Sitting Meditation — Finding Peace in Discomfort

I’ve been learning to meditate for about 6 months now. When I first started, I simply sat sloppily cross-legged in a soft, oversized chair in my office. While it certainly didn’t promote good posture, it was fairly comfortable for the early days of trying to meditate for 5 or 10 minutes while pondering how I really suck at meditation. I was having enough trouble trying to wrangle my stormy mind; Sitting “correctly” was the least of my worries.

Eventually I decided to try some guided meditation classes. I started off using a regular chair in class until one of my teachers asked one evening if I’d like to learn how to sit in traditional pose. I wasn’t sure at first since I’m not in the greatest shape and my hip flexibility is rather limited. It would have been easy to say no thanks, since most people at the place I go to sit in Back Jack style floor seats with lots of carefully positioned pillows and blankets. Some people lay down for meditation. Sometimes I hear them snoring.

After talking to my teacher and considering the benefits of having a more grounded seat that correctly aligns the spine, I decided to give it a go. I found that a Burmese style of sitting with the ankles approximately in line with each other (not stacked) was the most feasible position. Yeah, you’re not going to see this guy twisted into a Lotus position any time soon. I’m going to go with never.

Initially, I started by using either a Yoga bolster or blankets as my seat. My legs would start to go to sleep after maybe 15 minutes. After some research online, I ended up ordering a crescent shaped meditation cushion, which supposedly would add a little support under the thighs and help keep my legs from falling asleep. That was better, giving me 20–25 minutes of time before my legs were killing me and I had to readjust. That was OK for my shorter meditation times at home. It could be brutal in longer 30–45 minute classes. Yet, I persisted.

I could have given in at any time and started building comfy cloud seats or beds like most of the folks in class. In fact, I was encouraged to do so by some teachers. Comfort is greatly emphasized by most teachers and I get that. People generally don’t want to experience discomfort and you don’t want to run them off by directing newcomers into something that they probably aren’t going to enjoy. So why was I putting up with discomfort? Well, I didn’t want to be uncomfortable. I’m not looking for a daily period of suffering in silence after all.

Here’s the deal. When we set an intention for our meditation in class, mine is always the same. Peace. I practice meditation as a way to find peace of mind. I’m looking to calm my anxiety ridden mind and find peace. Wouldn’t it be a more peaceful experience if I were to be completely comfortable during my practice? Maybe. Probably. The thing is though, I’m not just looking for a short 30–45 minute respite. What I really want is to practice something that helps me find peace in any situation, not just when I’m in a safe and comfortable place.

When you suffer from anxiety and depression like I do, learning to find peace in discomfort and pain — whether physical or mental — is a valuable skill. I have found that if I can objectively and unemotionally acknowledge the fact that a part of my body is upset with me and move past that feeling to find my breath and be peaceful in that bit of discomfort, I can also do the same when I start to feel that twinge of anxiety trying to get a foot-hold in my mind.

That doesn’t mean that I will purposefully seek to be uncomfortable or persist in doing something that will cause harm to my body. I’ve been practicing Yoga and that is helping with flexibility. I’m becoming less uncomfortable in longer seated meditations over time. Still, I have concerns when the numbness in my legs becomes overwhelming and disrupts my meditation practice. Sure, I can readjust my posture and take the discomfort down a few notches, if not relieve it completely for a while. That really disrupts the whole stillness thing though and could potentially be a distraction to others in a group meditation setting. So, I’m experimenting with different solutions to better suit my current physical state of being.

For shorter meditations, up to 15–20 minutes, I can handle a cross-legged pose just fine. Any discomfort will be minimal and as easily acknowledged and forgotten as a stray thought. For longer meditations, I’m currently trying out a kneeling Seiza style pose with the help of a meditation bench that supports my body weight. This encourages proper upper body posture and I’m able to sit longer without the discomfort reaching my limits. There is still some discomfort as my feet can get a little numb after about 30 minutes. Even so, it is quite an improvement over the cross-legged pose. It’s more of a slight annoyance compared with the intense sensation of my whole legs going numb and tingly. This may be just the ticket until my flexibility improves enough for extended cross-legged seating, if it ever does, through my Yoga practice.

In addition to the mental benefits, I’m finding that my focus on correct posture in my meditation practice is spilling over into my daily life. I’m more aware of my posture when sitting at my desk now and I’m making an effort to avoid slouching or bending my neck into my screen. As my spine becomes stronger through Yoga and correct alignment in seated meditation, better posture becomes easier in general. That can only be a good thing for those of us who stare at screens all day.

I share this experience not to knock anyone who prefers to have a comfortable back supported or laying down position on plush pillows. If you are finding value in your meditation experience that way, more power to you. Not everyone is even physically capable of assuming a traditional pose. No worries. If you are able though, it may be worth pursuing one of the traditional cross-legged or kneeling poses. It will almost certainly not be comfortable over extended periods but if you are able to find mental peace in spite of minor discomfort, you’ll be developing a skill that stays with you when you’re not seated on your cushion.