A friend recently emailed me and asked:
I have been running into an insanely simple but complicated problem and wanted to know if you could offer any advice:
I have been introduced, essentially, to two courses of conduct when it comes to a meditator’s posture:
>Teacher X says that when one meditates, one should have a firm back support so that when relaxation comes, it doesn’t make you fall over.
>Teacher Y , on the other hand, seems to specifically advise sitting AWAY from the wall, without any back support.
When I started out initially, I was going with Teacher X’s way, and it seemed to be working out pretty well; I could actually enter some level of concentration then, but if I try and sit without a back support, then I find that I’m too busy trying to maintain my posture to even think about, let alone watch, my breath. I also tend to sway/slant/fall backwards, and then I feel unstable.
It isn’t completely trouble-free even with the back support, but it’s certainly a lot better than going without. Can you suggest any solution?
Yes, I do have a simple, unequivocal, immediate answer for you for this issue: try as much as possible to sit without physical back support.
Sitting upright on one’s own is the advice that I have heard from scores of teachers, as well as had it practiced in pretty much every monastery I have been to (except for people with injuries or disabilities).
The aim with meditation sitting, as I understand it, is to find a posture that balances uprightness and openness. One ideally does this by finding a posture that one can hold oneself up with balance, rather than muscular contraction. Finding such a posture often takes time and experimentation. But finding one’s balance, and sitting with a relaxed upright open body, without depending on a wall or chair, cultivates an analogous mind state of being emotionally open and upright without being emotionally dependent – and that of course is a mind state that is psychologically healthy and desirable for all of us.
Also, just practically speaking – I find that sitting still for an hour without moving while leaning against a wall, actually ends up being noticeably more painful (especially at the points of contact) than sitting still for an hour without moving while being upright in open space, with spine upright, torso flesh, and arms hanging relaxed off of it, and head balanced at the top.
Sitting without back support can be physically difficult at first, especially while we try to sit as upright as possible, and to lift up the crown of our head as much as we can. This is often because we all have muscles in the back that have grown contracted, numb, atrophied, and/or hyperextended from disuse or misuse, as we have sat either slumped over or overarched into a swayback.
So, I find that it is common for new meditators to have their back muscles fatigue, spasm, or clench when they first sit fully upright for long periods of time without back support. But, if a meditator keeps sitting in an upright sitting posture with spine extended, without reverting to depending on a wall or chair for support, eventually the muscles of their back will stretch, open, strengthen, and generally rejuvenate. At that point, an upright self-supporting posture becomes more comfortable and easy.