Introduction to sitting meditation

Some say that the only reason to practice yoga asana is to perfect this one posture, the posture of sitting meditation.

Traditionally, sitting meditation is not taught in the Ashtanga system. The logic goes like this: once the body is prepared and purified, meditation will happen on its own. I like to believe this. I also think it helps to encourage it; to develop it through formal practice. I add it here because it has been the foundation of my path. I see it as a way of expanding the dimensions of the yoga practice.

Shamatha meditation as described here comes from the Tibetan Buddhist lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I recommend setting aside a separate time and space for the formal practice of sitting meditation. Early morning, evening around sunset, and just before bed are auspicious times. More important than how long you sit is how regularly. It is better to sit every day for 5 minutes than once a week for an hour. Even better is to sit every day for an hour. Regularity reinforces your commitment to yourself. It sends a message (that we may not even hear consciously at first) that you are serious about practice. This can have profound effects on your life.

The Posture

If padmasana is not an option for you, sit on a cushion with the legs crossed, or sit with one foot in front of the other, or sit in half lotus. If your hips are very tight, sit up on a cushion high enough to allow the knees to be lower than the hips. Even if you can take padmasana easily, it is useful to sit with the hips slightly elevated on a cushion in order to keep the circulation flowing. If necessary, you may sit in a chair with the feet flat on the floor, sitting up straight.

Place the hands down on the thighs at a distance that allows the shoulders to remain relaxed. Keep the eyes open. Let the shoulders settle directly above the hips. Sometimes it can be helpful to sway back and forth very slightly at first, to find, intuitively, that place that feels correct: where you are sitting tall and relaxed, and can easily breathe deeply. Often our habitual way of sitting is not aligned, and so when we do sit with alignment it feels strange or even unbalanced. Let the breath be your guide. It is easiest to take a deep breath when we are sitting in alignment.

Imagine that you were a flower growing out of the earth. Your roots grow deep down, anchoring you. The stalk, your spine, is firm and upright, and yet accommodates the subtle fluctuations that accompany growth and changes in the environment. The top of the head blossoms upwards, as if drawn by the warmth of the sun.

The point of sitting in meditation is to allow the mind to rest, so if your body is screaming, it will be difficult to settle the mind. Spend some time experimenting with different postures. Once you find one that works reasonably well, stick with it for a period of time. Try to resist the urge to move every time you feel discomfort. Discipline yourself, gently, to stay with that sensation. Allow the breath to soften whatever tightness or blockage you might notice. You will find that as you deepen the asana practice, your hips will loosen and allow you to settle more deeply into meditation posture. So there may be a process of evolution.

Follow the Breath

In the sitting posture of the Ashtanga series we manipulate the breath by creating sound, and by drawing it longer in both directions. The approach to shamatha is entirely different. First, we let the breath behave exactly as it wants to. We don’t do anything at all to manipulate it. We just watch it very closely. In shamatha, we use the exhale as a reference point, letting the inhale happen on its own volition. And we sit, patiently, observing.

At the end of the exhale, notice the gap just before the inhale comes. Don’t be in a hurry to move on to the next breath. Observe and appreciate the simple act of breathing. As you inhale, let your observation diffuse using a lighter touch. Don’t necessarily try to follow the inhale, but rather let the mind rest, trusting that inhaling will happen without your intervention. Ride the next exhale with your awareness.

You can observe the inhale and the exhale. However, if you choose this approach, then emphasize JUST slightly more the exhale. Exhale is release, giving up, surrendering. Inhale is taking in, grasping, tightening.

Working with Mind

You will probably notice that as you try to follow the breath, the mind wanders. Since we have not given it a specific task, other than to observe, mind has a tendency to get distracted. Observing is the hardest task of all, and the most important.

If you allow your mind to play itself out long enough, loudly enough, and keep coming back to the breath, eventually it will wear itself out, somewhat like an unruly beast, or a hyperactive child. Keep showing the mind who is responsible by returning again and again to the breath. Not in an overly authoritarian way, but in a kind, knowing way. A wise way. Tell your mind, “I know all your tricks that you will use to try to dissuade me from paying attention to the breath. You are very clever. But I am wiser than you.”

Notice where your mind goes so that it feels respected. “Yes, I see that you are angry and want to yell at the person who took your seat,” tell it, “but now is not the time to do that. We can tell that person what we think later, now come back to the breath.” Then come back. You can think all you want after you finish your practice session. During the practice session, thinking is not the goal.

When I was about 7, I spent a summer on my grandparents’ farm in upstate New York. The farm cat had just had a litter and there were 5 tiny kittens mewling behind the tractor in the barn, terrified of humans. More than anything I wanted to hold one of those kittens and let it purr in my ear. So I went and sat. I sat for what seemed like hours and made no attempt to approach them. I sat quietly, with an open, friendly attitude. Patiently. I went back each day to the barn and finally, after a few days, one of them came out from behind the tractor, spied me, and turned right back around. The next day, ditto with another 2 peering around the corner of the tractor tire. The day after, the boldest of them very timidly, very slowly, ventured into my territory and finally after painstaking stillness on my part, allowed his nose to be touched by my hand. After a few more days, I made friends with the leader of the pack, and eventually, one by one, the others followed. By the end of the summer, the whole litter swarmed all over the back porch, soliciting the attention and caresses of all who came to visit.

Taming the mind is a bit like that. If you try to rush it, you’ll scare it off. You need gentle, loving attention, patience, and a real desire to stick with the task, because more often than not, the going is slow and not always guaranteed. There was one kitten who never came to me. She would pretend to be available, but never would sit in anyone’s lap, and was always the first to be scared off. Perhaps with a bit more time I might have been successful in taming her.

The more you practice this the more subtle detail you will observe. But it is excruciatingly slow and tedious work at times. The mind is elusive. Tame it once, and it is easier to tame again, but it is never a done deal. There is always a discipline, a precision required to bring the mind back to rest. Even the tamest cat will scare easily when confronted by wild energy. Calm abiding requires a gentle touch, and dedication is essential.

Don’t Meditate

That said, I don’t think one can “learn” to meditate. Learning implies an effort by the thinking mind that will result in some new skill. Even in learning a physical activity, the brain is involved in placement, where to put this limb and how. Meditation is not a skill, but a state of mind that results from certain skills: sustained discipline, awareness and patience.

The discipline is in keeping mind and body to task with the patience to wait for the grace of surrender, to keep taking a fresh look at the reality of the present moment. “Trying to meditate” is an oxymoron.

When taking meditation posture, don’t expect anything. Take the posture simply, with dignity and grace, but without hope or pride. We are not doing anything spectacular or particularly noteworthy. We are just sitting down, and for a period of time allowing ourselves to become aware of our experience of the present. It can be quite boring. If it is, then just notice that. If you have an ecstatic experience of bliss and suddenly see the light, then just notice that, and come back to the present in all its mundane detail. The idea is that, in the absolute sense, one state of mind is not preferable to another. Whether we have thoughts of divine inspiration or of what we will eat for breakfast, the response is the same: notice what happened, and then come back to earth, the breath, the body. The practice of meditation helps us to see the process of mind as more important as its content.

Tilopa, one of Tibet’s great saints and yogis offers insight into this dilemma in his 6 points of mindfulness meditation:

The [fourth] point is not to meditate. One should
resist, or let go of the temptation, which at some
point always arises in the experience of beginning
meditators, to improve or make better one’s meditation
by meditating on tranquility, or on the experience
of emptiness, or on clarity, or on bliss, or by
fabricating or contriving any other strategy to
improve one’s meditation. All such attempts to
improve one’s meditation by “meditating” are cul de-
sacs, and, as such, obstacles to meditation.

Keep the Meditation Practice Pure

Even though the yoga and meditation practices are complementary, I do not recommend combining the practices at first. Especially at the beginning, when you are learning a new practice, it is very important to stick to the traditional instructions. Later, when you have some experience, you can improvise a bit. But like any good musician, technique is required before you have the skill to play your heart out. Eventually, after some training, shamatha meditation can be done at the end of the breathing sequence, as the mind naturally rests after pranayama.

The shamatha approach is a completely different practice. They are 2 different approaches to working with the breath and awareness. Each one can inform the other. In the end, however, the goal is not to perfect the practice; the goal, if there is one, is to tune in to awareness. The practice is just a tool.

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