3. Torso: Keep your back comfortably straight, your chest open, and your shoulders relaxed. Philip Kapleau Roshi, the first Zen teacher I studied with, writes, "If you are accustomed to letting the chest sink, it does require a conscious effort to keep it up in the beginning. When it becomes natural to walk and sit with the chest open, you begin to realize the many benefits of this ideal posture. The lungs are given additional space in which to expand, thus filling and stretching the air sacs. This in turn permits a greater intake of oxygen and washes the bloodstream, which carries away fatigue accumulated in the body." A straight back and soft shoulders is a natural position. It does not have to feel forced or painful. In fact, after time, meditation breeds a sense of overall comfort. But often when we start to meditate, assuming a straight back makes us suddenly aware of discomfort in the body. This is why many people who meditate also practice yoga, or another form of physical exercise that strengthens and stretches the body. One of the best ways to maintain a straight back and open chest in meditation is to repeat silently a phrase whenever you feel physical pain. For example, if you feel yourself tensing your shoulders as you hold your back straight during meditation, you can inwardly whisper to yourself, "soften, soften," or "open, open."

A straight back, open heart, and relaxed body will help your meditation practice immeasurably. A straight back will lead to dignity and courage. An open chest will nurture acceptance of life. A relaxed body will remind you to go easy on yourself, to treat your meditation practice as a gift instead of a chore.

4. Hands: Sometimes, when meditation gets very quiet, our concentration coagulates in the hands. It sounds strange, but you may experience this yourself. It's not uncommon, as your exhalation dissolves outward, to feel as if all that is left of your body is your hands. Therefore, it is good to position your hands in a way that is both grounding and meaningful. You will notice in statues from a variety of religious traditions that the deities or saints hold their hands in intentional ways. These hand positions are called mudras in the Tantric Buddhist tradition—physical gestures that help evoke certain states of mind.

One frequently seen position is the forefinger lightly touching the thumb and the other three fingers flexed outward. Another common mudra is one hand resting in the palm of the other, thumbs touching. Many people like to meditate with their hands in the Christian prayer position of palms together, fingers pointing up. Some people meditate with their hands simply resting, palms down or upward, on their knees.

Each mudra evokes a specific quality that you can experience yourself merely by experimenting with them. For example, resting the palms upward on the knees indicates receptivity—openness to whatever comes your way. Hands placed downward on the knees produce a grounded feeling in the body, a sense of balance and strength. My personal favorite hand position is where the thumb and index finger touch and create a circle. There is something about the thumb touching the finger that reminds me to be on the spot in my concentration, yet delicately so. I gently extend the other three fingers and rest my hands on my knees. This position keeps me steady and balanced. I attach the words on the spot to the mudra and use both the position of my hands and the intention of the mudra to bring my mind back to meditation when it wanders.

Excerpted from BROKEN OPEN: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser. © 2004 by Elizabeth Lesser. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group.  


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