I teach meditation at a prison. Depending on how long they’ve been in the system, some of the guys come with a good deal of meditation experience. They’re the ones who stride into the room, remove their shoes, and sit cross-legged on the floor.
The newbies come in and look confused. That’s because I always set up the space with a mixture of chairs and meditation cushions. I sit on a chair. Some of the experienced guys are sitting on the floor. My teaching partner, if he’s there with me, is sitting on a cushion, bare-footed, in his black cotton priest clothing and shaved head.
My teaching partner — a Buddhist priest — teaches and practices a formal meditation form that involves sitting on the floor, shoes off, hands clasped over the lower abdomen.
I come from a different, more casual tradition in the mindfulness and recovery world. We sit [almost] any way we’d like.
The beloved meditation teacher Jack Kornfield often tells his students that there’s no need to sit in a weird way, because we’re all weird enough already.
I like to share that with my students at the prison.
And then I tell them this:
Sit in a way that keeps your spine erect. Imagine your spine and ribs as a scaffold; let them be your structure. And then let the body relax around the upright spine.
Often, formal meditation postures are primarily a means of keeping the meditator from falling asleep. I’ll tell you, though, I’ve seen people fall asleep and wobble right over into their own laps while they sat cross-legged on a meditation cushion. Sleep happens.
Numb feet and crackling knee joints are a serious disincentive to continuing your meditation practice, so if the formal seated posture is a challenge for you, forget about it.
Less formal seating has the added advantage of being doable anywhere: on the train, in the doctor’s waiting room, at your desk. It’s important to develop a practice that can go everywhere you go.
So here’s my advice:
- Sit upright, with your chest and shoulders open.
- Fold your hands in your lap or rest your open hands on your thighs.
- Keep your spine erect and find a balanced point where it takes minimal muscle energy to maintain the posture. Take a few moments to experiment and you’ll see that there’s a happy, neutral point where the spine is stacked easily, without the need to work at keeping yourself from tilting in any direction.
- Once you’ve established your trusty scaffold, allow the rest of the body to relax around it.
You’ll notice that this keeps you alert, upright, and relaxed. And if you don’t have to fold your barefooted self onto the floor of the transit mall, it definitely helps you not look weird. We’re all weird enough. Life itself is weird enough. Meditation is the refuge from it all. Let it be immensely doable.