posture

Try this simple technique to dispel anxiety

Being mindful of the body is powerful tool for grounding us and calming us down. Paying attention to the physical sensations and movements of the body diverts our attention away from the ruminative thoughts that cause stress. And this in turn allows our emotions to settle so that we become calmer and more at ease. An added bonus is that practicing mindfulness in this way brings about long-term changes in the brain. These changes make us less emotionally reactive so that we have less of a tendency to freak out.

But our body itself has a more direct and immediate effect on our emotions. The very way that we hold the body — the posture we adopt — changes how we feel. The effects of this are measurable. They can be seen in terms of the underlying hormones that give rise to our feelings. They can also be seen in terms of the way we act.

In a study published in 2014 by the University of Auckland, New Zealand, individuals with mild to moderate depression were assigned either to a group where they were asked to sit up straight, or where they just sat normally. The “straight sitters” were asked to straighten their backs and level their shoulders. They were also asked to stretch the tops of their heads toward the ceiling while drawing their shoulder blades down and together.

Researchers asked both groups to do a stressful task: to give a speech for five minutes, while being judged. Those who sat up straight while doing this task used more words in total than the control group, suggesting that they were more energized and had a better mood. They also used the word “I” much less than the other group, suggesting that they had become less self-focused and self-conscious.

Other research shows that when we sit up straight, we are more likely to remember positive memories or to have positive thoughts. A slumped posture, on the other hand, leads to depressive thoughts and memories arising.

In a 2010 study at Columbia and Harvard universities, researchers asked study participants either to adopt a dominant, high power stance (sitting or standing straight, expanding the body, and spreading the limbs) or a submissive posture (involving the opposite). The power posers experienced elevations in testosterone (which contributes to feelings of confidence), and decreases in cortisol (which is a stress hormone). Low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern.

When the two groups were subsequently asked to play a low-risk gambling game, the high power group were more confident, as shown by their being more likely to take a chance on winning.

Finally, reinforcing how crucial posture is in our lives, Adam D. Galinsky and Li Huang of Northwestern University ran a series of studies on posture. These showed that posture was in fact a major predictor of whether people feel powerful or take action. It was more powerful than either putting people in positions of power or asking them to recall feeling powerful.

This is all excellent news, because our posture is something that’s easy to change. You can do it right now. In fact, I’d suggest that for the next three minutes you do a standing meditation in which you adopt a Superman or Wonder Woman pose, as illustrated below. (Knee-high boots are optional!)

You can also try sitting in a power pose. Sit erect, with your head held high, and with your limbs taking up space around you. Watch out for a tendency to slouch, since this contributes to feelings of fatigue, despondency, and powerlessness. These feelings can cause our thoughts and feelings to spiral out of control.

Keep coming back to your posture during the day. Do this while you’re sitting or standing at work or at home, when you’re driving, and when you’re walking. Think of what it’s like to sit, stand, or walk with confidence. And notice the effect that this has on how you feel. And several times a day, for at least three minutes, adopt a “power pose.”

For a few people, the experience of adopting a more confident posture can at first evoke a feeling of anxiety. It’s as if they’re thinking, “Who am I to show confidence?” If this happens to you, recognize that this is a temporary state of affairs. Remember that the physiological changes you’re creating will soon bring a sense of strength and confidence.

This article is adapted from material for Wildmind’s online course, “Stop Freaking Out.” This, like our other courses, is available free of charge to supporters of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative. You can click here to learn more about this initiative.

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The seven top frustrations for beginning meditators (and how to overcome them)

Recently I was asked to contribute a couple of paragraphs on top frustrations for beginning meditators (and how to overcome them). The link’s at the bottom of this article. I was in good company, with Tara Brach and Andy Puddicombe, for example. But two paragraphs isn’t enough to do justice to this topic and I thought I’d take the opportunity to come up with my own list.

So here it is: The seven top frustrations for beginning meditators, and how to overcome them.

1. Expecting instant results

A lot of people are looking for a quick fix. They hope that meditation is going to do something to them. Something good, of course. But meditation is actually us working with our own minds. And this takes time. We’ve built up habits of overthinking, reacting, self-judgment and so on over many years. We bring those habits into our meditation practice, and we have to learn first to identify them and then to work with them. It takes time to unlearn old habits. It takes time to develop newer, more helpful habits.

The solution: Understand that meditation is like exercise; you don’t go to the gym and become instantly fit. It’s something that you need to do regularly in order to see the benefits.

2. Realizing that the mind is so busy

It’s a very common experience to sit down to meditate and discover our minds are all over the place, with thinking going on almost non-stop. We sometimes call this “monkey mind” after the image of a monkey swinging from branch to branch, not settling down anywhere but instead always focusing on something new, until that’s abandoned for the next new thing. When we’re beginning it’s often not just hard to find any calmness, but actually impossible.

The solution: Accept that the mind is busy. Even people who have been meditating for years have times when their minds are thinking almost non-stop. The difference is that they don’t bother about it. They don’t see it as a sign that something is wrong. They know to accept that this is what the mind is like, sometimes. So they don’t get frustrated when lots of thoughts arise. They simply let go of the thinking, over and over again, and return to the meditation practice.

3. Physical discomfort

At first we may not know how to sit comfortably for meditation. This may happen when we try to force ourselves to sit in a cross-legged position when we don’t have the flexibility to do so. Or we may not have very good equipment, and we’re sitting on very soft cushions that can’t support our weight. Or even if we have a good posture and the right equipment, but it may just be that we’re not used to sitting that way for very long. The discomfort that comes from sitting in a posture that doesn’t work for us can make a meditation session sheer torture.

The solution: An experienced teacher can help you to find a good posture (and we have an online guide to posture right here on Wildmind. They can also help you choose the right equipment; some people need to use chairs, or special meditation benches, rather than try to sit on cushions. And once you have all that sorted out, your body will learn to be more at ease and you’ll be able to sit for longer without discomfort.

4. Getting bored

Boredom is a common problem for beginning meditators. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Are we there yet?

Boredom happens when we’ve begun to calm the mind down, but haven’t yet learned to appreciate the simply beauty of our experience. A lot of us are in our heads: we spend so much time thinking that we forget how to experience the body. And so when our thinking starts to slow down there’s just not much left for us to appreciate. And it’s hard to stay motivated doing something that we find boring, and so we just give up.

The solution: In the long-term, interoception (the ability to sense what’s going on in the body) is something that we get better at with practice. As we continue meditating we find that our experience of the body becomes richer, more detailed, and more pleasurable. Eventually the body can be a source of source of pleasure in every waking moment. If we just keep going, this will happen. On the way there, it’s helpful for us to let go of the idea of paying attention to the breath, and instead to be aware of the breathing. This opens up the way for us to have a much richer, fuller, and more enjoyable experience in meditation. The breathing involves the entire body in a dance of interwoven sensations. When we begin to experience it this way, we’re no longer bored. And we find that our interoceptive ability improves rapidly, so that we have a fuller and more satisfying experience of the body.

5. Not seeing progress

It’s natural to want your meditation practice to do something for you—to bring you benefits. And you wonder when it’s going to start doing that. Why is my mind still full of thoughts? you might wonder. The thing is that being overly concerned about where you hope meditation might take you actually interferes with your ability to experience and enjoy the present moment. Often people aren’t able to fully experience the degree to which they’re changing; other people may see them becoming calmer and happier, but they themselves don’t. Why? Because we’re so close to ourselves, we don’t see ourselves clearly.

The solution: You’ll make more progress if you aren’t so concerned about progress. Just be present. It’s like a family on a long car ride: the kids in the back are constantly asking how long is it going to be until we get there, while the adults are better able to relax into the journey, without wanting to be elsewhere.

6. Believing your doubts

Placing too much trust in the thoughts that the mind creates is something that affects experienced meditators as well as beginners. They can be a little or not so little voice saying things like, “You’re not very good at this. Other people are, but not you. You’re not really cut out to be a meditator. In fact you’re a terrible meditator. You might as well give up.” If we believe these voices, it can be very hard for us to continue with our practice.

The solution: It’s radical to realize that we don’t have to believe our thoughts. Thoughts are just stories. Sometimes they’re reasonable and helpful stories, but sometimes they’re just rationalizations of our fears. There can actually be parts of us that are afraid of changing in positive ways. And those parts of us can try to derail our practice by telling us how bad we are at it. So learn to step back and to treat your inner storyteller with skepticism. These kinds of negative monologues are what we call the hindrance of doubt. Once we learn to identify this hindrance, we’re less likely to be taken in by it.

7. Setting up a regular practice

It can be very hard indeed to set up a daily meditation practice. This is true even when meditation is going well for us and we’re enjoying it! We can find that we’re just too busy, or that there’s resistance even if we do have the time to sit. Sometimes this causes people to gradually give up meditation. They don’t sit for a few days, then maybe a couple of weeks go by and they forget to even try.

The solution: First, commit to sit, even if it’s just for five minutes a day. It’s better to meditate for a short time daily, than to do longer sits and skip days. It’s much better to do a little meditation than none! Second, try out my mantra: “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.”

Here’s a link to the original article.

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The Mayu Seat: A Review

mayuA week or two ago I was sent a new meditation seat to try out. It’s the Mayu Seat, developed by Cierra and Sean McNamara of the Mayu Meditation Co-op in Denver.

It’s not your typical fold-it-up-and-stick-it-under-your-arm type of meditation seat — but that’s for a reason. It can be used by people who lack the flexibility to sit in either a cross-legged or kneeling posture, and who normally rely on folding chairs, dining chairs, office chairs, and any number of barely suitable seating arrangements.

It’s very attractive, being made from birch plywood. It’s not, as I’ve suggested, something you’re going to habitually carry around with you, but it does fold down if you need to throw it in the back of your car or stash it away someplace. The plus side of its weight is that it feels solid to sit on.

The problem with most conventional chairs you see people using to meditate on is that they have flat seats. When you sit on a flat surface, the hips tilt back, and the spine ends up leaning against the back of the chair. This isn’t ideal for meditating, since you want to have the spine erect. Now you can adapt a regular seat to have a forward tilt by putting a wedge cushion on it or by putting blocks or books under the back legs. That works pretty well. But chairs also have the drawback that the height isn’t adjustable. People who are tall end up having to tuck their legs under the seat or have them sticking out in front of them. Both of those things affect the basic posture. Short people are left with their legs dangling or have to put their feet on a cushion.

The Mayu Seat at its second-lowest setting can be used with a kneeling posture.

The Mayu Seat at its second-lowest setting can be used with a kneeling posture.

The Mayu seat, by contrast, has a variable height, and is angled. The seat fits into precut angled slots at one of seven heights. I’m six feet, and the highest setting worked for me. Very low settings are suitable for sitting in a kneeling position, while the lowest can be used for sitting cross-legged.

It’s very comfortable. I’ve even used it for working at my desk, so if you’re thinking of having one of these in your home, bear in mind that you don’t just have to use it for meditating. There’s one caveat, though, which is that the Mayu Seat doesn’t come with a cushion, and naked plywood gets pretty painful after a while. I’ve been using the KindKushion, which is non-slip. Just about any foam would work, though, as would a folded towel or blanket. Hopefully Sean and Cierra will find a suitable cushion supplier.

It only takes a moment to shift the seat from one height of slot to another, which makes this seat perfect for any situation where a variety of people might want to use it — such as a meditation center. I’d go as far as to say that every meditation center should have a few Mayu Seats!

At $199, it’s not an inexpensive option, but looked at as a life-time investment in meditative comfort, that’s not much at all. Many people with a committed meditation practice and a need to find effective and comfortable seating will find the Mayu Seat ideal.

You can learn more about the Mayu Seat (or order one) at https://www.mayuseat.com/

Dimensions

Seat: 24.9″ x 11″
Rear Frame: 23.6″ tall x 24″ wide
Shortest Seat Height: 3″ at the back
Tallest Seat Height: 22″ at the back
Weight: 13.3 lbs

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Ignore the cliche: mindfulness isn’t about sitting cross-legged

wildmind meditation newsHeckler, The Age: Don’t be put off by market-driven mantras, because mindfulness is for everyone, writes Jamie Watson.

Mindfulness is proven to do remarkable things for mental health. Unfortunately it has a rather annoying image problem.

Whenever an article appears about mindfulness it is invariably accompanied by a picture of a beautiful woman peacefully meditating. Sometimes she is on a mountain. Sometimes she is beside a gently flowing stream. Sometimes there is a lovely rainbow in the background. Typically she has a slim yoga body, amazing posture and the apparent ability to sit cross-legged on a rock without her mind focusing solely on the …

Read the original article »

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The “Now Bench”

The Now BenchI just got word of a Kickstarter for an interesting new meditation tool.

For many people, sitting cross-legged isn’t comfortable, or even possible! For those who aren’t so flexible, the traditional kneeling, or “seiza” posture is very handy. It provides stability, comfort (once you figure out the right height, angle, and floor cushioning), and a sense of groundedness (certainly compared to being perched on a chair).

A good seiza bench, usually made of wood, can cost anything from $60 to $200 for a decent model.

The Now Bench is a different approach, using modern foam technology. It’s a simple U-shape, allowing the bench to find the right angle for having the spine naturally erect. It’s something I’d like to try out.

The pros of this are that it’s very light and inexpensive. One con would be that it’s “one size fits all,” which is never ideal. Tall or still people need more height than small or flexible people. Ideally a seat like this would come in a range of sizes. Another con would be that it’s rather bulky compared to a folding wooden bench. I can throw my Kindseat into a standard carry-on bag without it taking up any significant room. I suspect the Now Seat isn’t going to leave room for much else.

But those caveats aside, not everyone travels, and if the Now Seat fits you then it might be a great choice.

The Now Bench comes with an optional “Now Mat,” which is a foam version of the traditional “zabuton,” offering your knees and ankles protection against hard flooring.

You can check out the Kickstarter campaign here.

And you can see images of the bench in use below:

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“Sit With Less Pain” by Jean Erlbaum

Sit-With-Less-PainJean Erlbaum’s Sit With Less Pain is subtitled “Gentle Yoga for Meditators and Everyone Else.”

As most meditators know, finding a comfortable way to sit in meditation for long periods of time can be challenging. We can end up futzing around with our equipment, trying out different chairs, benches, and cushions, and constantly adjusting the height and tilt of our seat, and still find that we end up with sore shoulders, or a sore neck, or an aching back. Often the problem is that we’re expecting a body that lacks flexibility to be still for long periods.

Sit With Less Pain addresses that problem, offering us exercises to bring more flexibility to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of various parts of the body. It’s the only book I know of that does this specifically with an eye to meditating. Unlike most other yoga manuals you’ll see, this one doesn’t consist of a series of (for me and many others) impossible asanas. Although there are some recognizable asanas, I’d describe this more as a book of yoga-inspired stretching exercises.

Title: Sit With Less Pain
Author: Jean Erlbaum
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 9780861716791
Available from: Wisdom, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

The descriptions are clear, and the book is amply illustrated with shaded line drawings. I was pleased to see that the figures in the illustrations resemble normal people rather than the ultra-thin, young, hyper-flexible, and invariably beautiful “yoga babes” that you’ll come across in yoga magazines. The illustrations show people of various ages, both sexes, a variety of races, and with normal (i.e. unathletic) body types.

The book is rather hefty, at 180 or so pages. And the author points out that readers might want to record themselves reciting the instructions, given the difficulty of consulting a manual while twisting one’s body in various ways. But how many people are going to go to those lengths? [Edit: I’d missed that companion CDs are available at www.sitwithlesspain.com] I can’t help thinking that a more slender book focusing on a smaller number of exercises would be useful.

There’s a relatively short section at the start, showing various ways to sit in meditation. A trouble-shooting guide for various kinds of discomfort related to specific ways of sitting might have been an asset here. There are also some breathing exercises and relaxation exercises included, although since the book is aimed at people who need to deal with pain that’s arising in their existing meditation practice I’m not sure these sections are strictly necessary.

Still, Sit With Less Pain is a very useful book, which could potentially benefit many meditators who aren’t confident about attending formal yoga classes, yet who need help dealing with the inevitable aches and pains that arise during meditation, and its imperfections are largely those inherent in the attempt to describe physical exercises in book form.

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Some of your “distractions” are not distractions

Stones on the seashoreOne of my students recently commented: “I regularly have to readjust my posture, which slightly changes now and then without my noticing it. These readjustments distract me from focusing on the body/breathing.”

What I suggested was that she might usefully reframe how she was seeing this situation.

If you’re being mindful of your body and making adjustments to your posture, then in a very important way this isn’t distracting you from your body. Making readjustments like this doesn’t even have to take you away from your breathing, since you can maintain awareness of your breathing and make adjustments in your posture in time with the in-breaths and out-breaths. For example if you need to open or straighten the body, then allow that to happen on the in-breath. If you need to relax the body, let that happen on the out-breath. If there’s pain or tension, then imagine your breathing flowing through and around the area of discomfort.

You can certainly do all of this in a mindful way, and so you don’t have to think in terms of your being distracted, which leads to a sense that you’re not doing the meditation correctly, which probably involves an element of judgement and aversion, which probably leads to a loss of mindfulness.

There are times when we simply need to pay attention to the body in this way. It may be that we don’t have our posture set up quite right, or we’re tired, or there’s some discomfort in our experience. And in those situations it’s actually a mindful thing to give the body the attention it needs.

What is a distraction is anxiety. When we’re worrying that we’re “not doing it right” we’re making judgements about ourselves, and probably getting into a state of mind that isn’t very mindful. It’s actually our attitudes to our experiences that are our distractions, not the experiences themselves.

Aversion is also a distraction. When you think that making adjustments to your posture is something you shouldn’t have to do, then the whole experience is something that you resent doing. And you may be paying attention to the body, but you’re not being mindful of your resentment, and so you’re not really being mindful.

So just keep coming back to the question, “How am I relating to my experience? Am I relating with craving, aversion, or anxiety? Or am I relating with curiosity, kindness, and acceptance?” It doesn’t matter what the experience is — it can be a vehicle for becoming more mindful.

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Hit the ground sitting! Day 3 of our 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 Day Meditation Challenge

Welcome to Wildmind’s first 100 Day Meditation Challenge, which has been set up to encourage people to establish a habit of daily meditation. For background on the challenge, including the “rules,” check here.

A lot of people think that they have to sit in some exotic position to meditate, but you don’t have to sit in lotus position or even cross-legged. In fact you don’t have to sit on the floor at all.

I’ve never had the flexibility to meditate for more than a few minutes in a cross-legged position, and usually use a meditation bench. Some people I know use chairs to sit in. When I’m teaching classes on Skype I’m usually in an office chair.

I’d encourage you to check out our posture workshop to explore the variety of ways that you can sit to meditate, and for trouble-shooting common problems.


You can use the comment form below to let us know how the Meditation Challenge is going for you. Have you managed to sit every day so far? How long have you been meditating for? What’s your experience been like so far. Remember: if you miss a day, just pick yourself up and carry on!

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Lay your burdens down

On the path of life, most of us are hauling way too much weight.

What’s in your own backpack? If you’re like most of us, you’ve got too many items on each day’s To Do list and too much stuff in the closet. Too many entanglements with other people. And too many “shoulds,” worries, guilts, and regrets.

Remember a time when you lightened your load. Maybe a backpacking trip when every needless pound stayed home. Or after you finally left a bad relationship. Or just stopped worrying about something. Or came clean with a friend about something that had been bothering you. How did this feel? Probably pretty great.

Sure, we are no longer nomadic hunter-gatherers whose possessions could be carried in one hand. You know what you really need in this life; personally, I’m glad about good friends and a full refrigerator. But all the extra physical and mental stuff you lug around complicates your life, weighs you down, and keeps you stuck. There’s enough weightiness in life as it is without adding more.

Putting this subject in a larger framework, consider the Hindu idea that God has three primary manifestations: Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer. I can’t do justice in this brief space to this view, but the simple notion that works for me is that there is a lawful and beneficial principle in the universe that is about pruning, emptying, completing, and ending.

This positive “destroying” – very broadly defined – enables creating and preserving, like exhaling enables inhaling, or emptying a cup of something bitter enables filling it with something sweet.

Dropping loads enables lightening up.

How?

In general: Lay your burdens down. And rarely pick up new ones.

Now the details: Pick some place of storage – like a bookshelf, drawer, or corner of a closet – and clear it out of everything you no longer truly want or absolutely need. Give it away or throw it away. Notice how this feels – both anxiety and positive feelings.

Sometimes we fear we will sort of blow away in life if we don’t have a lot of stuff. Then focus on the positive feelings and open to a sense of reward in dropping things you don’t need. Keep going with other stuff you don’t want or need, both at home and at work.

Take a hard look at your obligations, responsibilities, and tasks. Maybe write down a list. Ask yourself: do I really need to do all of these things??! Open to that voice of wisdom in you that’s telling you what you can afford to drop. Open to a sense of freedom and autonomy: you get to decide what makes most sense to do, not the “shoulds” yammering away inside your head. Decide what you can give to others to do – and get them to do it. Decide what you could stop doing, whether others pick it up or not.

For a period of time (a day, a week, a year), do not take on a single new major obligation. Regard all new activities, events, and tasks as “guilty until proven innocent” – toss them in your backpack only if you are certain you truly want to or absolutely have to.

Consider your relationships. Which ones feel weighty, entangled, encumbered? Then consider what you could do about that. Could you step back? No longer engage certain topics (e.g., intractable health problems, conflicts with third parties, the past)? No longer perform certain roles (e.g., problem-solving, quasi-therapist, dating advisor)?

Take a look at your mind: what weighs it down? Guilt about long-ago misdeeds? Needless anxiety? High, perfectionistic standards? Grumbling anger? Grievances? Passivity, lethargy? Doubt? Taking yourself way too seriously? Whatever it is, for a brief period of time – half an hour, half a day – totally drop it. At the first whiff, drop it. See what that’s like: probably pretty great! Then ride that great wave of relief and lightness and continue dropping those lead weights in your mind.

Overall: if in doubt, throw it out.

Play with feeling lighter in your body. As if you are lifted up by invisible helium balloons. Lighter in your step. Your head lighter on your shoulders.

Lighter in your heart.

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Keeping a level head while meditating

Buddha statue carved into rock cliff

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?

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