In this article I will share some reflections about sitting, arisen after I attended a one-day Vipassanā course in Helsinki. These short retreats are targeted at Vipassanā students in the tradition of S.N. Goenka who already participated in one ten-day course. Throughout the one-day course, you have the chance to revise the main points of the meditation technique, and to find support and inspiration for your daily practice.
The course provided about seven hours of meditation, with pause every one hour for ten minutes, and a lunch break. My greatest surprise was to find myself able to sit in each meditation-slot without changing posture. This small achievement was actually a valuable lesson to me. As I am about to describe, I believe stillness to be the result not just of an ergonomic meditation posture, but also of a relaxed, aware and equanimous mental attitude.
The search for a suitable way of sitting has been one of my leitmotivs since I began meditating. Initially, I simply sat on a chair, with my back straight. Being myself rather skinny, my sitting bones started to hurt after a few minutes, no matter if I sat on a hard chair or on a sofa with a soft cushion under my buttocks. Other critical areas were my lower back, my shoulders, and my neck.
When I met Vipassanā meditation, I finally found a tool for dealing with whatever sensation would appear in the framework of my body – pain included! – because bodily sensations are the main object of observation in this practice. Whenever an uncomfortable sensation manifested in my body, I was taught to impartially observe it. No attachment towards pleasant sensations, no aversion towards unpleasant ones: I just had to be aware of their intrinsic impermanence.
This tool naturally helped me to sit still for longer periods. I began to sit on a cushion, either with crossed legs or in the Burmese posture, or on a wooden meditation bench in the Seiza posture. Being closer to the floor makes me feel more grounded and stable. Furthermore, when I sit with crossed legs my sitting bones do not hurt: I guess that this posture allows the buttocks’ muscles and the little fat I have to ‘fold’ and protect my bones in a more effective way…
After my first ten-day Vipassanā course, my back cramps were gone: by sitting still for many hours a day, my body had to learn to give up the grosser muscular tensions and to relax. Yet, my legs often became numb, and at times my joints got inflamed. I continued searching for a meditation posture more suitable to my bodily structure, by making small adjustments in the position of my legs and by using extra pillows as supports. My hip joints are quite tight, so I am not able to sit in the lotus. Furthermore, I have varus knees, and this seems to complicate the chances of crossing my legs comfortably.
Lately, I began to sit on a cushion, with crossed legs. The cushion lies on a thin mattress, which allows my feet to sink softly into the floor. I place two small trekking pillows between my knees and heels, in order to create space and support. My thighs rest parallel to the floor. I adopted this system in my last one-day Vipassanā course too. My posture felt very good for the first thirty minutes. Then, little by little, cramps and pain came and visit my legs, knees and hip joints. But somehow, this time I trusted that no harm would come from my sitting posture.
It took a while to realize – and to admit! – that my cramps were caused by tiny contractions in the muscles around my joints, which gradually cumulated and became more intense. I wondered how I could not spot them before, in all these years. These contractions were the physical response to my mental reactions towards various thoughts and bodily sensations. For example, it was enough for me to feel slightly bored or frustrated, for growing a sense of oppression in my chest. Out of this uncomfortable sensation, I would react with further thoughts of rebellion, and I would unconsciously begin to contract one or two muscles in my most vulnerable joints. There the physical pain would start. But the truth was that before experiencing pain, I already generated the conditions for suffering in my mind.
After this embarrassing insight, the feeling of pain became milder and much more manageable, till it faded away. The most of the time there was no pain at all. When pain came, I was able to welcome it as any other sensation. In those moments, I just let go any will to react and I allowed myself to rest in an attitude of gentle witnessing. My legs and knees felt perfectly ok after seven hours of sitting.
It is not my intent to celebrate such a temporary ‘success’. When I will sit in the next course, I might find myself in a very different place, and who knows how many times I will have to move on my meditation cushion. Yet, the goal of stillness was an important reminder to me. Any time I believe I already know how to impartially observe my body and mind, a new layer of unawareness gets pealed off. Once again, I realized how easily I can be the cause of my own suffering, as well as the key-holder of my own inner peace.
Be still, and know that I am God. Psalm 46, 10
In perfect tranquillity, all grief is annihilated. Bhagavad Gita 2, 65
Know the stillness of freedom, where there is no more striving. Dhammapada 10, 6
Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature. Tao Te Ching 16