Meditation Practice Point: Taking Leave

Every day we should set aside a fixed time for leaving our usual way of being in the world, our usual consciousness; for entering a more focused and awake relationship to our experience. Every day we should leave our usual scattered mental state and center our awareness on our body and our breath, breaking our habitual way of sitting and breathing by inhabiting these activities with awareness. The emphasis here is on every day. The habit of unconsciousness is very strong. Breaking free of it requires a strong, persistent effort. Real transformation requires daily practice and reinforcement. If we are truly to make ourself open and vulnerable, if we are to experience our life in a fresh and vibrant way, we must practice doing so every day. The crush of habit and convention is relentless. Effort and discipline are required to overcome it.

A particular kind of place is also required. Our time in meditation should be characterized by clarity, silence, and stillness. The room or area we sit in should be uncluttered and clear. The mind takes on the qualities and shapes it is surrounded by. A cluttered, disorderly space leads to a cluttered, disorderly mind. We should take off our shoes and loosen our belt as we begin. The feet are sensory organs. Bare feet help us inhabit our physical environment more deeply. The first thing God said to Moses at the burning bush was, “Take off your shoes, because the place you are standing is sacred ground.” We also want our bellies to be open, because the belly is an important center of both breathing and consciousness. When our breathing is confined mostly to the chest, we take in the world in a shallow way. When our breathing engages the belly as well, we take in the world very deeply.

Silence and stillness are also important to the leave-taking we are trying to accomplish in meditation. We are trying to leave the world of unfocused chatter and constant, compulsive, reactive movement. Silent, we find ourselves entering a deeper, more tranquil world. Still, we step outside the stimuli of our lives; we stop reacting to them for a moment and so become able to see them. We can’t see the picture as long as we are in it. Silent and still, we step out of the picture. What movement is necessary should be careful, quiet, conscious movement. Going to and from our seat, we should walk softly and mindfully on the balls and heels of our feet.

Since there are few things we do in life with a stronger sense of habit than sitting, it is crucial that when we sit in meditation, we sit in a conscious, focused way. It makes no difference if we sit on the floor or in a chair, but the choice is an important one in that we should sit in a position we are reasonably sure we can maintain without moving for half an hour or so. If we are sitting in a chair, we should be particularly careful not to just slouch in our habitual position. Rather we should sit with full intention, letting the spine stand freely, unsupported by the back of the chair. It is also helpful to sit toward the edge of the seat with our feet flat on the floor and balanced in front of us. The soles of our feet have wonderful mechanisms —balancing balls— and can help us find a secure and stable posture in our chair.

On the floor, we can sit in the lotus (each foot turned at the ankle and resting on the opposite thigh) or the half lotus (one foot so turned and rested, the other foot resting under the opposite thigh instead of on top of it), in the Burmese position (legs crossed, knees on floor, feet centered on the floor just in front of the genital area, one foot directly behind the other), or in the cezah (knees bent in front of us, shins flat on the floor, and ankles tucked beneath our seat). The important thing is that our knees should be lower than our hips or at least on the same level. Otherwise we will not be able to make the pelvic tilt we mentioned earlier (and will mention again below). Unless we are extremely limber, if we are sitting on the floor we will require a cushion (at least one) to achieve this.

Although this might sound paradoxical for an exercise in leave-taking, I think it’s important to sit with other people, if not every day, then at least whenever possible. Meditation is very difficult. It forces us to look at things we have invested a lot of energy in not seeing. We will inevitably reach the point where our resistance to this process will become so great we will want to quit. The support of others is crucial at such times. There have been many times when my own meditation has led me to such difficult moments that I would have gotten up and left the room if I hadn’t been too embarrassed to do so in front of others. Moreover, one of the states we are most interested in leaving behind is the exaggerated sense of self —the delusion that we are discrete, isolated entities—that afflicts so many of us. Sitting in meditation with others— breathing the same air, hearing the same sounds, thoughts rising and falling in the same patterns —we experience ourselves to be deeply connected to one another, the constituents of a single, interpenetrating whole, and this sense of things is perhaps the most significant leave-taking we can make.