Someone wrote me this:
So I have a question relating to proper posture. I graduated from massage therapy school about a year and a half ago. It's taught me to be much more aware of my body, more cognizant of what's going on.
Recently I've noticed some unhealthy things going on with my zazen and I was wondering if you could help me pick the lesser of two evils.
I generally sit Burmese style on a crescent shaped zafu. This has started to really make my knees and ankles hurt. Not the kind of hurt you get from sitting zazen for 30 minutes; the kind of hurt you get when you're starting to damage a joint. It's difficult for me to get up and walk after sitting like this.
So I've been trying a seiza bench so that I can keep my knees on the ground. This doesn't hurt my knees or back too badly, but it makes my arms, wrists and hands very uncomfortable. In Burmese posture I rest my hands in the cosmic mudra on my lap. But on the bench I don't really have a lap, just my thighs that angle away from me toward the floor. This causes my hands to be kinda pressed into my belly above my belt buckle. It makes my shoulders rotate forward, putting undue stress on my rhomboids. At the end of a sitting I'm quite sore from my upper back all the way down to my fingers. My wrists pop loudly and end up very stiff.
So I'm wondering what to do. I can sit on a higher bench, with my legs crossed but my knees off the ground. This will alleviate my upper back and arm pain since my hands can rest in my lap. Or I can sit on the bench, with my knees touching the ground, and put my hands on my thighs without making the mudra.
Is one more desirable than the other?
I answered thusly:
I always have a hard time with questions like these because I've never had these kinds of difficulties.
The really crucial part of the zazen posture is keeping your spine straight -- that is, upright. You're not trying to make it unnaturally poker straight. It's a balance pose in which the spine is balanced on the hips. If you've done Tree Pose in Yoga, that's also a balance pose. But you're standing rather than sitting so it is very clear when you lose balance. In a seated balance pose, you can lose balance and not fall over.
So, I would say focus on that as your criteria. The full lotus posture is recommended because for most people, that's the best way to achieve a seated balance pose. But if this doesn't work for you, try adjusting your posture with your main criteria being to keep the spine balanced and erect. What happens with your legs and arms is less crucial. Although, I do believe the standard pose allows for energy to move through the body is a balanced way. So I would try getting as close to that as possible.
This is an example of how I deal with specific questions about posture when they are asked in a specific way by specific people. Giving general posture advice is much trickier because you never know who is reading you and how they're going to take it.
A lot of the general advice I see handed out these days about meditation and posture seems to be trying really, really, really hard to make it as user friendly and easy as possible. A lot of this advice makes it seem like you can sit any way you want to and everything will be just fine. It's very soft and huggy and sweet.
I'm never really sure what people are going for when they present it this way. A lot of times it feels to me like they're just trying to get butts in seats. The easier they make meditation seem, the more people will listen to them and this, in turn, makes their books sell better and gets more people in the door at their retreats.
But not everyone who presents it in this way is so mercenary. I've also seen teachers who are concerned that students not injure themselves. Like me, they have no way of knowing who might be reading what they write or watching their YouTube videos and suchlike. There's always the chance that someone out there in Internet Land or Book Reader Land or wherever either has some serious issue with their knees and legs or is just so gung-ho they're gonna force themselves into a posture they're not ready for. Rather than risk encouraging such people to do themselves harm, they tell them that sitting in chairs is also fine.
I struggle with this. I know for a fact and through my own personal experience that the traditional posture is critcal to zazen practice. I've also seen a number of people who truly cannot get into that posture but want to do zazen anyway. In my experience, these people always -- always -- find a way to either do what's necessary to prepare their bodies for the correct posture or, if that's not possible, to find some reasonable compromise. Will they get enlightened this way? Beats me! But I think some of them will find what they're looking for. They have as much chance of that as anyone else.
On the other hand, if they're not so keen on zazen in the first place they just give it up.
Zazen practice requires a certain degree of commitment. It's just like anything else worth doing. I try to deal with this the way I'd deal with someone who wanted instructions on how to play bass.
If they had all their fingers, I'd show them the standard method for playing bass and tell them to practice a lot. If they had just one finger on their left hand (and they were right handed) but they were very committed to playing bass in spite of this, I'd try to work with them to find a way to play. Django Reinhardt was a brilliant guitarist who could only use two of the fingers on his left hand. He was committed and found a way.
If, on the other hand, I had a student who had all his fingers but just didn't want to use them or to practice regularly, I'd tell him to get another teacher. I might even tell him he's not going to get very far with that attitude. Maybe that's not what he wants to hear. Maybe he won't like me for saying that. But hearing it might do him a bit of good.
If I were writing a standard book on bass playing I would tend to pitch it for people with all their fingers who were willing to practice. I'd tell them their fingers might hurt or even bleed a little at first, but that this would go away with continued practice. I'd encourage them not to give up just because it hurts at first. I'd tell them the pain was worthwhile. Because it was for me.
I wouldn't use up a lot of space in that book dealing with the problems of playing bass with one finger. I would figure that people with special needs like that would find their own way to either make what I wrote work for them, or find someone who could help them individually.
This is how I feel about zazen practice. I think that the vast majority of people can do the standard pose. Some may need to work at it. Others can do it right away. But there's a reason that pose has been standard for 2,500 years. It is not arbitrary. It is worth working at, if that's what it takes. I don't tell the general public it's fine to use chairs because I don't think that helps anyone very much. It only encourages people who don't want to bother with the traditional posture not to work at it. I figure those who actually need to use chairs will find their own way just like a guy who really wants to play bass but only has one finger.
I worked at the posture. It hurt. But it was worthwhile. I'm glad I put in the effort and I'm glad I had a teacher who pushed me to do so, who saw that I could do the posture if I tried.
AND AGAIN, FOR ANYONE WHO PLANS TO YELL AT ME ABOUT FULL LOTUS -- THERE ARE TRADITIONAL POSTURES OTHER THAN THE FULL LOTUS, SUCH AS HALF LOTUS AND BURMESE STYLE. SO WHEN I TALK ABOUT THE TRADITIONAL POSTURE I AM NOT TALKING EXCLUSIVELY ABOUT FULL LOTUS.
(Sorry for yelling, but whenever I say anything about the traditional posture I get a dozen commenters screaming bloody murder about full lotus.)