Establishing a suitable setting for your meditation position, or practicing mindfulness is not complicated, but it requires some forethought and perhaps a bit of imagination and experimentation.
The basic physical preparations for beginning practice to cultivate the mind include putting the body in a safe, pleasant environment and taking up a posture that will allow it to remain still and feels stable for a longer-than-usual period.
With these external factors in place, the mind will start to follow and will find it easier to become calm and focused.
Table of Contents
I. Establishing a Suitable Setting for your Meditation Position
Because our minds have been conditioned to become easily distracted, it is essential to set aside a special place and time to minimize those distractions and allow the mind to concentrate on learning to concentrate. As the mind is reconditioned in more skillful ways, it will become easier to move beyond the special practice setting to everyday life.
This is not to say, however, that you should strictly confine your practice to special times and places until you’ve mastered mindfulness. Exercising mindfulness in a special context is intended only to support the development of moment-to-moment awareness throughout the rest of our lives.
II. Four Key Elements in Your Meditation Position and Practice
1. Determining the Most Appropriate Time for Your Practice
Deciding on the best time to practice meditation is probably the most individual of all the decisions you’ll make concerning the external factors of this discipline. You alone can determine the best time to practice, and you may have to try different times to figure out your answer.
Because you’ll ultimately want to set aside about 20–45 minutes for your daily meditation, it is important to decide when you can carve out that much time to be free from interruptions or other distractions.
You’ll also want to take into consideration the times your body and mind are most conducive to practice. You might even dabble with times that seem counterintuitive.
Less important than the time of day is the regularity with which you practice; it matters greatly that you make an effort daily. At first, it will probably be difficult to devote 20–45 minutes a day to the practice, so 5 minutes is fine as long as you commit to a regular schedule.
As the benefits of the discipline become more apparent, you’ll find it easier to make time to practice, and you’ll probably begin to protect those times with great zeal. However, do not expect this at first; the benefits of mindfulness practice are gradual and cumulative.
Finally, you should have access to a timer of some sort. The timer allows you to determine before you start how long you intend to practice, and it will help keep you committed to fulfilling that intention.
2. Creating the Most Congenial Location for Your Practice
Your physical environment needs to be conducive to the facilitation of moment-to-moment awareness. Accordingly, the place you choose to meditate needs to be as quiet as possible and free from distractions and interruption.
Whether you create a special space or just use a chair in the dining room, you may find it helpful to use the same place each time you practice. Returning to the same location helps your mind and body readily prepare for meditation and obviates the need to become familiar with a new setting.
Ideally, your practice space should be relatively free of visual as well as other distractions—especially noise. Your practice space must be pleasant; it should be inviting and calming in whatever way you see fit.
If you’re a traditionalist, you may find the time-honored forest setting to your liking. In the ancient days, when the techniques of yoga and mindfulness were being refined and practiced by great numbers of people in South Asia, it was customary to meditate out of doors.
Most importantly, the Hindu Upanishads, some of the earliest documents to record instructions in contemplative practice, urge the aspirant to find a quiet, safe, uncluttered, and agreeable place to practice.
Note: Your meditation practice space should be pleasant; some people prefer to scent it with incense.
3. Learning to Put the Body in a Proper Position for Meditation
Like time and place, the bodily posture for meditation practice is governed by the aim of crafting a calm and alert mind. To create these conditions, it is helpful, at least initially, to bring the body into a still and stable position.
The classic position for meditating, of course, is sitting. Seasoned meditators, in fact, often refer to the discipline simply as “sitting” or “sitting practice.” Just as one can be mindful anywhere, one can cultivate mindfulness skills in any physical position—including standing, lying down, and walking.
With practice, the unaccustomed body can be trained to sit directly on the ground in, for example, the classic lotus position. In this traditional pose, one sits on the bare floor or a thin cushion and places the right foot on top of the left thigh and the left foot on top of the right thigh.
While it is relatively easy to get into the full lotus position, maintaining it can be quite difficult and painful for the novice. Using a cushion or chair works just as well in the beginning, and the urgency of getting to mindfulness practice outweighs the need to learn the traditional position.
If you choose to use a cushion, find one that will elevate your body at least five to six inches from the floor—may be more if you are tall. This elevation allows you to cross your legs comfortably without tiring too quickly and permits necessary circulation throughout the body.
You will also find it very helpful to wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothes for your practice. In addition, you should remove your shoes because shoes can restrict the flow of circulation—just as tight-fitting clothes can.
What is wonderful about sitting on a cushion is that you don’t have to entangle your legs in the compact way required by the lotus position. You may simply cross your legs at the ankles without having to place your feet on opposite thighs—a position known as the Burmese style.
A posture called seiza involves sitting on your calves with your knees, shins, and feet resting on the ground. This manner of sitting is very common throughout Japan, even among those who do not practice meditation.
Using a chair for mindfulness practice is almost the same as using it for ordinary sitting—but with a few important exceptions. First, you should keep both feet flat on the floor without crossing them. This position promotes a feeling of stability and prevents cramping or other painful sensations.
Second, you should not use the back of the chair for support. Sit away from the back of the chair to avoid leaning on it. Although it feels more comfortable initially, you will soon be tired and will find yourself moving your body to find a more comfortable position. Remember, we are seeking a posture that will enable us to avoid unnecessary movement.
All forms of sitting—on the ground, on a cushion, on a bench, and in a chair—are designed to prevent the back from resting against an external object. The purpose of this design is to encourage the back to remain in a position conducive to mental alertness and the smooth flow of breathing.
Note: The place you choose to meditate needs to be quiet and free from distractions and interruptions.
4. The Position of the Back
Wherever you choose to sit, the position of the back will be ultimately the same. Keep your back straight but not rigid. There should be a slight curvature following the natural contours of the spine. To achieve this position, you may find it helpful to roll your hips forward a bit as you elongate your back.
Regardless of what you sit on, it may be useful to imagine a string attached to the crown of your skull that is pulling it upward toward the ceiling. This visualization helps lengthen the backbone while drawing down the shoulders and keeping the head in its proper position for practice.
At first, remaining in this position may be uncomfortable because we are not accustomed to using the lower back muscles in this way. Over time, though, those muscles will strengthen, and maintaining this posture will not be difficult at all.
Now that you have found a steady place for your legs, focus your attention on the back. Allow it to elongate and follow its natural curvature. Permit your shoulders to relax by coaxing them down toward the floor and drawing them toward the spine.
III. Other Physical Preparations for your Meditation Position
With legs and back in place while in your meditation position, we can now attend to the hands and arms. Traditionally, the upper extremities find their place in two locations. So, the first approach for your meditation position is that you may put your hands in your lap, one on top of the other. A second approach is to place the hands on the knees— either palm down or up.
You will probably need to experiment with your arms and hands to decide which position is right for you. Your criteria for making this determination are comfort and stability: Choose the posture that allows you to remain still for the longest period.
With the chin essentially level with the floor, we now consider what to do with the various elements of the head. Because a great deal of muscular tension accrues in this region of the body, try to relax those muscles systematically. Move your jaw around and allow it to hang slightly from the rest of the head. Keep your lips lightly closed or slightly parted. Let your tongue relax in your mouth.
Next, you must decide what to do with your eyes. You can meditate with the eyes open or shut; both approaches have their advantages. Keeping the eyes closed helps eliminate external visual distractions, but closed eyes permit a range of rather amazing internal distractions.
Open-eye practice, though, promotes alertness. You may find that keeping your eyes closed for an extended time makes you drowsy, but keeping the eyes open works against that. If you choose to practice with open eyes, you should direct your vision to a point on the ground in front of you about six feet away from your body.
You may wish to try both open and closed eyes to determine which approach is most helpful. If you have never practiced meditative disciplines before, you might want to begin with closed eyes simply to assist in removing visual distractions and promoting concentration. Later, you can try to practice with your eyes open and see how that style suits you.
IV. Important Things to Remember while in your Meditation Position:
A. Burmese style:
In this position, one sits on a cushion, crossing the legs at the ankles without having to place the feet on opposite thighs—as when sitting on the floor.
B. lotus position:
In this traditional pose, one sits on the bare floor or a thin cushion and places the right foot on top of the left thigh and the left foot on top of the right thigh.
A posture that involves sitting on one’s calves with the knees, shins, and feet resting on the ground. This manner of sitting is very common throughout Japan, even among those who do not practice meditation.
One of the earliest Hindu documents in which instructions in contemplative practice were recorded.
V. Things to Consider for your Meditation Position:
1. Why is it important to set aside a specific place and time for practicing mindfulness?
2. If you have chosen a time and place for your sitting practice, how does the environment make you feel? Relaxed, anxious, happy, or uncomfortable? Is there anything you can do to make the setting more conducive to meditating?
(Related: Mindfulness and Health: An In-Depth Overview)