So often, when we encounter difficulty in life (whether it’s physical, mental or emotional), we cope by holding the body stiff. The more rigid our body becomes the less we feel, which seems like a relief but when we feel less, we’re less resilient, less sensitive to other’s experiences and less open to life. When we carry our holding patterns into meditation practice it becomes difficult to drop deep, which is why our meditation posture is so important. It’s the vehicle through which we can release holding patterns and return the body to its natural state.
Four principles guide an experience of meditation through the body: alignment, relaxation, resilience and integration. Let’s explore them.
Aligning your meditation posture:
Alignment begins with the positioning of the spine. While it can be helpful to think of the spine as something we ‘stack’ (left and right sides of the body symmetrical and front and back sides of the body balanced), strictly speaking the spine will never be stacked. Rather, it’s made of a series of curves, which our alignment should honor. What we’re really aiming for is an experience of length and space.
‘Natural’ alignment requires very little effort or energy. This, along with the second pillar of our meditation posture – relaxation – leads to a felt experience in meditation that is soft and easeful. It also makes us more alert.
Without this, the body compensates through muscular tension in its attempt to offset gravity. The effort exhausts us, the body (and mind) become painful and numb, and our meditation becomes marked by dullness and agitation.
As we sit in meditation are small ways we can adjust and refine. When these adjustments happen naturally and incrementally, the body will (naturally and incrementally) become balanced and free.
A relaxed meditation posture:
The degree to which we’re able to relax depends on our ability align our self with the force of gravity. Our alignment supports this although the reverse can also be true. Alignment without relaxation becomes rigid and leads to a dulling of awareness.
When we’re tense or rigid the breath becomes restricted and it become difficult to feel what’s happening inside us. Also, our internal monologue – the ego’s stories of I, me and my – becomes louder. When our body relaxes and we let go of our armour, we become more attuned to sensation. We’re better able to feel our feelings.
As an experiment, hold your hand out with you palm facing up and rest your attention in the palm of your hand. Start to notice the tingles, itches and buzzing of energy there. The longer you hold your awareness there the more obvious these sensations become. Interestingly, those sensations may not correspond directly with the shape you think your hand should have. They may be bigger or smaller or more fluid, for example. Similarly, the sensations in your body will become more obvious the longer you focus on them. You may find they do not fit your idea about the shape and size of your body. Perhaps this will lead you to question the ideas you have about your body, how you identify with it and how you identify with the thing you call ‘I’?!
As an experiment, scan your body from head to toe. As each part enters your field of awareness, relax it and notice that sensation increases. You’ll also notice an interesting thing – involuntary thought cannot exist alongside sensation.
Allowing these sensations to flow can be a powerful method for dissolving energetic blockages. In time, we experience the body as a field of sensation; as a current of life force. If you encounter tension, don’t try to force it away. Instead, stay there until the tension begins to dissolve.
Although we’re frequently cued to ‘find stillness’ in our practice, stillness is a quality of consciousness more than it is a physical experience. Life is motion. The heart is always beating, blood always flowing, the breath always moving. So, when it comes to meditation, think of stillness as a type of awareness that exists between rigidity one the hand and restlessness on the other. Resilience occurs when we yield to, rather than resist, the forces of nature that move through us. As the body continues to yield to the forces flowing through it (like the breath) it constantly, subtly moves.
“ The tallest trees and skyscrapers sway in the wind. If they didn’t, they would break apart.”
Resilience can also be explored by noticing the relationship between the breath and the spine. For example, on the inhale we feel the spine lengthen (upwards and downwards). On the exhale the spine settles. These movements are natural and we should let them happen without exaggerating them in any way. Yielding will create the conditions that allows the body to express its natural state and, in turn, our awareness will become expansive and easeful.
Integrating your meditation posture
There will be times, during meditation, that the pillars of your meditation posture – alignment, relaxation and resilience – will feel integrated. A moment of perfect balance. What’s helpful to realise, though, is that integration is not the final destination, or even a signal that we’ve ‘arrived’. Integration is simply a sign that we’re about to drop to a deeper level of awareness. It’s the ‘coming together’ before our next ‘coming apart’.
When this happens we’ll have access to data (both cognitive and somatic) that we’ve hitherto been unaware of. The process of integrating this new data will be messy, and so, we begin afresh exploring alignment, relaxation and resilience from our new vantage point.
Integration is a sign of impending growth, not a sign of completion. Knowing this, rather than trying to prolong moments of integration, allow them to flow through you as you would any other experience.
Meditation posture and life
It’s one thing to practice alignment, relaxation and resilience during formal sitting practice. It’s another to practice them in life, but this is entirely the point. If insight from meditation doesn’t spill into life, what is the point of practice? Over time, our life should be lived truer to our intentions and more aligned with our purpose as the result of having practiced. This isn’t to say life will be free from struggle. Rather, our ability to weather those experiences will be reflective the work we’ve done in meditation.
Meditation helps to slow us down in difficult moments so we can be more open, feeling and aware; so we can we bring alignment, relaxation and resilience to sticky situations and turn everyday experiences into portals for insight and awakening.