Jung Myung Sa
Buddhist Temple

How to Sit for Meditation

by Jan 31, 2019JMS Blog

“After the meal, when I have returned from the alms round, I enter a grove. I collect some grass or leaves that I find there into a pile and then sit down. Having folded my legs crosswise and straightened my body, I establish mindfulness in front of me.

Aṅguttara Nikaya 3:63, translated by Bhikkhu  Bodhi

Begins with Sitting Meditation

An image of meditation often reminds of a person sitting on the floor. As many of you already know, sitting is not the exclusive posture for meditation, and it can be done in different postures such as walking, standing, and even lying down.

However, sitting posture is best for the people who just start to learn meditation. Once a person grasps some level of concentrative momentum from the meditation of sitting, he or she can do better with meditation in other postures and choose a suitable one later.  

The first question for the most people who want to learn meditation will be how to sit. Thus, In this chapter, we are going to look at different meditation postures, how to sit comfortably for meditation.

The Buddha in Lotus Position for Sitting Meditation

The passage quoted above describes how the Buddha did meditation. “Having folded my legs crosswise and straightened my body” was the description of how the Buddha did sit in his meditation. Like other practitioners in ancient India, he practiced in the so-called ‘lotus posture’ that is illustrated in the picture below.  

Although lotus posture was what the Buddha used in his practice, it is not easy to do for everyone. Unless your hip, knees, and ankles are flexible, it will be very painful to take the posture. Some people can barely make the posture. But maintaining it is still much rigorous.

In addition to the lotus position, there are other sitting postures such as half lotus, Siddhā, and derivative posture, which are less demanding on the body than the first. All of these postures are similar but slightly different in details. People can choose one of sitting postures that is suit best for their body. Even sitting on a chair is a way to meditate if all of the postures are not suitable for you. A list of sitting postures is thus shown below:

a. Lotus posture.
b. Half Lotus posture.
c. Siddhā posture.
d. Other derivative postures.
e. Sitting on a chair.
(I am planning to make a short video about meditation postures. Until then, you can google different meditation postures.)

Is Lotus Posture Really Necessary for Enlightenment?

Although most teachers would not say so, in some retreat places, some monks, or practitioners might mistakenly claim that everyone has to take lotus posture because enlightenment only comes about in it. However, as for the posture of sitting meditation, there is no passage that the Buddha forced his disciples exclusively to take the pose for meditation practice. Then, why do some practitioners make the dogmatic claim about lotus position?   

In sum, lotus posture can be the most effective for concentration and its progress in terms of an aspect that it better helps a practitioner to be unmoving so he or she can effectively focus on the meditation subject in the practice. The first goal in meditation practice is your mind being focused on a meditation subject. The less your body moves, the better you can focus on the subject. It is because in lotus sitting posture two legs are firmly locked in each other, which can provide a solid foundation for the upper body to be unmoving.

Nonetheless, meditative concentration can be obtained with any proper sitting positions as long as one is fully mindful of a meditation subject. In meditation, the key factor is not the posture, but how well your mind can focus on the subject by exerting mental muscle. As concentration is getting deeper, your body naturally will move less. Lotus position is beneficial in some sense, but it is not mandatory at all.

Choose a Posture that Suits Your Body

Those four postures listed above are what you can take for sitting meditation. You can choose one among them based on your flexibility, body shape, and preference. One position is not universal for everyone. Even after taking a posture, you might want to make some adjustment for your needs. Do try all of them and choose the best one that suits your body.  

Even after choosing the most suitable posture, sitting on the floor for meditation practice is quite challenging for many people whose bodies are not flexible enough to sit on the floor for a long time. Even sitting for less than 10 minutes can be real torture for most people.

Unfortunately, there is no other way to overcome the acute pain in sitting for meditation except by practicing it again and again until your body becomes adjusted for the posture. Often, yoga or stretching can be conducive to sitting more comfortably. Yet, sitting for a long period of time is still taxing even for one who can split their legs on a straight line.

Using a Cushion

Like the collected grass or leave on which the Buddha did sit on for meditation in a forest, a thick rectangular pad on the floor is used for meditation practice. In addition to the pad, a thick cushion is often used to support the rear part of buttocks.

Using the back cushion makes the lower part of the body less tense and can relieve acute pain from sitting posture. The higher you raise the back cushion up under your buttocks, the less you feel the pain in your legs while practicing sitting meditation. As the practice goes on, the muscles of your body will make some adjustment for sitting. Eventually, you can manage to sit for a long time without much difficulty.

Sitting like Balanced Tower and Relax

In order to focus well for a long time on a meditation subject in sitting meditation, your body should be in a position like a well-balanced pagoda or tower. While your legs and hips provide a firm base like a foundation stone of a pagoda, your upper body should be erected from the lower back to your head as to stand well on the base of the lower body. As a result, all the weight of your upper body goes to the center of your pelvises, which is the region of perineal, through your navel and the lower part of your abdomen.  

In this way, you can maintain the sitting position with the minimum amount of energy in your body while being relaxed. With the well balanced body position, you can better relax your whole body like shoulders, chest, arms and your neck since the gravity of your body weight is well centered on the foundation of the lower body. This is how your meditation can go for a long time without consuming much energy to maintain the body posture.  

Now, let’s go over the details of the body posture for sitting. Let’s assume that you have chosen a sitting posture that feels right for you. It is time for you to sit on a pad and cushion. Once you take a posture for sitting, then do lean your upper body forward and do slightly lift your hips, which will make sitting more comfortable.

Then, your hips are evenly placed on the pad under your buttocks. You might notice that one of your knees is floating from the pad on the floor while the other knee is not. As time goes by so that the joints of hips become flexible in the sitting meditation, the knee will move down and close to the floor. Just give some time for your body to relax into it as your practice continues.  

Hand Postion

In regards to hands position, it seems people are often clumsy with where they should place them. In general, there are two places that hands go and rest. One place is between your legs right that is in front of your lower belly, and the other place is on your knees.

As we often see in many statues of the Buddha, a meditator rest hands in the middle of folded legs, which would be on one of your ankles in front of the lower belly. If your right foot is on the left leg, then your right hand rests on the right ankle first and your left hand rests on your left hand. If your left foot is on the right leg, then your left hand rests on left ankle first and the right and rests on the left hand. You might want to make a circle by both thumbs touching each other. If it is somehow distracting and difficult to do, it is not necessary to do.

In addition, you can rest your hands on your knees, which for some people can be more comfortable for better concentration. Do gently clench your fist with your both hand and place them on your knees. Or just do gently stretch your arms and place each wrist on each knee so palms rest upward, which can better make your shoulder open and relaxed.

The Middle Way of Sitting

After taking a hand position, do gently stretch your lower back, open your chest and shoulders, and hold up your head as if you look forward. It is good to erect your upper body straight as much as you can, but it should not be too rigid by exerting too much strength for straightening the body.

The fundamental principle of the Buddhist practice is the Middle way that avoids extremes. Likewise, your body in a meditative posture should not be too rigid, nor too relaxed. If your body is too rigid and straight, you likely will use much your body energy to maintain it, which can disturb your concentration on the meditation subject.

On the other hand, if you are too relaxed that your back becomes too rounded and hunched down, you can become lethargic and fall asleep, which is also not conducive to concentration. Thus, do gently stretch your back and spine cords as much as your body becomes not too rigid.

Also, while you exert mental efforts to focus your mind on a meditation subject during meditation practice, it is likely that the efforts can make your body become tense and rigid. So, you should try to relax from time to time whenever you become aware of tension and rigidity in your body.

So far, I have explained our body in meditative posture based on my knowledge and experience. Other teachers might have different perspectives and opinions about it. You’d better listen to and follow your teacher, whom you trust.

In addition to the instruction of your teacher, you should find yourself the best way to meditate based on the self-knowledge about your body. You are the one who knows your body best.

Find Your Own Way of Sitting

There is no single or universal formula of how to sit for meditation. For example, when you see the picture of Dalai Lama doing meditation, his back in the meditation posture is not that straight. Nobody would dare to say that his way of doing meditation is wrong.

The most important thing in meditation is not the bodily posture, but how well you can focus on your meditation subject. There is no exact formula. In this regard, you can ignore all the things that I have explained and just keep focusing on the subject. You will forget the body when your mind becomes deeply immersed in a meditative state.

However, a body and mind are not separate entities as we know well. It is hard to ignore the presence of a body at the beginning of meditation practice.  


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