I spoke the other day about one of the three key elements of meditation practice – attention to the breath, a healing breath. One of the others is sitting still. This seems like an easy enough thing to do, and in the current circumstances, there seems like little else we can do, but it does need some practice for most of us! There’s an excellent little mediation book for kids called ‘Sitting Still Like a Frog’, but I’ve always found encouragement in stillness from another water-loving creature – the heron.
Of course, they stand rather than sit but the stillness they achieve is stunning. The stillness is preparation for action – specifically hunting in the case of the heron – and for the meditator, the action that flows from stillness is simply our daily life, which, the more we practice, is not really separable from stillness. It’s rather like the ‘praying without ceasing’ so sought after by the Russian pilgrim in The Way of a Pilgrim – one’s whole life becomes prayer because it is thoroughly embodied.
Back to the business of sitting still. The first thing it needs is stability, which is why a cross-legged position has such a lot to commend it. It provides a stable tripod for the body and, as long as you’re raised a little on a cushion, allows for diaphragmatic breathing. It pays to sway around a little before you start so that you find a balanced point and so that you eliminate any potential cramps early on. I use quite a thick mat below the cushion, which I find gives more support to ankles. If you’re sitting on a chair, it’s best not to rest your back on the chair back and you can use a cushion or wedge to get the height right. Having a straight back and neck allows for freer breathing.
Another element of traditional zazen is to keep one’s eyes open. I found this difficult at first, having been used to meditating with closed eyes, but as time has gone on, I find it less distracting – fewer spiralling thoughts take hold when I’m not turned inwards. The important thing is to be looking around but resting the eyes downwards at a point not too far in front of you. Many Soto Zen practitioners face a blank wall and that can help to reduce distractions too.
There is also a tradition of standing to pray contemplatively and this is often the posture used by those who pray the Jesus Prayer together. The same principles apply – balance, stability and stillness. It really is true that stability of body is connected to stability of mind and mental agitation can be addressed by bodily stillness.
I conclude with Norman Fischer’s excellent rendering of Psalm 131 – the contemplative’s psalm par excellence:
YOU KNOW THAT MY HEART is not haughty
nor my eyes lofty
Neither have I reached for things
too great and too wonderful for me
But I have calmed and settled my heart
And it is contented
Like a child surfeited on a mother’s breast
Like a suckling child is my heart
Let those who question and struggle
Wait quiet like this for you
From this day forth