An unexpected book arrived in the mail the other day. A gift from my friend’s at Wisdom Publications. Zen Master Raven: The Teachings of a Wise Old Bird. by Zen Master human form, Robert Aitken. Here the koans are told by and to animals of the forest: raven, porcupine, owl, woodpecker, badger, black bear, and […]
If you listen carefully to my meditation instructions, you might detect a contradiction. On the one hand, I de-emphasize the posture because I don’t want people to get deterred by the physical difficulties of sitting. On the other hand, I encourage everyone to sit still and to resist the reflexive tendency to scratch every itch. Sitting practice opens to a new dimension when you are not compelled to relieve every discomfort that comes your way.
So, which is it? Don’t sit still or sit still? Perhaps the contradiction is avoided by viewing the transition from not worrying about the posture to being still like a rock through time.
I have observed in my own practice that whenever my attention leaves the present moment to explore some story, my body starts to move. I re-adjust my posture, crack my back or neck, and scratch itches without realizing it. I recently came across some notes on embodied cognition, a fascinating field of research that confirms that many of our concepts reflect embodied states. Giving someone the cold shoulder or a weighty idea are not just flourishes of language, they represent actually embodied states. That is, people feel colder when they are socially rejected; a clipboard with important ideas feels heavier.
These findings from embodied cognition have implications for meditation practice too. If the body is moving, perhaps the mind is moving. If the body is still, perhaps this gives the mind a better chance to be still. I say a better chance because we certainly no that it is not a guarantee. The physical posture of sitting becomes an embodied metaphor for stillness. You come to understand the potential for stillness in the mind by experiencing stillness in your body.
If you read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, you will find detailed instructions on how to sit. In fact, these are pretty much the entirety of Shunryu Suzuki’s meditation instructions. The practice of sitting and sitting still is the practice. If you start out trying to sit in a rock-solid technical way, you might be deterred from practice. This is why I de-emphasize posture for beginning students. However, if you don’t eventually work at becoming still, your practice will get stuck.
At the same time, you can get stuck by focusing too much on the physical posture. Some people are just good at sitting and the mind can still be off the leash. As with everything, we seek balance. Try to firm up your posture and notice what effect this has on the mind.
Enjoy sitting still!