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Posture: Sitting like Vairocana

May 2, 2012

The basic method for taming our hyperactive monkey mind is to bring our awareness to our body and breath.  When we do this, we notice that the state of our body and breathing affect our mental state and that our mental state affects our body and our breathing. Since this is the case, if we want to tame our monkey mind, it’s important that we use our body in a way that helps the taming process. This is why posture is important in meditation.

Good posture is natural and easy.

Many of us are confused about  posture.  We may believe that “good” posture takes a lot of effort; that it needs to be “held”; that it isn’t comfortable. This is not the case; just the opposite is true: good posture takes little effort, is comfortable, and allows for movement.  Good posture is not “held” or rigid. Good posture is natural.  In a good posture, your body is not rigid and tense, nor flaccid and collapsing. It is alert and alive; mobile, yet grounded — attributes we’d like to encourage in our mind as well.

This is not good posture.

Traditionally,  there are four postures recommended for meditation: walking, standing, sitting, and lying down (See, for instance, the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta).  In this post, we’ll discuss the sitting posture of meditation, since it is the posture most frequently used for meditation, and since it is the posture traditinonally used by the Kagyü  lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, which is the lineage to which the Bad Lama belongs.  Other lineages may emphasize different postures — for instance, Taoism and its related martial arts often employ standing meditation, and  B. Alan Wallace, in his book Minding Closely: The Four Applications of Mindfulness, advocates lying down while practicing meditation.

We have noticed that when we try to just sit, we meet mental obstacles of our own creation that get in the way of our sitting.  (See the post Enter the Monkey for more on that.) Meditation techniques help us to recognize those obstacles and to let them go.  In the same way, when we sit down on the cushion, we meet physical obstacles of our own creation that get in the way of our sitting.  Just as we can learn to release mental obstacles, we can learn to release physical obstacles to sitting.  Postural techniques can therefore be understood not as something extra that we need to do, but rather as a means of doing less; of letting go of unhelpful physical habits and of recovering our natural physical uprightness and ease.

Within the Kagyü  lineage, there is is a traditional teaching called the seven-point posture of Vairocana  that helps us discover and release physical habits that interfere with our sitting. It’s very nicely described by  Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche in his book, The Joy of Living.

Vairocana demonstrates the posture.

Here are the seven points, as summarized by Mingyur Rinpoche:

  1. Create a stable base by sitting with your legs crossed
  2. Place your hands in your lap, palms up, one palm on top of the other or palms down on your knees.
  3. Allow for a bit of space between your upper arms and torso
  4. Keep your spine straight
  5. Allow the weight of your head to rest evenly on the top joint of your spine
  6. Allow your mouth to rest with your lips and teeth slightly parted
  7. Leave your eyes open and your gaze slightly down

As an aide to those who have difficulty keeping that many points in mind, Mingyur Rinpoche summarizes the seven points into two:

  1. Keep your spine straight
  2. Relax everything else.

The Bad Lama has his own three-point posture:

  1. Allow your lower body (legs and pelvis) to be  heavy, like a rock, never separated from the earth.
  2. Allow your torso to be  light,  like a balloon. It is so  movable that you could almost fly!  Allow it to move like a tent in a breeze.
  3. Allow your head to be  is even lighter and more insubstantial, like a rainbow.

When you begin your sitting practice, you can check your posture using these techniques.  Adjust yourself as necessary.  Then let go of the postural corrections and just sit.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff Shaw permalink
    May 7, 2012 1:47 am

    Meditation posture has long been an issue in my practice. A lot of it has to do with a story that I’ve always told myself that “I have bad posture.” So, I used to always begin my meditations with the presupposition that “until I correct my natural posture, meditation is going to hurt.” Luckily, in recent months, I have let this story go and the quality of my meditation practice as improved tremendously as a result.

    It may be true that my posture could use a little improvement, but I have learned that by implementing the “seven points” I can now sit for much longer periods of time without experiencing pain, regardless of my perceived improper posture. Over the years, I have learned different postures for meditation that did not allow me to sit comfortably for more than five minutes at a time, and this discouraged me from sitting for quite some time. It is so wonderful to have finally discovered a meditation posture that is comfortable for me!

    This experience of the condition of the body directly reflecting the condition of the mind during meditation is very interesting to me. It is great reminder that body and mind truly are inseparable; something that pays to remember. When you understand that your mind affects your body, and vice versa, it seems absurd not to watch what you think and eat. I think if people understood more fully that it is stress and poor diet (primarily) which cause the most common deadly disease, they might make other choices. You can choose what you think, and you can choose what you eat!

    Thank you for the post on the importance of posture. It’s always important to remember the connection of mind and body.

    -Jeff

  2. November 8, 2012 5:14 pm

    In my own practice, I have found this teaching and focus on posture SO key in furthering my development as a meditator. I think this is the first thing any meditator should learn. For a long time, I used to meditate on my back because the pain would get too intense when I would sit. Since then and since focusing on improving my posture, I have become much more comfortable sitting. Though I occasionally adjust or press the pressure points in my back to release tension, I can now sit for longer periods of time, and I love it. I definitely feel like Mingyur Rinpoche’s steps are a bit excessive, though that doesn’t take away from their merit. His instructions are certainly spot-on, but they are so extensive that I’m fairly certain most people won’t remember them. His two points work, too, but they are also vague. I find where I think “relax everything,” I sometimes end up slouching and having bad posture while meditating, which can cause a great deal of pain. I think Lama Tenpa’s three-point posture is extremely effective, and I’d love to see it emphasized and taught more. If I ever instruct meditation, I will definitely share it. I think the metaphors are very effective for remembering. Sometimes, when getting ready to sit, I will come back to his instructions. For the torso, however, I now think about it more like some kind of reed or stem drifting lightly through the wind. After talking to Tom about my stiffness and back pain, I came to see the torso and moving very naturally. I see that a balloon may be a good analogy because of the lungs or something, but I definitely personally equate a reed/stem with the spine. I also like that it seems to go better with the nature-type theme. And I do picture my head as a rainbow. I think that is so endearing, haha.

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  1. Posture: Sitting and Breathing « The Bad Lama's Guide to Meditation

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