The image of an ancient Egyptian sculpture appeared on my Facebook page and caused a bit of controversy. The image shows Egyptian royalty in seated positions. The picture is split to show what the sculpture looks like today and what it might have looked like thousands of years ago when it was first carved.
Someone made a comment that the image depicts the “proper way for white people to meditate.”
Of course this led to many retaliatory comments accusing the person of racism and ignorance. The person tried to defend himself and revealed that he was a student of a school that taught “the best way” to meditate. This was not a good defence. It illustrates the flaw in the common practice of adhering too strictly to one school, method or teacher of meditation – forgetting that we live in a big world with lots of valid and effective traditions and systems for spiritual growth. The people who sought to “correct” this person’s “error” actually stood on a weaker platform. While he was asserting that “white people” should sit in chairs to meditate while “brown people” should assume the lotus position – the others were arguing that the cross legged poses were the only valid way to meditate for everyone.
In reality, there are many ways to meditate and many suitable positions depending on the individual meditator.
Once a person gains some facility with the process and has direct experience of the meditative state, it becomes possible to meditate in almost any situation or position – sitting, standing, walking, and even swinging from a trapeze.
The learning phase is crucial, however, to getting that direct experience of meditation. True meditation is not simply relaxation or deep thinking, it is almost a restructuring of the nervous system to allow for direct contact with absolute reality or the Divine Spirit – whatever you perceive divinity to be. This restructuring occurs quickly for some people and may take many years for others. And once the first direct experience takes place, it may require much more practice and effort to maintain the contact for more than a few moments at a time. However, even the slightest contact generates positive results in a person’s life and some of us believe that this is a state worth attaining.
How a person begins the training process depends very much on the person’s background and previous experiences. And this has much to do with culture and even climate – certainly more to do with these than with race or ethnicity. In parts of the world with hotter, dryer climates it is quite acceptable and comfortable to sit directly on the ground or on a mat or pillow. While in colder, wetter climates stools, benches or chairs are much more appropriate.
If you look at images of a region such as India, the place where yogic meditation flowered, from thousands of years ago, you rarely find a picture of anyone sitting on a bench or chair – even when the person is on an elevated platform they still sit on the floor.
Whereas images from Europe from the same time period rarely show anyone sitting on the ground. This, as I’ve said, has more to do with climate than with ethnicity.
In Egypt, where the controversial image originated, chairs were used more for formal, ritual events. Important people used chairs while less important people (such as scribes and writers) sat on the ground.
In the 21st century, of course, chairs are found everywhere; yet, most people in the hotter, dryer regions of the world will still prefer to sit close to the ground.
Contrast this with my own experience growing up in Canada – a cold, wet country. As a child I sat on the ground only till I completed kindergarten. Once I got to the 1st grade, I was issued a chair and a desk and sat in a chair ever after. The normal state of things in countries like Canada is that older people sit in chairs and young kids sit on the ground.
Now suppose someone like me, who spent my whole life sitting in a chair, decided to learn to meditate. Would it make sense to force me to assume the cross legged lotus position? The same position that, for example, a person who grew up in a country such as India has spent his whole life practicing?
Now, of course, certain biomechanical processes influence the choice of meditation positions – especially during the initial learning phase. It is desirable that energy, blood and air are able to flow freely. Air flow is particularly essential, thus a position that allows the lungs and diaphragm maximum opportunity to function is ideal. In this case sitting with the spine erect and the chest area free of hindrance is important. Sitting upright in a chair, with feet slightly apart and the hands resting on the thighs, works very well for anyone. A simple cross legged pose with the back straight and the chest area fully open for deep breathing, also works very well. Lying on your back is actually less useful as it puts some extra pressure on the lungs. But really, you can learn meditation in any position if you apply enough desire to attain results: this include lying in a hospital bed, sitting in a wheelchair, or being in any kind of restrictive circumstance.
A sincere desire and willingness to make contact with your deeper self and with the greater cosmic reality is key – it is this particular internal position or point of view that is truly the proper way to meditate.