192 – Los Ocho Vientos Mundanos: Ganancia, Pérdida, Estatus, Desgracia, Elogio, Desaprobación, Placer, Dolor
193 – Dolor en la Meditación 1: ¿Por qué la Postura Sentada?

Many – if not most – meditators experience physical discomfort during seated meditation. This discomfort ranges from restlessness to severe pain. It’s worth exploring how to sit more comfortably, because otherwise you might be inclined to fidget when you sit, to sit less, or even to stop doing seated meditation entirely. In this episode I talk about why the seated meditation posture is so important, despite its tendency to cause some measure of discomfort. I also discuss the idea that mind and body are not separate, and in what way our discomfort always has both a physical and a psychological component.

In the next episode, I’ll review the basic instructions for seated meditation (also see Episode 3 – Zazen (Seated Meditation) Part 1: What Zazen Is and How to Do It), emphasizing where changes can be made to minimize discomfort or pain. I’ll also talk about the value of learning to tolerate – that is, sit still through – discomfort, and how to know whether and when it’s the right thing to do. Finally, I’ll discuss what you can do to share in the benefits of meditation even if you can’t maintain a seated posture for any significant length of time.

 

Quicklinks to Article Content:
Why Do Seated Meditation If It’s Uncomfortable?
Understanding What’s Going on in Seated Meditation
The Value of Sitting Still
Mind and Body Are Not Two
The Psychological Component of Discomfort in Seated Meditation

 

Why Do Seated Meditation If It’s Uncomfortable?

First, why is it so valuable to do seated, motionless meditation? (Note: I am going to use the terms “seated meditation” and “zazen” – which is seated Zen meditation – interchangeably, but what I’m sharing applies to any kind of seated meditation you do.) This part of the episode may seem like a pretty big digression if you’ve tuned in largely to get some tips on sitting with less pain. I promise I’ll get around that subject, but I think it’s important to first establish why we do seated meditation in the first place. Why should we bother to endure discomfort, or try to overcome it?

It’s important to acknowledge from the outset that our seated meditation pretty much inevitably becomes uncomfortable at some point, especially as we age, or when we sit for many hours a day at a meditation retreat. There are some ways the posture is good for us physically – encouraging good spinal posture, reducing stress – but we’re really not built to sit immobile for hours at a time no matter what posture we’re in!

So, why do we take the seated meditation posture? Other activities can be “meditative,” like walking, swimming, running, or gardening. Why focus on still, seated meditation? To a certain extent this is a mystery – in the sense that we can’t capture the reasons in words, or the reasons are complex and involve aspects of ourselves which are beyond the reach of our conscious mind. To a certain extent the value of our zazen was established through trial and error, the direct, personal experience of thousands of people over thousands of years.

Most of us adopt a meditation practice because someone recommends it. We give it a good try and see whether it makes a difference in our lives. If you’ve meditated for longer than a few weeks, it probably means that it does make a positive difference in your life – even if that difference is hard to describe or quantify. Often, zazen brings about a subtle shift in the way we relate to life as a whole, even when our sitting doesn’t feel like we hope it will (calm, relaxing, enjoyable, etc.). The way zazen works on us seems to be largely physical and subconscious.

 

Understanding What’s Going on in Seated Meditation

If I’m going to try to explain why we sit, though, I like to cite The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, a former M.D. at Harvard Medical School.[i] The book was originally published in 1975 and I’m sure the research has gone on from there, but this was one of the first books written for the lay person which made an objective, evidence-based case for the benefits of meditation. Benson did research on several kinds of meditation and found all of them, at least to some extent, caused a change in the body that was essentially the opposite of the stress response. Benson names this the “relaxation response.” He explains:

“Walter B. Cannon, the famous Harvard physiologist… discovered ‘the fight-or-flight response’… For those of you unfamiliar with this finding, it was revolutionary. The fight-or-flight response offered glimpses into the evolutionary momentum that equips modern human beings with keen physiologic survival instincts… When faced with stressful situations, our bodies release hormones – adrenaline and noradrenaline, or epinephrine and norepinephrine – to increase heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, metabolic rate and blood flow to the muscles, gearing our bodies either to do battle with an opponent or to flee.

 

“Our study revealed that the opposite was also true. The body is also imbued with that I termed the Relaxation Response – an inducible, physiologic state of quietude. Indeed, our progenitors handed down to us a second, equally essential survival mechanism- the ability to heal and rejuvenate our bodies. In modern times, the Relaxation Response is undoubtedly even more important to our survival, since anxiety and tension often inappropriately trigger the flight-or-flight response in us. Regular elicitation of the Relaxation Response can prevent, and compensate for, the damage incurred by frequent nervous reactions that pulse through our hearts and bodies.”[ii]

Notably, certain aspects of the healing brought about by the relaxation response are not achieved even by getting good sleep. Also, Benson says, even though the stress response is often elicited in us automatically, the relaxation response “can be evoked only if time is set aside and conscious effort is made.”[iii] We’ll probably never know the true story, but one theory is that the human habit of meditation started evolving when small bands of humans gathered around fires at night. The fire and the presence of others provided safety and warmth, allowing ancient people to relax and stare thoughtfully into the flames. I wonder whether watching a fire was naturally mesmerizing and encouraged early humans to meditate, or if we evolved a habit of meditating around campfires, and that’s why it’s so captivating to watch the flames dance.[iv]

Because every type of meditation claims to be the best, Benson sought to find the simplest possible set of conditions that would elicit the relaxation response – basically, something all the successful meditative approaches had, more or less, in common. He boiled it down to four things: A quiet environment; a mental device – some extremely simple “activity” to which you devote yourself, which has no practical purpose, such repeating a word or following the breath; a passive attitude (not trying to achieve anything, not worrying about how well you’re doing), and a comfortable position.

 

The Value of Sitting Still

Okay, given that at least one of the things we’re trying to do in meditation is elicit the relaxation response, why is it important to be seated, and why is it important to sit still? Basically, the answer is that sitting still is the simplest possible activity we can engage in without falling asleep. Lying down might be simpler, but we’d likely fall asleep.

In meditation, we want to relax as completely as possible and be able to concentrate on creating the conditions for the relaxation response. When we sit, we don’t have to move. We have no decisions to make. Assuming we’ve chosen a relatively quiet place to sit where we won’t be interrupted, our exposure to new stimuli (sights, sounds, smells, pieces of information, the responses of others, etc.) will be minimized. For the time being we’re not getting anything useful done, allowing us to concentrate on eliciting the relaxation response. You may feel like your meditation is far from relaxing because it’s full of thinking, but relative to the rest of your life, it’s probably quite calm. When Benson was measuring the relaxation response, he said what was important was a passive attitude, and that thoughts were to be expected and not a problem.

I’ve often heard people mention that other activities are their “meditation.” People describe being able to have a meditative experience while running, swimming, cooking, cleaning, painting, playing a musical instrument, etc. I suspect that something akin to the relaxation response – or perhaps the full response – happens at such times, if someone uses their physical sensations as their meditative object. These kinds of meditative activities can be great, especially if you don’t sit. However, activities like running and gardening are inevitably going to involve more mental stimulation (sights, sounds, etc.) and decisions, however small (which way to turn at the next corner, which weed to pull). Most meditative activities also involve some ulterior motive, such as better health, home-grown vegetables, cleanliness, or even simply pleasure.

In contrast, the benefit – and challenge – of seated meditation is its utter uselessness. I suspect no meditative activity compares with it in terms of how conducive it is to letting go of everything except your basic meditative method. I also suspect the power of seated meditation extends far beyond the relaxation response as measured by Benson. There’s a spiritual or existential dimension engaged when we sit still with nothing but our own minds for company. Sitting for many hours a day over the course of a retreat probably alters your body and mind in a way that goes far beyond a temporary relaxation response.

Ironically, the classic seated meditation posture – cross-legged, sitting on the ground – is supposed to be comfortable. Everything is relative. If the point is to sit upright so you don’t fall asleep and to keep a decent posture so you don’t end up squirming in pain, the cross-legged posture is about as comfortable as any other one we can adopt. Just look around a room some time, where people are sitting during a class or meeting and can take whatever posture they like. Generally, speaking, people will shift their position every minute or so. If they were asked to hold any one of the random positions they chose for 20-30 minutes, it would probably be excruciating by the end. The classic meditation posture is balanced and doesn’t strain any particular muscle group.

Truthfully, though, an upright seated meditation posture isn’t supposed to be too comfortable. Ideally, it’s just comfortable enough to keep you from squirming or experiencing pain, but if it’s too comfortable (think leaning back in an overstuffed recliner), you’re very unlikely to remain alert.

 

Mind and Body Are Not Two

The physical discomfort we experience during seated meditation can range from subtle restlessness to severe pain. There are practical things we can do to decrease the discomfort of meditation, like changing what we sit on, or altering the position of our legs. I’ll get to those in the next episode. It’s valuable to recognize, however, that any physical discomfort we experience (and not just in meditation) has both a physical and a psychological component.

There is a tendency – at least in western cultures – to think of body and mind as separate. Many of us are likely to figure our discomfort in zazen is purely physical. We either fix the discomfort by changing our position or fidgeting, or endure sitting as a kind of mild torture, or we conclude our body isn’t up for sitting and we stop.

However, mind and body are not two. Some of us have experienced this firsthand in the middle of a long meditation retreat. You might figure that, if you feel mild discomfort during a 30-minute period of sitting, 7-8 hours a day of seated meditation would kill you. Amazingly, it doesn’t. That’s not to say there aren’t periods of considerable discomfort, but at a certain point – and maybe it’s the fact that you’re soaking in the relaxation response so much – the pain doesn’t get much worse and can even go away.

Dramatically, a decrease in physical pain based on what you do with your mind is something you might experience within the course of a single meditation period. I’ve had parts of my body screaming with excruciating pain – a knee, or hip, or my upper back – and I’ve been counting the seconds, cursing the timekeeper who must have fallen asleep and left us sitting there too long. Tension and fear flood my body. On occasion, though, perhaps because I’ve already been sitting for several days, I’m able to stop fighting the pain. I just relax and let it be. I make the choice to sit still even if it kills me, and settle into wholehearted acceptance. And miraculously, the pain recedes in importance. Not only am I no longer as upset emotionally, the pain usually decreases as well, to the point where, when I finally get to stand up, I’m no worse for the wear.

Note, however, that it’s dangerous to swing over to the other side of the mind versus body duality and conclude that you can override any physical phenomenon with a shift in attitude. That’s simply not true, and even if we could develop super mind control in theory, that doesn’t mean we have such a capacity at this moment. We don’t want to blame ourselves for our pain or see it as a sign of our inadequacy. Each of us has a different body and faces different challenges.

Also, as I’ll discuss more in the next episode, there are types of pain we should not just sit through. A good guideline is to think of pain like a stoplight; green is great, yellow is the kind of discomfort you might feel after a strenuous workout, and red is excruciating and the pain persists even after you get up. Yellow is fine to tolerate, but you should avoid red. And if you have serious injuries or disabilities, or you’re in pain even before you sit down, you need to exercise special care. Fortunately, there are many ways our seated meditation posture can be flexible and adapted to accommodate various needs and limitations (more on all of this in the next episode).

 

The Psychological Component of Discomfort in Seated Meditation

Remember, our goal is to be comfortable enough to keep sitting still, while acknowledging we’ll rarely ever be completely free from discomfort. When we experience discomfort, it’s helpful to assume it has both a physical and a psychological component, and gently address both. What is going on?

In the next episode I’ll talk about addressing our discomfort physically, but what are some ways to approach the psychological component of it? I already mentioned that determined acceptance can help us tolerate pain, and even alleviate it sometimes. In addition, especially once you’ve done what you can in terms of posture and learned to recognize when (or if) you’re going into the red zone, you can use your seated meditation to help you come to terms with that fact that life is inherently uncomfortable. Whatever discomfort you’re experiencing isn’t going to hurt you. It triggers your self-concern, but that doesn’t mean you have to act on that self-concern. Usually, whatever physical stillness we can manage ends up being worth the discomfort, because it also results in mental and emotional stillness – body and mind, again, are not two separate things.

I’ll talk more about tolerating discomfort – and when not to try it – in the next episode, but I’ll leave you with one more psychological approach to dealing with discomfort in seated meditation. You might try cultivating curiosity about what will happen if you hold perfectly still. Make this a positive effort, as opposed to a negative one. Rather than thinking of stillness as being forbidden to move when you want to, task every muscle in your body to remain motionless. This can actually be an energetic experience. All volitional motion is stopped, and only your breathing and blinking continue, on their own.

Like so many physical aspects of practice, the practice of stillness in zazen has spiritual implications. When we stop all volitional physical activity, what we usually do is go slack – separating from our body and withdrawing into our mind. We identify our “self” with our volition, and, seeing as we’re not using the body for anything, it’s left to sit there like a sack of potatoes. It’s essentially just a structure to hold up our head. This decreased sense of embodiment contributes to discomfort in zazen – to holding habitual tension, drifting away from good posture, and semi-conscious fidgeting that only makes things worse. The physical and spiritual challenge of seated meditation is to fully inhabit our embodied experience even when we set aside a self-centered agenda.

 

In the next episode, I’ll describe the various ways you can adopt a seated meditation posture with a minimum of discomfort, including tips on spinal position and different kinds of meditation equipment. I’ll try to call attention to specific practices that lead to discomfort or pain, and what the alternatives are. Then I’ll discuss more about tolerating discomfort – when to do it (and when not to), and how to build up your tolerance. Finally, I’ll share some options for you if still, seated meditation is not feasible. I hope you’ll tune in, thanks for listening!

Read/listen to Pain in Meditation Part 2: Adjustments to Posture

 


Endnotes

[i] Benson, Herbert M.D. with Miriam Z. Klipper. The Relaxation Response. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1975 and 2000.

[ii] Ibid, page xvii (Forward to 25th Anniversary edition)

[iii] Ibid, page 142

[iv] Johnson, Willard. Riding the Ox Home: A History of Meditation from Shamanism to Science. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1982. Page 25

 

192 – Los Ocho Vientos Mundanos: Ganancia, Pérdida, Estatus, Desgracia, Elogio, Desaprobación, Placer, Dolor
193 – Dolor en la Meditación 1: ¿Por qué la Postura Sentada?
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