Black Bear came to see Raven one morning and said, “I have this persistent pain under my right shoulder blade. Shall I try sitting through it?”
Raven asked, “Have you tried sitting through it?”
Black Bear said, “It just gets worse.”
Raven said, “Maybe you should elevate your seat a little. Try sitting on a stone.”
Black Bear said, “It doesn’t seem to help.”
Raven said, “Try lying down.”
Black Bear said, “Can I really do zazen lying down?”
Raven asked, “How else can you do it?”
(from Zen Master Raven by Robert Aitken)
All forms of Buddhism, and especially Zen, emphasise the correct posture of meditation to be a seated one. Zazen literally translates as ‘seated meditation’ and Shikantaza, the main practice of Soto Zen Buddhism, as ‘just sitting’. This is the position we see in statues of the Buddha, and most images of Buddhist teachers of the past and present.
For some people, sitting in full or half-lotus or any of the other seated positions (seiza, kneeling posture, with or without a meditation stool, and Burmese, with both legs in front) will present little problem. For others, it may be either too painful or impossible.
There are several options in the latter instance:
1. Sit seated in a chair if you can, with your hands in your lap in the usual dhyana mudra posture (see photo to the left) and feet on the floor. You may need a cushion or foot stool to rest your feet on if they do not naturally reach the floor. Zen meditation centres often provide chairs in addition to the usual zafus (meditation cushions) and zabutons (meditation mat) for people who have back problems and other physical issues with sitting crossed legged. If you are a wheelchair user, there is the option of either remaining in your chair or mobilising to another chair if you can.
2. Lie down, either on your side (as the Buddha in his parinirvana pose) or in the Yoga savasana posture. In savasana (‘corpse pose’) you may be most comfortable with a small pillow under your head.
This article also suggests alternative meditation postures.
My friend Sarah Kokai Thwaites talks about her experience of learning how to ‘sit’ without sitting after delevoping Long Covid in her piece, Zazen Without Sitting.
As someone who often practices Zazen laying down (there should probably be a Japanese word for ‘laying meditation’!), I can say that I do not have the same alertness as I do when sitting, but it is better than not practicing at all. The body naturally goes into a state of relaxation, and even pre-sleep, when laying down which is natural, something that does not happen as frequently when the spine is erect.
Speaking of the spine, if you can sit but need back support or a brace to sit, you should use that as you usually do.
When attending sitting sessions at Zen and Buddhist practice places, it is best to ask if you wish to participate laying down, or if you require a chair and one is not already provided. Although I understand that this can be embarrassing, I would hope any decent Buddhist practice place will wish to accommodate anyone with specific needs.