Thursday, August 19, 2010

On Hero Mind and the Lotus Posture

"I have never understood the sometimes obsessive focus on full lotus. Nine years of meditation practice - still no full lotus pose for me. It's no problem at all, nor do I even worry about someday doing meditation regularly in full lotus. I hope anyone reading your post, and worrying about lotus pose, or even half lotus pose, might be able to let it go in reading my words. You can be dedicated to enlightenment, regardless of how you sit or stand."

So wrote Nathan in a comment on our previous post. It is well to give these words a better platform.

The lotus position, that is the "full lotus," is where the knees touch the ground or a mat, and both feet rest on the opposite thighs. It is often presented as the optimal posture for Zen meditation. Some Zen Centers, to this day, insist that practitioners sit in the full lotus or make a concerted effort to achieve it. This often results in people exerting themselves, sitting for long periods in blinding pain. Those stubborn enough to stick with their practice through this agony often require knee surgery.

What horrendous bullshit.

Seated Zen meditation requires a sitting posture that is stable. The full lotus position is a very stable way to sit, and if one has enough stretch to sit that way for the length of their meditation period without injuring themselves, it is a very good way to sit. There are a variety of other sitting postures as well, all of them well suited for Zen meditation.

But we like to make things special. I've read a lot of hocus-pocus about the almost supernatural yogic virtues of sitting in the full lotus posture. There is little research behind the claims, and the project to make the lotus posture special bears at times the distinct odor of elitism. Only special people can do this.

This is making and holding something in front of Zen. Seung Sahn taught us a Korean phrase, yeo hung shim, which he translated as "hero mind." It is an ambition born of spiritual greed. Sitting in the Burmese posture, or kneeling, is not good enough, not "Zen enough." "I" want something. So "I" will sit here with teeth chattering in pain, and maybe roshi will give me a merit badge for my spiritual courage. In order for our "attainment" to be really special, we have to make practice as difficult as possible! Thus people sit there choking on the iron ball of greed until they give up, die, or become bitter.

There is also a phenomenon among us converts of getting it "right." We want to practice in an "authentic" way. So we study and research, take stretch classes so we can get the lotus posture, maybe learn Chinese or Pali or Sanskrit so we can really read the sutras, obsess over the forms so we can get them exactly right, maybe even change our wardrobe and diet and adopt the persona of another culture. It's similar to "hero mind." It's desire.

Let's not misunderstand the point here. This is not meant to downplay the importance of a rigorous effort -- that is critically important to developing a consistent and self-renewing Zen practice. And education is certainly not a bad thing in itself. But a word to the wise: this is all like candy to the ego. Ego loves this spiritual stuff -- especially spiritual stuff that seems hard and elite.

And there is one additional benefit: if it's too hard, we can give up on ourselves, or let ourselves off the hook. This just isn't for me.

Waking up is for everybody. If you want to practice, you can. No excuses. Clear mind is not defined (or confined) by your yogic ability, your ethnic identity, your body type, or any of that stuff. There is nothing heroic or elite about sitting in the full lotus position. It's just a good, stable way to sit. It isn't special. Are you breathing? Are you paying attention?

You come as you are, because really you aren't.


Petteri Sulonen said...

Thank you. That needed to be said.

My personal experience from about a year of coaxing my legs to be bendier is that the process of that coaxing is in itself useful; the end result of it much less so. (And no, I can't get into full lotus, and perhaps never will, although I have made a good deal of progress.)

Debby said...

Well that is good news. I looked at that picture and thought: I could never do that. My bones ache far to badly. I like the thought that I can 'wake up' from any position. I once woke up while walking out of a building. It was amazing. A whole new perspective. I wanted to fling myself to the ground in joy.

Kelly said...

It doesn't seem that long ago that I could still get in full lotus position. Alas....I no longer can. (I blame that on the hip disease I had as a child which I was warned might give me trouble as I aged) I wouldn't let this keep me from meditating if I wanted to, though.

In my mind it's much like praying. Some folks stand and lift their arms to the heavens. Some kneel and bow their heads reverently. Others lie prostrate. I say do whatever brings you closest to God.

Nathan said...

That "hero mind" teaching is really important. Should be required learning if you ask me. Thanks for sharing it.

Sabio Lantz said...

Excellent correction on the twists in orthodoxy. I have seen that destroy knees too -- not to mention hemorrhoids --> the Japanese character for which (Ji) is suffering in the temples. Smile.

I have made an illustration of the parts of Buddhism I can not embrace -- do I qualify as Buddhist -- would love to hear your thoughts.
-- peace, Sabio

Anonymous said...

Hi there. I’m so glad you posted something on lotus pose. Leeann Carey, an amazing yoga teacher, says that you can do one legged poses to help prepare for full lotus. She has a free yoga video on this that I think your readers might like:

Anonymous said...

Hello Algernon,

I'm into Theravada Buddhism but I would like to tell you that I can sit full lotus, without ever having to have practiced for it, but I don't meditate in it. I use the Burmese posture, because I can sit longer like this without my legs getting painful. So it's not worth practicing so hard for, at the cost for developing your mind.

I highly suspect those people that stress full lotus so much to you are spiritual materialists on an ego trip, thinking they are so great because they can sit like that. Not good people to help you advance along the path...