Module 1: Preparing to sit
Welcome! Taking the first step out of discomfort and towards effortless and poised sitting meditation is a big deal! It seems only fitting to start by talking a little bit about how small things can make big differences. This is part of the beauty of meditation. We simply sit, and in doing less, over time, we experience large changes that ripple out from that small choice.
Each small step creates a new beginning for the small steps that follow it.
This is the twin lesson we will start with: 1) Making changes to the context is more effective than trying to change something directly. Create ideal conditions for learning over time, and learning happens naturally. 2) Attending to small, subtle sensations in how we move and sit is a powerful condition for change. Tuning in, to more and more subtle sensations, is far more useful than detaching. When you discover subtle differences in your movement and posture, these become the new context for what you can sense next.
The first step, then, is to set ourselves up for the steps to follow. This means finding ways to create a supportive environment for all of the explorations to follow, as well as gaining our first practice in moving and sensing subtly.
Preparing the Context
Making Time for Time
Let’s start with the big picture. One of the difficulties of our modern world is time, or the apparent lack of it. It may be one of the reasons we turn to meditation in the first place. The strange paradox is that finding time takes time.
“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day—unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.”
This course is meant to be done in your own time, and as efficiently as possible, which is part of the beauty of being able to do it online. But it does mean it is up to you to find the time. Honestly, the flip side of online courses is that in general they have a terrible completion rate. Motivation ebbs, life gets busy, you feel bad for putting it off, and without really knowing when exactly, you’ve stopped.
I don’t want that to happen here. So the first thing to do is to set aside the time in a way that works for you. Literally put it on your calendar. There are a number of longer lessons, and some shorter ones to pair with them. So maybe you set aside a couple hour long periods each week, and follow up with the shorter lessons afterward. Or maybe during the week, you start with the shorter lessons, and save the longer lessons for the weekend. There’s no right or wrong way to move through this course. Stop and start however makes sense. Whatever you do, though, make it consistent, get it onto a calendar, set a reminder, and otherwise make it simple for yourself. Take the time to make time.
Finding a Place
The other context that makes a huge difference is, of course, place. Maybe you already have a place to meditate. If not, time to set one up. For this course you will also need enough room to lie down on the floor, on a yoga mat or blanket. And you’ll also need to have a way to play the audio lessons. (You can download them to a device, or play them straight off your computer, but you’ll need speakers of some sort. (It’s “possible” to use a portable device with headphones, in a pinch, but a bit of a pain.) Whatever you do, you’ll want to gather the materials that you need, and keep them handy. You don’t want to have to clear a space and track down materials every time.
The Place within the Place
OK, a word on cushions. If you don’t have a cushion, you’ll want to get one. There are many different ways to sit in meditation, from chairs to kneeling, to nothing at all. They are all possible, and I encourage you to play with them, especially if you struggle in any position. The position we will be working with is the Burmese or Tailor’s position, sitting cross legged, both lower legs resting on the floor. For this, the classic setup is a zabuton and zafu: one flat, for under your legs; the other round for under your butt. Below I’ll show you how to modify this to meet your needs, either adding stuffing or cushions for extra height, or finding support under your knees. If, no matter how much you adjust things, you can’t find comfort, no worries. It is important to start from a position that already feels supported and comfortable. You can use a stable, flat chair or stool. And you’ll want to get the height dialed in just like we will for the cushions.
The last thing you’ll need is a notebook to keep track of the process. Whatever format you like. Just a place to record a few reflections, observations, questions, each time. It can even just be a file that you keep on your desktop. Just keep it handy.
Oh, and a timer helps.
OK, so that’s it. Make sure you have a space set up, and the materials you’ll need.
For a list of good places to get cushions online, take a look at our Meditation Resources section. If you aren’t sure exactly what to get, you’ll find my recommendations there.
Last but by no means least is creating a supportive community around your practice. The best way to do this is to do it with others. Invite a family member, loved-one, friend to do the course with you. Doing it with someone not only keeps you accountable, but is more fun. If you are part of a meditation community, do it together. Or at least let them know that you are doing it. Or tell a friend. Or post your intentions to sit easily on social media somewhere. Making our goals public is one way to own them and bring them into focus. So make a point of sharing your plan with someone!
You can also join our members only Facebook group. This is a great place to post questions, progress, and discuss with others. Click the link, and once you are approved, introduce yourself!
If you would like a study partner, and don’t have someone handy, post to the group!
Beginning Where You Are: Checking In (10 minutes)
OK, once we’ve sorted out the larger context, it’s time to start playing.
- Set a timer for 5 minutes and sit down to meditate.
Spend the time checking in with where you are and how your sitting feels. Don’t try to change anything. Just notice what it feels like.
- When you are done, set the timer for another 5 minutes and write down whatever sensations came up for you. How would you describe the feeling of sitting?
Fine Tuning the Context: Adjusting your cushion (30 minutes)
One of the fastest, easiest, and simplest things you can do, that will make a huge difference in your sitting is to properly adjust your sitting cushion. As your sitting skill improves you will keep coming back to this, continually adjusting your supports to meet your changing needs.
- For now, if you haven’t read and implemented the Quick Start Guide already, now is the time. The goal is to find a good working height for you to get started.
Fine Tuning Your Sensation (15-30 minutes)
The Power of Subtle
You’ll notice that even as you were fine tuning your cushion height, you were already doing something similar with your sensation. Can you tell the difference between sitting too high and too low? What about a quarter of an inch higher or lower? At some point it becomes hard to tell what the differences are, or if we can feel them at all. This isn’t a failure of perception. It is finding a level of subtlety where it finally becomes an interesting question. And this is where change happens.
If you think about it, this is what meditation does, it drops down the level of perception so that you can attend to subtler differences that have been there all along but were getting drowned out.
If I ask you to close your eyes and hold out your hand, and then I place a sheet of paper on it, you will likely notice. And the more we played this game, the more fine tuned your skill would get. But if you are holding a stack of books to begin with, you are unlikely to feel one more page. And no matter how many times we play, it is unlikely that you’ll get better at it.
So this is the game. We’ll keep playing with easy gentle sensations, so that over time, we will be able to tell what effortless sitting really feels like.
“Your body’s sensitivity should be such that you are aware of the tiniest feather brushing against your skin. Even the mosquito finds no place to land on you without causing you to move.”
—Tai Chi Classics II, Master Wong Chung-Yua
Easier said than done! The trick is to keep practicing doing less, of feeling for gentle and subtle differences. This can be a real challenge in an age when we are typically taught to be rough with our body: to stretch it, work it out, or ignore it. So it takes some gentle practice. Gentle practice at being gentle.
I can’t be there as you do these lessons, so I need you to take on the voice in your head that says, “I’ll learn more if I back off from this.” If I ask you to do a movement, and you can’t do it comfortably, or find yourself trying to do it “right” or “all the way,” then that voice should pop gently into your head. The learning happens right at the moment that you organize yourself to set out. You are looking for the sweet spot where it already feels easy and effortless. If that means a really small movement, or even just doing it in your imagination, all the better! That’s where all these movements are going to wind up anyway: in imperceptible movements as you appear to “sit still.”
So take on that voice for yourself. Remind yourself to constantly seek out what feels easy and subtle. And when you feel something uncomfortable or painful, stop, and ask yourself how you can back off and change the context to one that works. Pushing through is counter-productive, even if you do avoid injury. The real work is in being rigorous about finding ease!
Practicing Subtle Movement: Resting the Knees Lesson
OK, so let’s practice with a short lesson. You may have tried this one already—it’s called Resting the Knees—but if so that just means that this time you can really practice doing less, and looking for subtlety.
If you’ve already gone through the process of adjusting your cushion, you will have seen how height affects the position of your knees. If you struggle to rest your knees comfortably on the ground, the simplest thing to do is raise the ground by putting some support under them. This will reduce the strain and effort, and allow you to feel more and more subtle movements in your hips, which in turn will allow them to open more, thus drop the knees. It’s a nice feedback loop. This lesson explores the same ease, but the other way around: can you use gentle movements of your knees to learn how to find ease and balance through the rest of you?
- So go ahead and try it, and see if you can practice using it to explore doing less. Instead of trying to feel obvious sensations, go slower and smaller. Be more curious. Don’t be afraid to not know what you are feeling, but instead see what surprises you or eludes you.
Resting the Knees Lesson:
The lesson is what we call a “one sided lesson” in that it stays with the movements that arrange themselves around moving just one of your knees. It’s a bit of a misnomer though, as if you could ever really just move one side of yourself! So you can either listen to it just once, or repeat the same lesson but switching knees.
- When you are done, you might want to go back to your cushion to see if you feel any differences, and take a minute or two to write down any thoughts.
In the next module we’ll start exploring “sidedness,” symmetry and balance in more detail…