One of the most challenging aspects of meditation for beginners and advanced practitioners alike is to know and understand the relationship between the body and the mind. Tibetans often compare the relationship between our body and mind to two stones tied together with a string and when you throw one stone the other naturally follows. We can use this close or intertwined relationship between the mind and the body to profoundly impact our meditative practice. Next, to our breath, our body posture is the single most important skill one needs to master on a bodily level if one wishes to hone and perfect one’s meditation practice. Proper posture is very likely the most subtle form of shiné (Tib.) or shamata (Skt.) or in English calming and abiding meditation. When one can calmly hold the posture in one place and abide in it one can then begin to hold his mind in one place as well. Many aspects of Buddhist meditation posture may be related to Indian hatha yoga practices part of many Hindu Wisdom Traditions and this is no accident hatha yoga is shamata and was designed to prepare oneself to hold the body in meditation. Several asanas are directly related to proper sitting posture and several others prepare or help one to maintain good posture throughout a meditation session. In the Buddhist realm I have personally experienced that prostrations strengthen the bodies core and prepare the body to sit correctly for long periods of time and they are a great way to work out the kinks and sore muscles from sitting for long periods of time.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Seven Points of Vairochana is our guide to sitting. When the body is in the correct position our energy channels and their winds or the subtle energies can flow correctly and efficiently. This helps our mind to be attentive and present in the moment. We can then focus more easily on the progressive aspects of the meditation. These energy channels can be imagined in detail as part of some advanced meditation practices or just naturally accepted as being there helping the beginner to master their mind.
The seven points are as follows:
1. Our back should be as straight as possible. We should try to align the spine to the centre of the earth. The spine should be straight like an arrow, note that we are not to try to remove the natural curvature of the spine this would be very painful. We are not to be leaning forwards, backwards or to the sides or circling as we sit. If we meditate with poor posture we will not be successful in correctly concentrating our mind. The subtle energies are said to be the horses of our thoughts. When the energies are controlled in the correct way the mind can be concentrated and focused for longer and longer periods of time. A good hint for having a straight back is to slightly suck our tummy in, this prevents the small of the back from rounding leading to slouching.
If our posture is reclined or leaning our thought activity will increase and mind will not calm down and remain in one place. When we lean to the right we may at first have an impression of clarity, but then anger will arise seemingly without a cause. If we lean to the left we may experience pleasure, but then strong passion or desire will arise. If we lean forward, non-conceptuality will arise followed by dullness and paranoia. And finally, when we lean back we will initially experience emptiness followed by pride and other poisons of the mind. So what we want is to sit in the middle of our personal mandala balanced comfortably almost without effort.
2. We sit with our legs crossed to provide our practice with a stable base. Here we have several options, Full Lotus or Vajra, Half Lotus or Bodhisattva also known as the Burmese position. Sitting in Seiza or on a chair may also be appropriate for people with injuries or severe difficulties with the three main postures. When sitting cross-legged we place the right leg on top or in front of the left leg. Our crossed legs give us the stability we need to sit for a long time as mentioned earlier this is the foundation of our practice. Sitting cross-legged can even cause jealousy to subside.
3. We place both our hands, palms down, on the knees for even greater stability. Please note most if not all Buddhists do not meditate with the palms up with one finger touching the thumb, this is a Hindu practice. Alternatively, we rest the right hand on the left hand, palms up, gently touching our thumbs together and holding them three to four finger widths below our navel. We do not rest them on the lap. Sitting like this helps our anger to subside.
4. We gently hold our shoulders back and up, spread like a vulture’s wings. This gentle expansion of the chest allows for a fuller breath and better oxygenation of the blood keeping us alert and awake. It is believed that sitting like this will cause passion to subside.
5. We lower our chin about 15 degrees, almost in reverence. In men, the Adam’s apple should not be visible.
6. We gently rest the tip of the tongue behind the palette, just behind the upper front teeth. Our lips relax in a natural state and our teeth may slightly touch each other. Our breath is calm and relaxed from the diaphragm. We do not force our breath or manipulate it in any way. Calmly breathing in and out naturally as we need. This very subtle and gentle posture helps our pride to subside.
7. As a beginner, it is best to keep one’s eyes closed. When our concentration and meditative practice grows we can keep the eyes open for longer and longer periods of time. Our gaze rests just past the tip of the nose, roughly 4 fingers away. We hold our eyes steady without moving them to and fro and with minimal blinking. When thinking of keeping the eyes open during meditation, I am always inspired by the fearless piercing gaze of Guru Rimpoche. Meditating with open eyes is said to improve clarity and meditating with the eyes are closed can increase our understanding of emptiness.
I have found a wonderful quote from the first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa which I find motivates me to sit with good form. “In order to look at the mountain over there, see it from the mountain over here. If you aspire to understand emptiness, reach a definitive conclusion on appearances. If you wish for a calm mind, discipline the body with the body posture” In the Vajramala Tantra we are asked to sit free of the three faults. They are as follows, being too comfortable, slack, and relaxed; we are not to be all tensed up either, there is a middle way that we must find.
With these methods, we can use our body in a very practical way and we can easily see how without our body or with a different or injured one, it would be very hard to focus and meditate properly. However, I must add here that for those of us who cannot sit in this mindful posture due to injuries or other difficulties that we should be flexible and adapt to it as closely as possible. There is no need to have pain or make an injury worse.