The Right Stuff

“Assuming a correct and upright posture causes one’s mind naturally to come to rest in a state of tranquillity or peace.” — Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

This “correct and upright posture” can be achieved on a traditional meditation cushion, in a chair, standing up, or even lying down. Assuming you can handle standing up without special equipment…

Sitting on the Floor

Most people who are able to sit on a cushion to meditate choose to do so. Since most of us in the West have lost our childhood flexibility, we need to choose our meditation cushion carefully. You want something that gives your bottom enough height from the ground that your legs can fold without discomfort.

Unfortunately a regular sleeping or couch cushion is unlikely to provide the right support. A folded blanket or stack of folded towels is better, but in this as in all things it is best to have the very thing designed to do exactly what you want it to to. You need a proper meditation cushion.

cushionsA standard round meditation cushion is called a zafu (Japanese word). A larger area mat for under your feet and knees is a great thing to have. If you are not a very flexible person, you may also want an extra support cushion to give you an inch or two of extra height. All three are shown at right.

You can buy one in person at Snow Lion in Toronto. The advantage with this is that you can road-test your prospective seat. They are located 708 Pape Avenue, a few steps north of Danforth.

If you prefer to order online, REALthings Cushions is a Canadian manufacturer who have a great website with a lot of good choices, reasonably priced: www.realthingscushions.com. For a U.S. option Samadhi Cushions in Vermont also have an excellent on-line ordering website: www.samadhicushions.com

med-benchIf you like to be on the floor but have difficulty with folding your legs, you may want to consider a meditation bench. With your legs underneath, you rest your bottom on them, allowing you to kneel without squishing your legs. This is also available on-line, but if you’re interested in this I suggest you try to find one in real life and road test it first: success depends on the state of your knees, thickness of your legs, height of the actual bench, etc. You will need to combine this with a folded blanket, thick carpet, or zabuton (see above) to support your knees and ankles.

Sitting in a Chair

chairThe fact that nearly all Buddhist meditation instruction assumes you are sitting on the floor has a lot to do with the fact that Buddhist meditation was developed in places where chairs were not available for any but the highest classes. There, people very naturally maintain the ability to sit comfortably on the floor for long periods. Although lots of Western people like to sit on the floor, it’s definitely not for everyone.

Good news! It is perfectly O.K. to meditate on a chair. Just pick one with a straight back (or no back). Your feet should be able to rest flat on the floor: if you’re a small person you may need to use a flat cushion to rest them on.

kneelerAnother alternative is something called a “kneeler” or an “ergonomic chair”…these are available in most office supply stores. By resting your knees on the lower pad and your bottom on the upper pad, you are supported in a half-kneeling position that aligns your back very nicely without any special flexibility or effort. Even if you meditate on the floor, I recommend trying one of these at your desk, particularly if you spend long hours there. It will help you strengthen your lower back.

Lying on the Floor

You need equipment for this? Well, yes, in a way. Certain things become obvious as soon as you try it — a carpet or folded blanket is more comfortable than hardwood floor, etc. A bed is OK too. What is not obvious is this: do whatever it takes to lift your head about 1-3 inches from the floor. The objective here is to lift the back of your head to allow for the natural curve of the spine.

A very flat, firm cushion will do this, but a medium-sized book or a few National Geographics work even better. Sleeping cushions are not recommended, as they are puffy in the middle and so tend to tilt your head forward rather than lift it up. Everybody’s different, so experiment.