The benefits of learning to sit with good posture are well known to meditators. They include greater ease of sitting, reduced discomfort and fatigue, improved oxygenation of the blood due to the habit of abdominal breathing, and enhanced ability to relax.
The very process of learning to pay attention to posture gets me “out of my head” by requiring me to attend to the phenomena that comprise the perception of body, thereby reducing my engagement with various kinds of unproductive and obsessional thinking.
Yet, even after we have made an inventory of the virtues of seated contemplation, it is less than perfectly clear why cross-legged sitting has become the prime symbol of spiritual work and the focal point of so much practice. That fact is all the more puzzling because we are told that it is possible to acquire calm and insight in any posture. Chan, a tradition that puts sitting at the very center of Buddhist practice, also declares that one cannot become enlightened by doing it!
Anyone who has succeeded in sitting still for half an hour or more will have an inkling of why sitting has come to be seen as the bodily posture for spiritual work par excellence. Millions of years of evolution have fitted the human body for the tasks of exploiting opportunities to procreate, to obtain food, and to avoid being eaten—in short, for more or less continuous activity in the service of genetic continuity. To sit still while stalking wild game is one thing; the mental faculties will be fully occupied with attending to signs of approaching prey and predators. To sit still for motives related to neither survival nor recreation is an anomaly. While everything in our physiological makeup cries out for us to keep moving, a few members of every generation choose to sit and watch the world go by.
This bizarre if harmless deviation from the norm has given rise to cultural institutions that have endured for thousands of years, producing a grand and glorious edifice of contemplative theory and practice. The Buddhist path is one of several that stem from an ascetical tradition for which the quest for knowledge is rooted in the overcoming of just those urges and genetically-driven agendas that, for most of us, determine the course of our lives. Sex, comfort, and food versus prolonged and vigilant immobility!
Although it has become a platitude of modern spirituality to say that a life of contemplation is compatible with a life of action, it is clear that many of our ancient spiritual forbears did not think so. It is because they appreciated the magnitude of the biological forces arrayed against them that the act of sitting still came to represent the ideal of yogic self-mastery. That commitment to bodily and mental stillness is the main reason why Buddhas, Jinas, and Rshis are nearly always depicted as taking the posture known as the lotus.
(To be continued)