May 18, 2012
Keeping a level head while meditating
One thing I noticed a long time ago was that the position of my head during meditation made a surprising difference to my state of mind. If my chin was down even a fraction of an inch, then I’d tend to get tired, or to get caught up in often very heavy emotional story lines, full of drama. If my chin was up even a fraction of an inch, then I’d tend to get lost in thoughts that were generally more speculative and excited. Chin down focuses our energy on the emotions; chin up puts more energy into our thoughts. This is perhaps why when someone’s depressed we tell them to “keep their chin up” and when someone’s a dreamer we say they have their “head in the clouds.” Both of these metaphors convey essential truths about the relationship between head position and mental states.
In the ideal position the back of the neck feels long and open, almost as if a space were opening up between the skull and the first vertebra. In this position the muscles holding the skull in place are doing the minimum amount of effort. When the head is nicely balanced on top of the spine in this way, with the chin slightly tucked in, and in a “neutral” position, then it’s easier to be mindfully aware of both our thoughts and emotions without getting sucked into either of them. We can maintain a more mindful distance between us and our experience. We’re, to use another popular idiom, “level-headed.”
To some extent this relationship seems to be one of simple cause-and-effect from mental state to posture. If you’re excited, then the body’s muscle tone is higher, and the muscles on the back of the neck tense up, raising the chin. If you’re feeling low in energy, then the body’s muscle tone decreases, and you slump, bringing the chin down. In a balanced state the head is held in a balanced way.
But the causal relationship also works in reverse. If you adjust the angle of the head, then the mind shifts in energy and focus. And so this is something we can be aware of and use in our meditation practice. Whenever we sit down to meditate, it’s advisable to first check out and adjust our posture. We need to make sure that the body’s position is going to support both alert mindfulness and relaxation. And as part of that check-in with the body, we can make sure that the head is in an appropriate and helpful position. Ideally, the head should be balanced effortlessly on top of the spine.
If, during meditation, we notice that the head has drifted out of alignment, we can bring it back to this point of balance.
I’d like to suggest two experiments for you to try out, so that you can explore the powerful affect that our head position has on our experience.
1. So start by setting up your posture for meditation, and let the head find a natural point of balance on top of the spine. Let your breathing settle, and notice how much of the breathing is happening in the chest, and how much in the belly.
Then, try dropping the chin a fraction of an inch, and notice again how much of the breathing is happening in the chest, and how much in the belly. And then bring the head back to a neutral position.
Then, try raising the chin a fraction of an inch, and notice how much of the breathing is happening in the chest, and how much in the belly.
What did you find?
This varies from person to person, but most people notice an effect. Generally, people find that dropping the chin makes it harder to breathe into the chest, and the breathing shifts to the belly. When we breathe more into the belly, the mind can become calm, but sometimes it becomes dull. Most people find that when they raise the chin the opposite happens. It becomes harder to breathe into the belly, and it’s more natural to breathe into the chest. Chest-breathing tends to promote mental excitement. In the balanced position, it’s easier to use both the chest and the belly in order to breathe (although of course we may have habits that favor one or the other manner of breathing).
A few people have reported the exact opposite of what the majority of people notice: as the chin goes up they breathe more into the belly. I’d love to know what’s going on there.
2. Let’s repeat the previous experiment, but this time notice the degree of light or dark that we perceive internally.
Try it with the head in a normal position. Notice how light or dark your internal experience is.
Then drop the chin. Notice how light or dark your internal experience is. Then come back to neutral.
Then raise the chin, and notice how light or dark your experience is.
Often our light sources are above us, so it’s not surprising that when the chin’s up our experience is brighter, and when it’s down our experience is darker. I don’t think there’s anything mystical about this. It’s possible that there’s some kind of blood-flow issue involved as well, though, since sometimes I think I can detect this change even in the dark. It’s quite possible that this is wishful thinking, however.
All the same, this physical effect of seeing more or less light has an effect on the mind. One of the traditional remedies for sleepiness in meditation is to open the eyes, or to visualize light, or to look at a source of light. And often meditation halls are slightly darkened in order to produce a calming effect. So the angle of the head, by adjusting the amount of light we perceive, may also affect our degree of alertness.
I think this is all important to be aware of because we need all the help we can get in being mindful. It would be most helpful if we could maintain a balanced position for the head during meditation (and in the rest of our lives). But we can watch for the chin drifting out of alignment and gently bring it back to a point of balance.
Sometimes I’ve used head position as a tool, however, by deliberately putting my head out of alignment. When I’ve been overcome by sleepiness in meditation I’ve sometimes consciously raised my head a fraction of an inch. The head still tends to start dropping as I nod off, but I have more time to catch it on the way down because it has further to go! Basically I catch the chin falling from a raised position to a normal position, and bring it back up again. I’ve never tried going that far in the opposite direction; in other words when I’m overexcited I don’t tend to drop the chin down below a normal position. Maybe I should try that. Usually, I just bring it back to a point of balance, and use other techniques to calm the mind.
So, what did you find it trying out these two experiments? Is there anything else you’ve learned about the importance of head position in meditation?