The four postures for meditation that are mentioned in traditional Buddhist practice are those of sitting, walking, standing and reclining. Each has its own set of benefits and drawbacks, and each may be useful at one time or another. Looked at another way, this means that we can meditate in just about any position we find ourselves. We can be aware of where we are, what we are doing, and what our experience feels like all day long. Which posture we choose doesn’t really matter from a pure insight point of view, but there are some practical reasons why we might choose one or the other for formal practice. Posture choice is mostly about finding one that works in our current circumstances and which matches our current energy level.
Reclining practice has the advantages of being extremely sustainable, not requiring attention to maintaining a posture, generally being relatively free from pain, and of really allowing the attention to turn to subtle sensations. It has the distinct disadvantage of quickly putting many people to sleep, and thus most people prefer sitting. A few people, such as myself, are so naturally wired that they can meditate clearly when reclining most of the time and may sometimes find sitting just a bit too intense and edgy. How one will react to the energetic quality of a posture varies with the individual, the phase of practice and practical considerations such as how much sleep we got the night before. It usually doesn’t take much experimentation to let us know if reclining will work for us or not.
Sitting is the classic meditation pose, but it is not so special as some would make it out to be. I will use the phrase “on the cushion” often in this book, but I do so because I find it catchy and not because there is something magical about the sitting posture. When I write “on the cushion,” I am really referring to formal meditation in any of these four postures.
Sitting has the quality of being more energy-producing than reclining and less energy-producing than walking and standing. It can also be very stable once we learn to sit well. However, many people find that learning to sit well is a whole endeavor in and of itself. There are lots of postures even within the category of sitting, e.g. in a chair with our back off the backrest or with our back on the backrest, in lotus position, in half-lotus position, sitting “Indian Style” with our legs crossed, in the “Burmese” or “friendly” position which is like the cross-legged position except that our feet are both on the floor one in front of the other, in a keeling position with or without a bench, etc.
Many traditions make a big deal about exactly how you should sit, with some getting particularly macho or picky about such things, but in the end it doesn’t matter so much. The things that seem to matter most are that you can sustain the posture, that your back be fairly straight so that you can breathe well, and that you are not permanently hurting yourself. Aches and pains are common in meditation, but if they persist for a long time after you get up from sitting, particularly in your knees, seriously consider modifying your sitting posture.
Standing is an even more energy-producing posture than sitting, with the obvious advantage that it is even harder to fall asleep when standing than when sitting. It seems to up the intensity of a meditation session even more and can be useful when the energy is really low. I recommend standing with the eyes slightly open to avoid falling over, though some people can do just fine with their eyes closed. If you are sitting and finding that you simply cannot stay focused and awake, try standing.
Walking is the most energetically active of the four postures and also provides a nice stretch for the joints and back after we have been doing a lot of sitting. Its strengths are its weaknesses, in that the fact that one is moving around can make it easier to stay present and also lead to a lack of stable concentration. Some people consider walking practice to be very secondary to sitting, but I have learned from experience that walking meditation should be given just as much respect as sitting meditation. Whether we walk fast or slow is really not so important, but that while walking we investigate all the little sensations that go into walking is. This is a great time to check out intentions and their relationship to actions, as walking involves a complex and interesting interplay between these. If you are having problems staying grounded when walking, I recommend staying primarily with the physical sensations in the feet and legs, particularly the sensations of contact between the feet and the ground or floor.