Leaving the Lotus Position

Susan Moon on the necessity of alternative meditation postures

Susan Moon

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Not Long ago I swallowed my pride and sat my first sesshin in a chair. This was a turning point. There were several other chair sitters, and I was grateful not to be alone at this higher elevation, not to have my lone head sticking up like a sore thumb in the thin air above the clouds. Lo and behold, this was the first sesshin in years in which I wasn’t fighting myself—Why the hell am I doing this? I settled down. It was the first sesshin in which I didn’t once pray for the bell to hurry up and ring for the end of the period. I was able to be here now—or rather, at this writing, to be there then.

I praise the chair as a spiritual aid. A chair is a tool for sitting in, a gift invented and produced by human beings for human beings. This body knows how to sit in a chair. There’s a lovely geometry to a person in a chair, with the legs, seat, and back of the living body parallel to the legs, seat, and back of the chair, in a double zigzag, expressing the rightness of right angles.

Sometimes I miss being down on the floor—it feels good to be grounded, to get down. So I remind myself: if I am sitting on a chair and the chair is on the floor, then I am sitting on the floor. Besides, it’s important to be able to get up again when the bell rings; after all, there are two parts of Zen practice: sitting down and getting up, and for me, getting up from the floor takes too much time away from the next activity. I don’t want to miss my chance to use the bathroom before the next period of zazen.

In a recent sesshin at a traditional Zen practice center, my second in a chair, I was the only chair sitter, even though I wasn’t the oldest person. This gave me pause. Was I the only one because I was the person with the least amount of cartilage in my knees, or because I was the wimpiest person, or the person who cared the least what others thought of me? I realized, sitting there in my chair, that it didn’t matter. The only real question was and always is: am I making my best effort? If I am making my best effort while sitting in a chair, then I am sitting perfectly.

There are plenty of challenges to chair sitting, so don’t worry that it’s too easy—you can still be miserable. The five hindrances of lust, sloth, ill will, restlessness, and doubt assault me in a chair as easily as they did when I sat on the floor. Pain visits me, too, on occasion, sharp and hot between the shoulder blades, but I know it’s not injuring me, and it doesn’t stay.

Sitting in a chair, I feel gratitude for the practice. I enjoy sitting upright. I enjoy my breathing. I am not guarding against the onset of pain, and I am not fighting with myself for being a sissy. I am not making bargains with myself the whole time, such as Ten more breaths and then I will allow myself to move. I check my posture: I feel my feet firmly planted on the floor, I feel the uprightness of my spine, I feel my sitting bones on the seat of the chair. I am close to the others in the room; whether they are on the floor or in chairs, we are practicing together, held by the same silence.

What’s next? Perhaps I’ll go on to hammock practice, or sitting zazen in a chaise lounge, poolside. I’ll let you know how that goes when I get there. ▼

Susan Moon, a Soto Zen teacher, is the author of The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi and editor of Not Turning Away: The Practice of Engaged Buddhism. The above essay is part of a work in progress, a collection of personal essays about aging from a dharma perspective.

Untitled;  John Lindell; 1984;pencil, crayon, charcoal on paper; 9 x 12.5 inches. © John Lindell, Courtesy of the Artist

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