from releasing it. A good posture will sometimes not initially please us but it will feel correct and subtly accurate.
Here is a link to a “yoga for sitting” protocol which I recommend practicing before the first sit of everyday: https://youtu.be/6Gl9nOkRU-c. It which was gifted to our lineage by the remarkable transmission based hatha yoga master, Sofia Diaz. Sofia has tremendous regard for the Zen tradition and has noted that in the modern and postmodern technological world, embodiment is not optional. And she directs attention to our habit energy which tends to reveal itself in the front of our bodies and can be transmuted by lengthening and relaxing our spines directly behind those areas of tension.
Resources informing this article and highly recommended for further study:
Sofia Diaz, Real Yoga video series found online on Integral Life.
Will Johnson, The Posture of Meditation.
Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind