[What follows are my replies to a set of questions asked by a student of satipatthāna.]
How important is it to adopt a particular bodily posture when sitting in meditation? Why?
Is there an optimum position? What is it?
Before we examine the salient features of seated posture and their special benefits, it may be helpful to make a few general observations.
Good posture is not so much an ideal as a practical attainment. It is the way of sitting that best facilitates bodily ease and the development of an awareness that is characterized by calm, clarity, and alertness. Although the optimum position of the body will not be exactly the same for any two yogis, certain attributes of one’s best posture (to be enumerated in a future post) will be the same for others.
Close, sustained attention to posture is especially helpful in the early stages of contemplative practice. In some traditions it is considered essential. Near the start of every discourse on the establishment of mindfulness (satipatthāna), the Buddha describes how trainees, “having sat down with legs folded crosswise, holding the body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore,” direct their attention to the cycle of breathing in and out, or the sensations arising throughout the body, or some other aspect(s) of bodily activity. The cultivation of mindful attention begins with immersion in the body.
There are several reasons for that emphasis. The Buddha gives pride of place to mindfulness of the body because bodily sensations and processes are relatively stable and always available as objects of attention, unlike emotions and discursive thoughts, which tend to dissolve under scrutiny or else seduce the beginner away from the task. The cycle of breathing in and out, although variable, is constant and involuntary. That stability and accessibility make it easier for the trainee to manage attention and the cooperating mental faculties, whether the primary aim of the exercise is calming or insight.
In his instructions on contemplation of the body (kāyānupassanā) the Buddha makes it clear that the skill of self-observation, once acquired, should be extended to every bodily posture and activity at all hours of the day. For beginners, formal sitting at regular intervals is the primary means of cultivating mindfulness and clear comprehension (sati-sampajañña); in later stages of development it will serve as a continuing support for their wider application. The short-term goal of seated practice is to increase one’s capacity for sustained attention to and observation of the various kinds of bodily sensation—tactile, kinesthetic, proprioceptive, etc.—as such, a capacity that will eventually yield the perception of their salient characteristics of discomfort, impermanence, and contingency. Mindfulness, then, is to be “set up” irrespective of posture.
However, it should not be supposed that the process of cultivating mindfulness and alert, comprehensive awareness is something that happens apart from the body. The recent work of cognitive and evolutionary psychologists supports the view that the higher cognitive functions are an outgrowth of bodily dispositions and activity. The evolution of ever more complex nervous systems in hominins allowed the human organism to move through its environment with ever greater safety and efficiency.
It is helpful to think of the mental faculties, such as attention, association, and pattern-recognition, as special activities of the body. The faculties that we normally refer to as mental are the ways in which the organism communicates with the world around it and among its many parts. In this context, sentience is the joint product of the body and the world through which it moves. Because mind is integral to what the body is doing, it is inevitable that the mind be affected when we voluntarily hold the body still for a prolonged period.
(To Be Continued)