Position Yourself: The Basics of Meditation
Sitting flat on the floor with your legs crossed is the best position for meditation. This is because:
It enables you to develop samadhi (concentration) power.
It enables you to develop deeper samadhis.
The very best posture for meditation is full-lotus, since it is by far the most stable position. The second best posture is half-lotus. If you cannot do this, then try the comfortable posture. Those who cannot sit on the floor can begin by sitting in a chair or on a bench.
Sitting on a floor is ideal; a carpeted floor is appropriate, although I prefer wooden floors. Make sure you have enough insulation underneath you. If you are sitting on a cement or stone floor, you should sit on some kind of rug or mat, because the bare stone or concrete can drain all the energy from your body. In Chinese medicine, your body’s natural energy is called Qi (pronounced Chi). Likewise, it is also important not to lean back on anything, as this could also drain your Qi. If you must lean back on something, then have some insulation between you and the wall.
Some like to sit with their hips elevated on meditation cushions, known as ‘zafus’ in the Zen tradition; however, this does not promote a straight spine and should be avoided. Also, if it is too comfortable, you might doze off. In addition, sitting flat on the floor or a simple pad without a cushion is much more grounded and stable.
Rest your hands in your lap in the Vairochana mudra. The thumbs touching each other will close an important meridian to aid your Qi flow.
Full Lotus is the way to go!
When you use full-lotus posture, you will be able to achieve and maintain a much higher level of concentration than when sitting in half-lotus.
I highly recommend investing the time and effort to sit in full-lotus. Frankly, the full-lotus is one of the best kept secrets of Chan training. Although it is rather painful at first, if you can train yourself to overcome the pain, it is by far the best posture.
Sitting in full-lotus is much more advantageous than sitting in any other posture for the same amount of time. I tell my full-lotus students that they generate at least 50 times the benefits of my half-lotus students.
At first, full lotus may feel awkward and uncomfortable. Your knees might not touch the ground if they are stiff. However, if you keep practicing day after day, they will eventually become more flexible and will naturally lower to touch the floor.
Let me stress: if you can already cross your legs into the full-lotus posture, please do so. Do not opt for the lesser demanding posture. No pain, no gain! Remember, enduring discomfort builds concentration faster.
Please do not sell yourself short. If you are determined and are willing to train, in time, you too can learn to sit in full-lotus. Some may be able to start with full-lotus right away, while for others it may take longer, up to a year or more, before they can move to full lotus. However, other than those who have some kind of physical injury, everyone has the ability to eventually graduate to full-lotus.
There is nothing natural about sitting in full lotus. By design, we teach you to bend your legs and sit still, both of which are contrary to what you normally do. Further, bending your legs has an intended consequence: it hinders the circulation of your blood. Therefore, it will start hurting around your waist, knees or ankles.
Is that bad? Not necessarily!
The natural tendency is to unfold your legs and stand up because you are afraid of getting injured. Doing that, however, will defeat the purpose of the training.
When you feel pain in your lower extremities, you cannot help but think about it. In this case, we recommend that you do not give up. Instead, bear the leg pain a little longer than the previous time. Use a countdown timer to train yourself to endure a little longer each time, perhaps in one-minute or two-minute increments, instead of trusting your natural inclination to quit.
This is but an expedient to help you naturally develop your concentration.
Since most beginners have no way of stopping their “mad mind,” when they sit, the leg pain comes very quickly. But what about when it hurts, can you still false-think about other things? Of course not! At that point, you only have one thing in mind: the leg pain. That is concentration: the ability to think of only one thing, which in this case happens to be the thing that bothers you the most at that time: your leg pain. And logically, if you can endure your leg pain longer, then won’t that naturally increase your concentration power?
That is precisely the secret that the Chinese Chan practitioners employ, which people today no longer know about: they use the leg pain to train their concentration power.
The rule of thumb is: THE MORE PAIN YOU CAN ENDURE, THE BETTER YOU CAN CONCENTRATE. Furthermore, the longer you can endure, the more you will understand.
Is there an end to the pain? Of course, there is. Here is why. When the blood does not circulate well around your bent knees, your Qi naturally increases around the knees to try to break through the obstructions. The increased pain you feel is the proof that your Qi is trying to push through.
This is not for everyone, because it requires being able to bear the pain. If you manage to keep increasing your sit, the pain will increase correspondingly. Eventually, the Qi flow will be strong enough that it can break through the bend at the knees. When it does, your blood will naturally flow stronger and will no longer be constricted at your knees. That is how you break through the first pain barrier.
Herein lies another secret of the Chan lotus posture training. We are simply using your body’s inherent tendency to heal itself as a way of harnessing your Qi to develop concentration power.
Typically, you can overcome the first barrier if you manage to sit through your leg pain for 60 to 90 minutes. At that point, you have some significant Chan skills.
If focusing on the pain is at first too difficult, you can also do things to distract yourself from the pain. For instance, you can read sutras, or even watch TV. At the beginning stages, it does not even matter if you sit still. Just do whatever it takes to keep yourself from uncrossing your legs. In time you will get better at sitting through the pain barriers. Eventually, you will no longer need to resort to distractions and you will be able to remain motionless.
Trying to break through the first pain barrier is a very worthwhile goal for Chan practitioners. Unlike most other meditation schools, where people are allowed to stand up before the one-hour mark, we insist on one-hour sits at our temple. Whether you succeed or fail is less important than whether you make your best effort and keep trying. If you do not quit, then eventually you will make it. The Chan method of sitting for increasingly longer periods is another expedient, or tool, you can use to help you progress.
For those of you who opt for the faster track of developing concentration power by valiantly enduring the leg pains, let me give you a sense of what to expect:
Bear the intense leg pain until it starts subsiding. After the pain reaches its extreme, it will begin to subside.
The pain will decrease until it no longer hurts.
Your legs will feel numb.
Some people experience the soles of their feet becoming darker in color. This is because blood still has a hard time reaching the extremities of your legs.
Continue to sit until the soles of your feet look normal.
Typically, the leg pain is not easy to endure. However, if you persist, afterwards you will feel very blissful. And mentally, you will feel blissful because your thinking processes will be drastically reduced; all your worries will temporarily disappear.
There you have it! That is the recipe to systematically increase your concentration power much more rapidly than is possible with other meditation methods.
For example, one of my students practiced Zen for more than 10 years. I was having lunch at a cafeteria when he approached me to strike up a conversation. Being my usual blunt self, I told him, “You have been meditating for 10 years and yet you have no samadhi power at all! There is nothing to be proud of!” He asked, “What is samadhi power?” I explained to him that samadhi power, or concentration, is the measure by which meditation practitioners gauge their progress. I laughed and asked him why a Westerner like him, who was finishing up a Master’s degree program, would meditate and not even know whether he was making progress?
Now you know some basic Chan meditation techniques. The next step is to start applying them. If you wish to make progress, you should practice regularly: if possible, every day.