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Posture and Focus
The themes for the first lesson are posture and focus, the foundation for a beneficial meditation practice. These elements are the main starting point for meditation practice, and they apply to both the mind and the body.
It is easy to have the impression, whether reading or hearing or thinking about meditation, that the practice is concerned simply with the mind: we think of it primarily in terms of a mental activity. In today’s culture, we see more and more advertisements using images of people sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed as a symbol for the meditation process – the cross-legged, closed-eyed yogi. If one has attempted meditation before, however, one realizes very quickly that as soon as we try to sit like the person in the advertisements – in that sort of upright, ever so attentive, beautifully-balanced posture – that, first of all, the legs need a little persuading to get into that position. And, once the legs are crossed and one is holding the body upright, within a few minutes one encounters a protest emanating from the knee joints, or from the back or the hip joints. It becomes very apparent, very quickly, that the body is involved with the meditation – it’s not just something that is a function of the mind. This is not an accidental and unfortunate circumstance – at least from the traditional Buddhist perspective. One sees right from the very beginning that the training, which is what meditation is, involves both body and mind.
So, just as meditation does not relate solely to the mind, “posture” refers not just to physical posture, but also to mental posture. And similarly, the idea of “focus” involves both the body and the mind. Essentially, for both posture and focus, one is aspiring to cultivate a quality of balance of two particular elements: an element of energy or alertness, balanced with the element of relaxation, calmness or peacefulness. For example, the meditation posture we see most commonly, such as in sitting Buddha images, in which the Buddha sits cross-legged with his back upright, has been found to be one of the ideal ways to achieve the balance of energy and relaxation, which in turn assists in development of the qualities of calmness, wisdom and attention.
Energy and Relaxation
When we try to meditate, it is easy for us to veer unconsciously to the extremes, just as when learning to ride a bicycle at first we wobble and lurch from side to side. One such extreme is experienced when the body and the mind are too energized to establish the qualities of calmness and attention.
They can be very charged or excited, with the mind revved up, very interested or alert, and the body restless. This is usually caused by something that is frightening or exciting. In the usual run of events the quality of arousal or alertness is brought about by some kind of emotionally charged stimulus. Conversely, relaxation is generally epitomized by the image of being flopped in an armchair. It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon and the feet are up, and maybe there’s music playing in the background or the TV is on. One is not really paying attention; the mind is dozing and drifting, and the mind and body are completely relaxed. There is an intrinsic implication of being half-conscious, of being not quite with it, or being half asleep. Relaxation is generally viewed as just switching off.
From a Buddhist perspective, the idea is to find that quality of being, that quality of mind and body in which the elements of relaxation and energy are both maximized and in balance with each other. It is a principle of Buddhism – and also what one finds with investigation, when one looks at the mind – that when one learns to calm the mind and look into its nature deeply, it becomes more and more alert and more and more peaceful.
The attention is attuned to the reality of the present much more acutely. Briefly, the more and more clearly one sees the way things are, the more one recognizes that the fundamental nature of mind is intrinsically both completely awake and completely peaceful, simultaneously. The two do not occlude each other; they are qualities that can exist simultaneously.
In some ways it goes against our common sense, or our habitual experience, to think of being both alert and relaxed at the same time. We feel that we have to be one or the other. But when one looks at the mind’s nature, when one looks very closely and holds the attention on the fundamental nature of mind and body, one experiences the mind as completely alert, utterly attentive and wide awake, and also completely peaceful.
When one is totally new to meditation and new to Buddhism, one must take this as an article of faith, or approach it as a suggestion. The spirit of these lessons is that one can take what is said and experiment, find out for oneself, consider it for the time being as a sort of working hypothesis.
It may be easier to grasp this principle while working with the physical posture, to see its validity on a physical level. If one has practiced yoga, one may have a natural sense of this. Yoga practitioners may find when crossing the legs, closing the eyes and paying attention to the body that it’s possible to hold the body in an upright position. One can hold the spine quite straight, and the posture has an upright, dignified quality. The base of the spine is pulled in slightly, the chest is opened up a little, the eyes are gently closed. The posture has an energetic quality that is achieved without holding the back rigid and tense; it’s not as if one had a bolt of electricity running up through the spine or had just been dunked into icy water. Within the feeling of uprightness – just as with any yoga pose – the body relaxes into the pose.
The pose is the framework, and within that framework, one can soften the body. It’s the opposite of, for example, a sculptor pouring the wet plaster of Paris into a mold which then hardens. With meditation, one starts with the contents hard and then relaxes, and there can be an extraordinary softness, an ease within the body even though it’s held in this firm and steady upright posture.
These are the elements of energy and relaxation that find balance with each other. If one tries to analyze with the rational mind, it may be difficult to understand this balance; it doesn’t seem to make sense. But feeling it with the body, one can recognize, “Oh yes, this is where I’m wide awake, the body is alert – energized – but yes, I can relax.” This doesn’t mean to relax the posture so that we are flopping over, crumpling into a heap, the spine bending, the nose on the carpet! There is a way the framework of the posture can sustain itself, and then within that there is ease, relaxation and softening.
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