Do I need to be totally still when meditating?
Tracey Sondik: This is such an important question because many beginning meditators try to remain still when they practice yet they quickly find that it can be extremely uncomfortable. The discomfort may be due to physical issues in the body (tight hips/sore knees) or painful thoughts and emotions in the mind. In either case, this discomfort may lead the newer meditator to say, “this is not for me,” “I can’t do it,” or “I feel worse now than before I started.”
The first thing I try to help new meditators explore is finding a posture that can help them find ease in their bodies. This may include sitting on a cushion with props, sitting in a chair, lying down, or even standing up. When there is more ease in the body, the mind often starts to relax as well.
I also remind new meditators that they can move. If shifting out of an uncomfortable position helps to alleviate pain, they should do this as part of a compassionate mindful practice. Sometimes people struggle with painful thoughts and emotions that can be distressing when they show up during meditation. They may even feel flooded by these emotions and start to feel high levels of anxiety. They may find that shifting their body by opening their eyes, standing up, or even gentle movement including walking meditation or yoga may bring more ease and help reduce some of the distress they are feeling. Mindful movement is a form of meditation and is very effective for people struggling with anxiety/depression.
Learning how to work with our discomfort by bringing ease to our mind and body is so important in meditation as it builds increased capacity and resiliency to manage challenges in our daily life. Rather than forcing stillness, many meditators find that over time, stillness naturally arises when the mind and body truly have time to settle and find ease.
Anne Dutton: This is an understandable and common question. Consciously or unconsciously, we may have the idea that we are trying to attain a certain state of mind and that it should involve the "stilling of thoughts." Like all ideas about meditation, it steers us wrong. How could meditation possibly be helpful if we can't just show up as we are? Meditation accepts all conditions without judgment, without expectation and without partiality. Busy mind, still mind, it doesn't matter. Really. That's a relief, don't you think?
Kathy Simpson: Some teachers will tell you to not move at all during meditation. But when we’re told we can’t do something, that something has the tendency to become the very thing we feel we must do. We tighten around the idea of being absolutely still instead of being with ourselves just as we are. You may be familiar with the saying, “what you resist persists.” That can certainly apply in this case!
That said, most of us come to meditation with the goal of calming our minds and deepening our awareness. If we’re fidgeting or moving around a lot, our minds are probably doing the same. Rather than give in to an impulse to move, a more skillful response is to use it as an opportunity to deepen mindful attention — to investigate what’s arising. Is it restlessness? boredom? discomfort? Are we trying to avoid an uncomfortable emotion or physical sensation? These are some of the classic hindrances that arise in our minds — in meditation and in life, and they can impede our practice and lead us to take unwholesome action.
So take note the next time you feel compelled to move when meditating. Bring curiosity to the experience. What’s present? How does it feel in the mind? How does it feel in the body? Hold your experience lightly, as if you had a bird cupped in your hands — too much pressure and you may injure the bird; too little and the bird could fly away — and examine it from every angle.
As you continue to attend to your experience, it will invariably change. Notice that, too. Sometimes, the hindrance will just pass and you may find yourself experiencing lightness and tranquility on the other side. This can be the source of insight, and a lesson about the power of turning toward the storms that appear in our lives rather than resisting them or turning away. On the other hand, if the urge to move persists, it’s okay to follow that urge. If you’re feeling physical pain, moving may be the wise choice.
Several years ago, I was in the audience of a young monk who had followed a teacher’s instruction to remain still no matter what. He tuned into the pain but did not act upon it. Eventually his knee was permanently damaged and he could no longer meditate sitting on the floor.
If your choice is to move, do so mindfully, moving slowly and tuning into every nuance of the experience. Every moment of mindful attention holds the possibility for insight that can change your life in big and small ways.