Posts Tagged ‘posture of meditation’

Chevy interior cropped“Put it in neutral, Bud,” my father said, quietly but firmly. It was the summer of 1958, and I was learning to drive. The car was a 1950 Chevrolet sedan with a three-speed transmission and the gearshift lever on the steering column. “Three on the Tree,” it was called. Learning to put the lever and the Chevy itself into neutral was my first lesson.

It might also be the first lesson for the Zen practitioner. Wherever else it might lead, the practice of Zen meditation begins with finding, establishing, and maintaining a neutral center, both for the body and the mind. Neutrality may well be the body-mind’s most natural condition, but for many people it is far from habitual. In a culture as competitive as ours, neutrality is often not an option, much less a state to be cultivated and explored. To do so requires training and sustained attention (more…)

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One afternoon, as I stood in a room in a Seattle hotel, I felt the building sway and the floor move beneath my feet. “What’s going on?” I said aloud, before I realized what had happened.

The hotel had swayed because it was meant to. Like other skyscrapers, it was designed to sway by as much as a foot in a high wind. If that seems like a lot, we have only to consider the skyscraper presently under construction in Dubai. At its current height of 2,250 feet, the Burj Dubai is already the world’s tallest man-made structure. Its pilings extend more than 150 feet into the ground. But when completed, its Sky Tower will sway as much as ten feet in the wind. A symbol of wealth and power, the Burj Dubai also exemplifies stability joined to resilience.

Although the human body is not a skyscraper, the posture of Zen meditation has much in common with the structure of tall buildings. Both require solidity below and flexibility above.

When we sit down to meditate, we first create a solid foundation. We sit on the first third of the cushion, letting our knees rest on the mat below. Crossing our legs in one of the “lotus” positions, we take care to elevate the pelvis above the knees. By so doing, we establish a triangular base of support, our two knees and our sitting bones becoming the three points of the triangle.

Having established that immovable base, we bend forward, then come up slowly, allowing the back to straighten itself. We push the crown of the head upward, stretching the spine. Rocking from side to side, we decrease this movement until the spine is vertical and aligned with the earth’s gravitational force. Then we exhale, deeply and completely, as we relax into the posture of meditation. Although the upper body is motionless and upright, it is also flexible and light..

For Westerners, especially those accustomed to slouching in an armchair or sitting rigidly at a computer, this posture may initially feel uncomfortable. But with practice, it can become the most natural way of sitting, as well as the one most beneficial to the body and mind.

At the physical level, the posture of meditation promotes the free flow of air into and out of the lungs. More broadly, it permits the free flow of energy throughout the body. As the weight of the body settles into its center of gravity—the hara, or lower abdomen—our muscles relax, and our tensions lessen. Rather than resist the directional energies of gravitation, the body enjoys their support.

In tandem with the calming of the body, the posture of meditation also calms the mind. In Zen meditation, we sometimes count our exhalations or follow the movement of the breath into and out of our lungs. But even without these aids to concentration, the posture of meditation fosters clarity of mind. When the body is grounded, upright, and relaxed, the mind more easily sheds its fantasies and fears, its worries and incessant chatter.

Beyond these tangible benefits, the posture of meditation also engenders a more open attitude toward the world. In ordinary life, we often brace ourselves, physically and emotionally, against the “other,” whether the other is threatening us or not. We defend what we call our “selves”. By adopting the posture of meditation we cultivate a suppler and more receptive attitude toward the realities of our lives, however pleasant or unpleasant they may be. Like tall but resilient buildings, we sway in the wind.


Since this column was written, the Burj Dubai has been renamed the Burj Khalifa. For my understanding of stability and resilience I am indebted to Will Johnson’s The Posture of Meditation (Shambhala, 1996).

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