By Akong Tulku Rinpoche
We sit down to meditate in
order to help us tame the mind and find inner peace, but how should we
best go about it? First of all, the environment is important. For
beginners especially it is best to try and find a quiet place, free of
distracting noises like talking or laughter, but natural noises like
running water or birdsong are alright; especially if they give a
we are sitting outdoors, then the countryside and other quiet places
are good. It is especially good to sit at the top of a hill from which
we can see a long way. Alternatively, to be by the calm ocean with no
visual distractions is also very good. Often we do not have the
opportunity to be in such places, but then we must try and find the
quietest surroundings that we can.
If we are sitting indoors,
the room should be as free as possible from distractions, and
well-ventilated, not stuffy. The temperature should not be so cold that
we shiver, nor so warm that we feel sleepy and dull. Generally, it is
better for it to be a little cold rather than too warm, so that the
mind is clear.
Once we have found the best environment for our
practice, it is important to learn how to sit properly. The postures we
use can affect how we feel in our meditation and our day-to-day life.
If we look at it from a medical viewpoint, we can see that the body has
arteries, veins and muscles, each connected to the organs. In the
Tibetan and Chinese systems of healing these organs can be diagnosed
and treated by putting pressure on particular parts of the hands, neck
or feet. This is because of the meridians, the channels by which
energies flow throughout the body.
When sitting, if we are
careful not to block the flow of these energies, then they can flow
freely without our becoming too uncomfortable or doing any harm to our
body. We can see how, if an artery in one leg is blocked, then that leg
will go to sleep. Similarly, a blockage in the flow of energy through
the body while sitting will produce unhappy, unbalanced feelings. For
example, some bad positions will feel good to begin with but after a
few days may well produce feelings of depression. Other wrong
positions, like having our head sunk down between our shoulders, might
bring depression to begin with but later, after the session is over, an
uncontrollable excitement may arise. Further, if we use angry words to
our relatives and friends after doing the exercises, then our posture
could be responsible.
However, some might disagree and prefer
their own way of sitting because of the powerful experiences and
emotions which arise, such as joy or anger. But we have enough of these
kinds of extreme feelings already without needing to cultivate them
further. So in doing these exercises we try to sit in a neutral,
First of all. it is important, if possible, to sit
in a cross-legged posture. The Lotus and Semi-Lotus postures are best.
This is because they help one to sit for long periods with the spine
erect and also help keep energies flowing self-containedly in the body.
However, if we are not able to sit in them due, for example, to leg
trouble or the stiffness of growing older, there is no need to try and
break our legs. Sitting cross-legged is comfortable for most people and
is quite acceptable. Otherwise, we can just sit in a chair. If we are
young, however, and have no physical disability then it is useful to
learn how to sit in the different versions of the cross-legged
Either in the Lotus or Semi-Lotus position, we always
put the left leg inside and the right leg outside. The left is folded
first, followed by the right leg. With the full Lotus posture, one puts
the left foot and ankle up on the right thigh and then puts the right
foot and ankle up on the left thigh. In the Semi-Lotus position, the
left foot is drawn in with the heel pointing towards the base of the
spine and then the right leg is drawn in with the heel placed above the
other one. Remember, however, to go cautiously if there is any
difficulty with these.
Then we should try to straighten our
backbone as much as possible up to our neck. This is partly because
each organ in the body is connected through the nervous system to the
spine. So if the spine is bent or out of place, then it can cause pain
or discomfort in other parts of the body. When we straighten our
backbone, our energies can flow freely. Our bodies should feel
balanced, with the shoulders straight but relaxed, not forced back, and
not higher on one side than the other.
In order to straighten
the spine and keep it erect, we should use a small, hard cushion two to
four inches in thickness and about twelve to fourteen inches square,
depending on what is a comfortable position for us. If we are sitting
in a Lotus position we should use a higher cushion (about four inches)
as necessary. If crossing one or two legs over is too uncomfortable,
then we may sit in the same way, but with the legs loosely crossed.
Another possibility, which is comfortable for some, is kneeling
supported by a low stool (sometimes called the Burmese posture with the
legs tucked underneath the torso) or supported by cushions either way
so that the back is balanced and straight.
There are two
positions for the hands. We may rest the hands palms down on the knees
with the elbows straightened; alternatively, we can rest the open right
hand on top of the open left hand with the thumbs touching, but not
pressing, and have the hands one and a half inches below the navel. In
this second position, we should try not to have the hands resting too
low or too high. The neck should be very slightly inclined, with the
chin tucked inwards. The mouth should be slightly open with the tongue
touching the roof of the mouth. In this way we can breathe through the
mouth and the nostrils together in whatever position is comfortable.
eyes should be looking forward beyond the top of our nostrils, about
one and a half to two yards in front of us. For beginners it is
probably wiser not to close the eyes. However the eyes maybe closed if
we are visualising something. We should remove glasses and not focus
the eyes in an artificial way.
The position of the body is
important. The idea is not to hold our body inside a rigid frame or
chain it with pieces of iron like a prisoner. A relaxed way is better.
For example, we can think of cotton wool. It is very loose and relaxed,
while at the same time all the fibres are separate. They are together
but in a loose way. Similarly, our posture should be balanced: neither
too loose nor too tight. With practice, this will help our minds to be
Question: Why is the cross-legged posture preferable to kneeling with the support of a bench or a cushion?
In general, sitting cross-legged is more beneficial for the mind; but
for those unable to sit that way then kneeling would certainly not be
Question: So if the legs are very tight and the
knees stick up in the air when sitting cross-legged, should we persist
in trying to sit this way? And if so, what advice can you give which
will make it easier to do so properly?
Rinpoche: Yes, it
would be useful to try a little physical training in order to achieve
the ideal position. Different people have different problems in this
respect, but in general regular exercises - stretching and so on -
should be helpful, as well as regular massage. The important thing is
not to try too hard, not to force anything.
Question: Rinpoche, do you feel it's significant that, as Westerners, over many generations we've become so used to using chairs?
I wouldn't know exactly. Maybe it's a sign of restlessness, of being
ready at any time to get up and move to somewhere else. Or it could be
laziness - when you're halfway up and halfway down you don't need so
much energy to go either more up or more down. But I'm only guessing.
I find it easier to sit cross-legged when my right leg is tucked under
the left one, rather than the other way round. Is this okay?
It very much depends how far your therapy goes: if it's purely physical
then it may not be so important; but if the aim is to practise
meditation, too, then it would probably be more useful to try and learn
the way that is suggested. So although in the beginning it may not
really matter, a little courage now could be more beneficial in the
Question: Why can't we have our palms facing upwards on our knees when we meditate?
Rinpoche: When you sit with your hands in that position, you are inviting energies and forces from outside (and hence distractions).
Question: I'm keen to sit in a full Lotus - how should I proceed?
You can use various exercises to make your body more supple. However,
the most important thing is to go gradually. If the postures do not
come easily at the beginning, then only sit in them for a short time at
the beginning in order not to strain the body. Otherwise the
possibility of sitting in the Lotus posture will be impaired.
Reference: Excerpt from 'Taming the Tiger' by Akong Tulku Rinpoche