How to sit without sitting
March 3, 2011 8:49 AM   Subscribe

In Buddhist traditions that emphasize sitting meditation (thinking about Zen here, but curious about others too) how are people who are physically unable to maintain proper sitting posture expected/advised to meditate? I was curious in particular about those who had been disabled in some way (paralysis etc) and in historical answers to the question.
posted by StrikeTheViol to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I've done Vispassana meditation, and the initial focus isn't not on your 'style' of sitting, rather it's that you need to be motionless for a period of time.
posted by JiffyQ at 9:09 AM on March 3, 2011

The women's group I sit with offer chairs for folks who have trouble sitting on the floor. The instruction I've heard suggest sitting on the edge of the chair, rather than sitting against the back. Maybe that helps to focus attention?
posted by dorkydancer at 9:13 AM on March 3, 2011

Few teachers I've know placed much emphasis on "proper" sitting postures, they're just a sort of default for people who DON'T have limitations of some kind.
posted by hermitosis at 9:54 AM on March 3, 2011

There's a poem/song called 證道歌 by a seventh-century teacher and disciple of Zen patriach Huineng called 永嘉玄觉 (Yongjia Xuanjue; he's mentioned in this wiki article - apparently Yongjia's a town in Zhejiang so it's Xuanjue of Yongjia I think), which has the well-known line: 行亦禪、坐亦禪、語默動靜體安然 (something like: 'walking is dhyana (zen), sitting is dhyana; speaking or silent, in motion or stillness, be at peace') . So well over a thousand years ago teachers were making the point that it's good practice that counts; the emphasis on sitting and particular postures has come about AFAIK because it's been found to be useful, especially for beginners, as it gives you something to work on that helps with the mental processes - but it's not essential.
posted by Abiezer at 10:08 AM on March 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

As far as I can tell the important things about meditation from a Buddhist point of view are mindfulness and breathing. Particular postures don't come into except in so far as they allow you to remain still and focused, and to breathe deeply.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor is just how people in Asia normally sit anyway, at least those not yet affected by globalization etc. It's not as if it's some posture especially for meditating, it's how people sit for eating dinner or chatting with their friends too.
posted by philipy at 10:18 AM on March 3, 2011

Sadhonna was returning to the Deer Park where the Buddha was staying when he encountered a monk practicing the Sadmadhi of self denial.

The self-denying monk resembled cobwebs stretched over a skeleton. He was sitting on an anthill in the Lotus Position. He did not even twitch as ants pulled at his flesh.

Sadhonna called to him, "Fellow monk, I am on my way to see the Buddha. Is there any message you would like to convey?"

The self-denying monk grimaced and said, "Ask the Buddha, how many more lifetimes I will endure before attaining Buddhahood."

Sadhonna assured the self-denying monk that he would ask, and then continued on his journey.

Just before nightfall, he heard someone singing a little off key. He could see someone, dressed in monk's clothing, clumsily dancing in a little clearing in the woods.

He called out to him saying "Fellow monk, I am on my way to see the Buddha. Is there any message you would like to convey?"

The dancing monk thought for a moment and said "Yes, ask him when will I reach my enlightenment."

Sadhonna assured the dancing monk he would ask, and then he walked on to see the Buddha.

A few months later Sadhonna returned and encountered the self-denying monk. His flesh was so thin that his bones were visible. "The Buddha answered your question," Sadhonna said.

"How long until I reach my enlightenment?" whispered the self-denying monk.

"Four more lifetimes," answered Sadhonna.

The self-denying monk grimaced.

Sadhonna traveled a bit further and encountered the dancing monk. "The Buddha has answered your question," he said.

How many more lifetimes?" asked the dancing monk.

Sadhonna pointed to a large tree with thousands of leaves shimmering in the sunlight and said "As many as the leaves on that tree."

The dancing monk laughed and attained enlightenment instantly.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:12 AM on March 3, 2011 [7 favorites]

There are lots of different positions traditionally used. I have no relavent physical limitations and I prefer to meditate in Savasana (corpse pose). Some people report wanting to sleep in that pose. Whatever makes you comfortable.
posted by cmoj at 11:27 AM on March 3, 2011

I used to sit at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. People with physical limitations were encouraged to meditate in whatever posture worked for them. There was one man who I think had bad arthritis; he sat zazan lying on his back.

The posture isn't the important part.
posted by workerant at 12:30 PM on March 3, 2011

A lady at the meditation retreat I went to sat on a little stool, because she couldn't sit on a cushion. We also meditated walking in a circle.
posted by santaslittlehelper at 1:11 PM on March 3, 2011

There are indeed some sects of buddhism that really rigidly honor the positions in which one meditates and even encourage some pain as it seen as a test of one's spiritual focus to leave it behind, and honor its presence without judgement. While this sounds really great on paper, it is not the only path to enlightenment. You will find in your study, I think, that the primary message of the Buddhist path is to remove judgement from oneself and others, and release meta (lovingkindness) to all.

If that this is true of the middle path, then we may follow the views of the prevailing practitioners of this culture:

let us not judge how we find inner peace, nor the body for its needs; we are to offer meta to ourselves too, that we may have happiness and ease.

get comfortable, but alert, focus on your goal, and then it let go. Breathe in. Breathe out.
posted by billypilgrim at 2:52 PM on March 3, 2011

Brad Warner is often considered hard-core and ruthless when it comes to the subject of proper posture for zazen. This is from an essay of his called "Proper Posture Required":
I know all the arguments against sitting in the correct position. I hear them almost any time I or any other teacher I happen to be listening to starts talking about the proper sitting posture. Folks always start wildly speculating about hypothetical situations. "What if someone was in a horrific gardening accident and lost both arms and legs?" "What about people who've had their leg bones replaced with thermoplastic implants that can't possibly be bent into the lotus position or they'll break and leak poisonous compounds into their bloodstream killing them instantly?" "What about paraplegics? Can't they get enlightened?" "What about people with birth defects, or crippling diseases? Don't they have the Buddha nature too?"

The trouble is, I've never heard a question like this from someone who actually had a crippling disease, a birth defect, or who'd had both legs lobbed off by a madman in a samurai costume. In fact these questions always -- always -- come from people who are perfectly capable of doing proper zazen, but who would like an excuse not to.

The few times I've encountered people who had conditions that prevented them from doing zazen in the correct posture have been quite different. At the first place I practiced zazen there was a quadriplegic guy who used to sit with us. He just used his chin to push on this little lever on his motorized chair, wheeled himself up to the wall and faced it until the bell rang, at which point he'd use that lever to spin the chair around and make a little nod with his head when the rest of us bowed. Once a tennis pro visited one of our summer retreats. As athletic as he was, his legs had stiffened up to the point where no matter how hard he tried he could not make his knees touch the floor when he sat on a cushion. His solution was to grab another two cushions to support his knees while sitting. Afterwards he started working on some exercises to improve his lack of flexibility which, as an athlete, he regarded with some concern. These people did not look for excuses, but found ways to beat their own limitations.

There is no good reason why someone who writes about Zen absolutely needs to address a lot of hypothetical maybe type situations which might preclude someone from sitting in the proper position. People who really can't do those positions know it already and don't need to be told. If you're serious about zazen you will find a way to do it no matter what physical condition you're in. When a teacher meets someone with some specific condition that needs to be addressed, he or she can assess that person's situation and advise that person how best to do the practice in light of their unique situation. No problem. If you have any problems like that feel free to write me about it. But in cases like these, a face-to-face consultation is much more effective. Just don't be surprised if your teacher takes a look and says, "Stop making excuses and sit in the right position!"
posted by Lexica at 6:02 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm sure you're playing devil's advocate, Lexica, but christ what an asshole. What if there's not one path up the mountain? Does he really think that zazen is the only way, or that meditation in this sense is even required for enlightenment?
posted by cmoj at 6:12 PM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been sitting with a zen group since last summer, shortly after I had an accident and there's been times when I've been unable to sit on the cushion. Sometimes I try to bring the experience in, but other times it's just plain excruciating.

My sangha has older members that sit on a chair, and some that sit on a small bench. I'm always grateful to sit with them and am glad they are there. Our teacher has stressed that any of this is fine. He's also emphasized that there's no need to sit in agony.

Here's a good talk about the topic -,10&pageid=2665

FWIW as the the eager noob I read a bunch of blogs, all of which bring different views and approaches to the party. Brad's was a complete turnoff for a number of reasons (trying too hard to be cool the chief of them).
posted by poissonrouge at 6:36 PM on March 3, 2011

The standard positions provide physiological support and allow the body to concentrate. When this is not possible due to some reason, any posture that does not cause sleep or any disturbance to the required frame of mind is fine.

From a Hindu Yogic perspective, practicing meditation is important, not sitting cross-legged and cross-eyed.

The book "Autobiography of a Yogi" is an excellent book, but try to get one of the earlier editions, if possible.
posted by theobserver at 9:12 PM on March 3, 2011

I'm sure you're playing devil's advocate, Lexica, but christ what an asshole.

Not playing devil's advocate at all. My point (which I didn't make clearly enough) is that even somebody who's considered to be hardcore and unforgiving (and, yes, an asshole in many people's eyes) both accepts that some people truly cannot sit in lotus position and that many of the people who say they can't, really could if they worked at it.

It's that Zen teacher paradox thing: How do the really good ones manage to hit that balance between utterly unrelenting, cutting nobody no slack for weakness, and about as yielding as a 10-ton granite boulder with unbounded well of compassion and empathy? Some people think Warner's an asshole who doesn't manage the compassion and empathy part at all. Others find his manner and teachings both welcoming and bracing.

What if there's not one path up the mountain? Does he really think that zazen is the only way, or that meditation in this sense is even required for enlightenment?

With the caveat that I don't know him (I've met him once, at a book signing) and so probably ought not to be speculating about what he thinks... I'd guess the answer is both yes, he does think that zazen is the only way and that meditation is required for enlightenment — he is a Zen teacher, after all — and no, zazen is not the only way because there are other spiritual paths that work for other people. Based on what I've read of his writings, I think he would consider it more important for a person to pick a path and stick with it than for them to pick the Zen path.
posted by Lexica at 9:46 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

The reason the posture is stressed so much especially in Zen is...
a.) an upright position allows for more natural expansion of the diaphragm, resulting easier & deeper breaths
b.) an alert body helps cultivate an alert mind
c.) we don't fall asleep as easily (we sit a lot!)

I sit on the floor as long as I can, but usually after the 2nd day of a retreat I'm in a chair as others have spoken too
posted by meta x zen at 10:27 AM on March 8, 2011

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