The Meditation Posture
In Tibet, this is known as the 7-point posture of Vairochana.
The foundation for sitting meditation is a comfortable base. This could be a thick carpet, a flat, firm cushion, or anything that doesn’t hurt your knees. Hardwood, tiled, and other knee-punishing floors are not conducive to samadhi.
Upon your base goes a cushion. It may require an arduous search to find the meditation cushion that is just right for you. The first thing to look for is firmness. The cushion should not be too soft as you are not going to sit on it, per se. Rather, you are going to perch your bottom on its front edge, thus throwing your weight forward so that your knees rest, comfortably, on your base. This why the height of the cushion is critical. Most cushions on the market are too soft and too low so I prefer to make my own. They’re nothing fancy, my current cushion being an old kitchen rug, folded, rolled up and tied with paracord. Before that, I had a stack of old newspaper taped together but that was a bit too firm. It is said that the Buddha achieved enlightenment while seated on a bundle of kuśa grass. I haven’t tried it myself but if you happen to have a pile of kuśa grass lying around, I say go for it.
Some people cannot sit on a meditation cushion, however, and find a chair more amenable to their needs. This is fine, although I would offer one piece of advice: if the chair has a back, do not rest on it. In fact, you should sit upright and not allow your back to touch the chair-back at all. If you’re a cushion-sitter though, try sitting with your only rear half of your buttocks on the cushion. This way, you will be tipped slightly forward such that your knees rest on the ground.
- If you can sit in the lotus position, do so. The Buddhist version is similar to the Hatha Yoga āsana but reversed, with the right leg going on top.
- If this is not possible, try pulling the left knee in, toward your crotch, and laying the right foot across the left thigh.
- If you can’t do that, just lay the right foot on your base.
- If none of these are possible it’s the chair for you!
Some Tibetan texts say that your back should be “as straight as an arrow,” others say that your vertebrae should be “like a pile of coins.” Both mean the same thing.
Back a little, not enough to cause strain but enough to lift the chest.
Elbows out a little from your sides.
Normally, the hands are placed in the lap, palms up, one on top of the other such that the tips of the thumbs barely touch. Many traditions, including Tibet, put the left hand first, with the right hand upon that. Zen puts right hand first, left on top. Whichever of these you choose, settle on that one and use it every time. After a while it will feel perfectly natural, and the other way will seem weird. In the Dzogchen tradition of Tibet, the hands are placed palms down upon the knees.
The neck is bent slightly downwards so the eyes are focused on the floor, four feet ahead.
Beginners: eyes closed
In Tibet, one teaching lineage (Sakya) even has a meditation where the meditator covers her/his head with their shawl.
Intermediate: eyelids slightly parted.
This should be just enough to be able to see light but not shapes. (I, personally, find this difficult.)
Advanced: eyes fully opened
In Mahamudra and Dzogchen, Tibet's two most advanced meditation traditions, one sits with eyes wide open, gazing straight ahead. Sometimes, this entails lying on a hilltop staring at the cloudless expanse of the sky, a practice in which the perceived vast spaciousness and your own consciousness are seen to share the same fundamental nature.
If settling in for a lengthy meditation, it is a good idea to curl the tongue back so that the underside of its tip touches the roof of your mouth at the ridge just behind your teeth. There’s no need to force the tongue back on itself as in some hatha yoga practices, as this is merely to regulate the flow of saliva. When deep in meditation, it can be a distraction to realize that you have to swallow built-up mouth saliva. Curling the tongue slightly like this promotes a steady flow of saliva down the throat and reduces swallowing to a minimum.