When you think of meditating, what image do you see in your mind? I’m guessing most of us see ourselves sitting cross-legged with our arms resting on our knees and our thumbs touching our forefinger. Most yoga magazines show this position as being the correct way to meditate. But is it really? I mean sitting in that position for any length of time is uncomfortable (to say the least).
Several years ago, when I lived in San Francisco, I visited a Tibetan Buddhist temple — that was during my check-out-different-spiritual-teachings period. I arrived at the temple with no expectations, although I did know we would be meditating at some point. I don’t remember all the details but I do know we sat for forty-five minutes — in lotus position. Each of us sat on a flat cushion on a tile floor and the Buddhist Leader in charge of the meditation, sat in front on a large throne-like chair perched a few feet above us. I know there was chanting, but since it was my first time, I have no idea what was being said so I just listened.
I don’t know how much time went by before my ankles started to hurt. I began focusing on my discomfort instead of what was going on — like the chanting. I didn’t want to adjust my position because I was afraid of interrupting the group and I didn’t see anyone else shifting their position, so I continued to sit. More time went by and finally the pain stopped. My legs were numb. Thank God! At least now I could focus on the chanting.
The chanting finally stopped and the person in charge said we were finished or something to that effect. The other students unwrapped their legs, stretched and stood up. I tried to copy them but soon discovered that my legs were not cooperating. They wouldn’t budge. I didn’t want anyone to notice I was having trouble so I scooted around the cushion trying to jiggle my legs to move. They wouldn’t budge. It was like they were frozen. This went on for what seemed to me an hour, when the Buddhist Leader asked some men from the group to help me stand up. I guess he had been watching me struggle. The two men offered their assistance; one got on each side of me and pulled my arms up. My body came up but my legs were still in lotus. I started laughing (which is how I cope with most embarrassing situations). It took some maneuvering by the three of us but finally I was standing with my feet firmly on the floor. However, my legs were still not right and I walked with a limp for the rest of the evening.
That was pretty much my introduction to meditation, — lotus style. Since then I have meditated on and off (more off, than on) over the years. I read about different methods of meditating — some claiming their way was the only correct way. I recently read a Zen book whose author claimed that the correct way to sit Zazen was in lotus pose (actually he didn’t say lotus pose, I’m mixing in yoga jargon), while staring at a blank wall. He added that sitting this way could bring discomfort but that was part of the meditation. He mentioned it was part of becoming “aware.” Well, I don’t know about him but I had enough “discomfort” in 2011 to last me a lifetime, only back then, what my radiologist called discomfort, I called hellish pain. The last thing I want to experience when I meditate is more pain.
I’m guessing most of us who meditate aren’t into that either, so I meditated on this guys opinion for awhile and came to the conclusion, there isn’t a right way or wrong way to meditate — it’s all about achieving what the individual wants to get out of it. If pain is the goal then, mazel tov! For me, its being aware of my body and surroundings, not to mention the disjointed thoughts that pop into my head.
When I was getting treatment for cancer, I chose visualization as my form of meditation, with some guided affirmations thrown in. I don’t do those as much now but when I feel the urge, I go with it. Sitting Zazen is my favorite but I do my interpretation of it — meaning I do not sit lotus. I can only get in to lotus position when I do yoga and its only for a few minutes. The idea of “no pain – no gain,” does not sit well with me. I think that’s very wrong thinking if taken literally. If my body is in pain, its telling me to stop whatever I’m doing or I could very well pay for it later.
I was much more limber before I got cancer. The radiation treatments shrank the tumors along with muscle tone in my lower back. My muscles are much tighter these days. I still do a modified yoga and feel looser when I’m done but the next day I am back to square one. When I sit Zazen, I choose to sit on a comfortable chair with my back as straight as I can get it, my hands folded together on my lap. There isn’t a blank wall for me to stare at in my small abode, so I close my eyes instead. It works for me. I still get the same results as others who sit Zazen and that’s all that matters.
I liken it to yoga. Years ago I tried out different yoga classes but stopped because I saw myself in competition with others in the class. I couldn’t get into the same pretzel-like positions as them. I was self-conscious of my inability to touch my toes or do a tree pose without falling over. It wasn’t until last year, after reading an article written by a yogi, that yoga isn’t about getting into that perfect position. Its about a frame of mind and that’s how I view practicing Zazen. Maybe the guy who thinks pain is part of the correct way to sit Zazen but I disagree. Maybe he feels more alive if he feels pain. I don’t. Like I said, I experienced enough of that.