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Buddhadharma : Spring 2009
15 spring 2 00 9 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly attention to my breath—thought patterns repeated themselves like scales on a piano played at hyper speed. Sometimes the mind was like a postal worker sorting mail by hand at Christmas, desperately throwing every piece of information into a labeled basket. Sometimes it rewrote scenes I had already lived and words I had already spoken. It fan- tasized. It ranted. One day, during a meditation interview, I spoke about how disconcerting it was to feel myself at the mercy of my thoughts. The teacher, Joseph Goldstein, asked me, “Where in the breath cycle are you when you notice you’ve been swept away by thinking?” I saw that I was holding my breath at the end of the exhale. “And then what happens?” I saw that I was faking a return to the breath, watching it start up again out of the corner of my at- tention while the rest snuck out the back door to thought again, often to a seductive com- mentary on the whole process I had just been through. Thinking was a guilty pleasure. But what was the pleasure? There actually was very little, only unbidden thought rushing in to fill that anxious pause after the exhale re- ceded to nothing and the wave of the inhale had not yet begun. The fullness of the inhale leads quite natu- rally to the relief of the exhale, and the anxiety of the exhale leads to the relief of the inhale, explained Bhante Gunaratana during another retreat. “Breathing is the rhythm of life. It’s not something we have to do,” he said. From ParabOla, Fall 2008 take a seat Sarah Mandel on the merits of using a chair as a meditation seat, and, just as important, knowing how to use it well. I didn’t come to the chair easily or happily. Ten years ago, I attended a month-long retreat where we sat for longer and longer periods, taking no exercise beyond the twenty-minute morning walk and walking meditation. I had been sitting for almost thirty years, so my mind accepted the discipline of ongoing one- to two-hour sessions day after day. However, my aging body didn’t do so well. I liked to sit really low, inches above the ground on the flattest zafu I could find, and until menopause struck, that worked. But eventually my weakened knees fell prey to a succession of sprains and strains that took years to heal. Attempts to get back down onto a zafu or even a higher cushion led to reinjury. Finally, I gave up and accepted the chair. Sitting in a chair is not as easy as you might think, because chairs are not designed to sup- port a proper meditation posture. Folding chairs are readily available at many practice centers, since they’re reasonably priced and portable. However, Western furniture seems committed to the notion that a slouch is the most comfortable posture. Therefore, the seat is lower in the back than in the front, guar- anteeing that your knees will be higher than your hips and hunching your upper back and shoulders forward. Where the crucial low- back support is needed, there’s a hole that cushions pop right through. In addition the height is usually wrong: short people’s feet dangle above the floor, while tall people’s knees stab upward, exaggerating even further the chair-induced slump. It’s possible to make folding chairs work- able, but it takes courage to experiment with them while everyone else is sitting silently. If you can, go into the meditation hall ahead of time and experiment. Start by getting the chair height right. A tall person may need several support cushions for a proper knee/ hip ratio (the knees should be lower than the hips). Shorter people should try scoot- ing forward in the seat and placing a folded support cushion under them to raise the sit bones; this helps to reposition shorter legs so the feet are planted firmly on the floor. If the chair is already the right height, correct the reverse tilt with a cushion to make the chair more meditation friendly. In addition to making sitting meditation a more workable and less painful practice, a chair opens up a vast wealth of opportunities for practice in daily life. How many hours do we routinely spend waiting in chairs in kIMSCAFURO