This page will cover sitting in meditation hall during retreat.
Learn principles of meditation, about samatha, vipassana, anapanasati, and more on our page What is meditation?
Sitting is one basis of meditation practice. The Buddha says we can meditate in all four of the natural positions of the body: Walking, standing, sitting, lying down.
How to sit
We find a comfortable and stable sitting position so that we can breathe well and free our minds. This usually turns out to be the “Burmese position” (legs crossed next to each other) or half-lotus position (one foot on top of the other leg). For some the full lotus may be great.
For most people it works well to sit on a mat, with a cushion under your rear. Some people find it helpful in burmese/lotus to put a cushion under each knee as well.
Other possibilities are using a meditation bench with feet tucked under, or a chair.
All is good — experiment and see what is most helpful to you, to keep the body calm and centered, the mind focused.
In the back of the meditation hall are mats, various sizes of cushions, meditation benches (also known as Zen kneeling bench or Seiza (say-ZA) bench), and also nice solid wooden chairs.
Dealing with discomfort
You will experience odd discomforts, pains, and numbness, even after years of practice. “The reason for pain/numbness is that the posture builds a lot of energy, that will push … blockages thus causing pain. … When the blockage is cleared, no more pain.”[ref]
Especially in retreat, and formal sitting sessions, we want to try to work through these blockages rather than immediately escape from them by shifting our body or changing position. Also we don’t want to disturb our companions by moving. So what can we do? Try these:
- Use a higher cushion under your rear.
- Position the cushion as far back as possible, just under the tailbone.
- Just a small shift of your weight may relieve the pain/numbness. Sometimes it feels like your body just wants to know you are still there with it 🙂
- “Simply watch it happen. It ebbs and flows and insight can come from realizing that it is temporary. You can allow it to happen and be with it, and it will go away.”[ref]
If you find you must move, or completely change your position (such as stretching a leg out), you want to do the movement slowly and mindfully, and quietly — both as a continuation of your meditation, and so as not to disturb others.
More good advice at Buddhism.StackExchange: Leg numbing during sitting?
Courtesy in meditation hall
- We never lie down in meditation hall or temple. By their vows a teacher is not allowed to teach anyone who is lying down! In addition, it shows disrespect to the Buddha, the teacher, and your companions. Also, without training, the lying position doesn’t help your mind to stay alert and focused.
- We never point our feet at anyone, most especially never at any Buddha image or at the teacher. Of course you may need to stretch your legs, just be mindful of the direction.
While listening to teachings
The traditional sitting posture in Thailand for listening to teachings is the “mermaid pose”, with both legs bent to one side or another. It may look awkward, but actually you may find you get used to it fairly quickly and it can be quite comfortable. If you wish you can get into some other attentive position, such as burmese or simple cross-legged. When you do, you want to mindfully shift position slowly and softly. You would never be in a slouching position, even if you need to lean against a wall or pillar. And never of course lie down, or point your feet towards the teacher or the Buddha image.
Separation of genders
Following traditional Thai Theravada practice, men and women sit separately in the Meditation and Dining Halls. It is respectful for any non-binary or other-identified person to choose one side and keep to it for the duration of the retreat.
This may seem like a rather arbitrary and unnecessary restriction, but you can also find a lot of respect and meaning in it.
First, it is one of the aspects of honoring the traditional Thai culture of which we are a part, and from which our practice is drawn.
It shows respect for our teachers. They are traditional Thai monks and would not expect any other way. Just as when you are a guest in someone else’s house, you respect their ways happily as part of the gift of being accepted into it.
You can see this separation as forming a symbol in physical space of the power of elemental forces in our human lives. It then can become a great honor — we are forming a spiritual pattern in the arrangement of our bodies on our meditation cushions!
You can think of it as just one more exercise in mindfulness — and also use it for contemplation on which of the traditions of your own culture are really any less arbitrary 🙂