The “Sixth Hindrance” is Unnatural Posture
Mindfulness is finally becoming mainstream!
And not a moment (pardon me : ) too soon, for little else could be more beneficial to our individual health, our relationship with ourselves and others, and the overall wellbeing of our planet.
Characterized by a quality of attention to one’s experience—without judging it to be good or bad, right or wrong—mindfulness is the observation of whatever is, in any given moment. Mindfulness rests at the center of the Buddha’s remedy for the end of suffering.
Meditation isn’t easy for anyone. It’s a common misunderstanding that meditation is about emptying the mind of all those pesky thoughts that swirl around inside our heads and disrupt our peace of mind. Unfortunately, many people overlook the important role that awareness of the body can have on anchoring the mind in the present moment. Too often, This belief leads aspiring meditators to sometimes give up almost before they’ve begun, believing they are poor candidates for success, since sitting still with their eyes closed only highlights how wild and crazy their thoughts really are. It helps to know this scenario is true for everyone when they begin to meditate. In addition to noticing these thoughts and accepting the way things are right now, attention can be also be brought to awareness of the body and its sensations. Thus begins a shift from habitual patterns.
The rise in popularity of mindfulness is largely due to its success in managing stress and chronic pain, as well as building concentration, enhancing learning, increasing productivity, and managing emotions. Mindfulness meditation has shown to be at least as effective as medication in alleviating symptoms of depression. So it’s not surprising that mindfulness is now routinely taught in schools, hospitals, corporate boardrooms, churches, and small business employee wellness programs.
Physical pain is a major stumbling block that causes many people to give up meditation. With the right kind of practice, however, meditation can be tremendously helpful as an approach to pain-management, particularly for chronic, intractable pain caused by an injury or serious illness. Sooner or later, all meditators experience physical pain, as deep internal tensions in the body/mind are brought to awareness.
Much of the pain people experience while meditating is avoidable. Most Americans today do not enjoy the benefit of skeletal support that aligns along the vertical axis of gravity—the physical center of one’s being. This is the natural human design that all healthy babies and toddlers discover on their own, but in today’s world, children lose this alignment at an early age. This is a common deterrent to positive meditation experiences. Knowing how to “park” the pelvis according to the natural human design, so that it can support a relaxed upright spine, is a tremendous advantage. Without this support, the nervous system that travels through the spinal cord is dominated by the sympathetic “fight or flight” mode, while certain muscles must strain to compensate for this lack of aligned support. It is not uncommon for many people, including long-time meditators and meditation teachers, to struggle needlessly with chronic back, neck, knee or hip pain, without realizing this is simply caused by misalignment of the skeleton.
The importance of physical alignment is discounted by some meditators as being too ordinary or mundane in comparison to the more lofty “goal” of mastering the mind. This echoes a belief you may have heard that is often repeated like a mantra: “We are not our bodies.” While there might be truth to this in an ultimate sense, current reality for most of us is that we exist here and now as living, breathing bodies. What’s more, the more peaceful, relaxed aspects of the parasympathetic nervous system are more readily available to us when we can rely on a solid framework of support (our aligned skeleton), just like any other physical structure in this world, inanimate or living, that is governed by the same natural laws of physics.
It can be especially helpful to remind ourselves that the Buddha encouraged reflection upon the body many times each day. The mind cannot be mastered, he said, without mastering the body.* It’s hard to imagine, in fact, where the body ends and the mind begins, or vice versa.
While many Buddhist teachings serve as guideposts for accessing what might be considered a spiritual realm of consciousness, mindfulness, in and of itself, does not rely on the familiar deities or “agents” of most religions. In fact, mindfulness relies heavily on the (small) “self” and its own resources to drive the success of the practice. Nowhere are such internal resources more readily available than through flesh and bone (our musculoskeletal system), where physical embodiment makes up one half of the convergence of body/mind, while being a key factor in unhampered flow of oxygenated blood to the brain, movement of energy throughout the body, and anchoring of an open, expanding awareness in the mind.
Traditionally, one sat on the floor with legs folded in a way that required flexible hips and knees. The spine was long, straight and relaxed. Today, due to widespread joint stiffness and structural collapse in many people, it is acceptable to fold the legs in less challenging ways, or to sit on a chair, with feet flat on the floor, if preferred. Surprisingly few teachers of mindfulness or other forms of meditation (Zen being an exception) put much emphasis on the sitting posture in meditation. I have sat in long meditation retreats where the body was barely mentioned, other than to offer tips for meditating on pain. Once, during a two month-long retreat in Burma, I watched a monk encourage a group of meditators to “sit up straight.” When everyone responded by pushing out their chests and lifting up their chins, he looked out across the hall in obvious confusion. He, himself, had no difficulty sitting upright with ease, yet he didn’t know how to guide these people toward the same relaxed alignment he enjoyed.
WHAT WOULD THE BUDDHA THINK OF THESE HUMAN BODIES TODAY?
What would the Buddha think about the millions of people who struggle to sit up straight while meditating, forced to rely on constant muscle tension or mounds of pillows, blankets, chairs or specially-designed benches to make up for a lack of natural structural support? Don’t get me wrong, these kinds of props can be enormously helpful—essential, for some people—but if our adult bodies had remained as naturally aligned as they were when we were toddlers, most of us would still be able to sit comfortably on a thin pad, our knees in contact with the floor, our backs long and straight, our bodies relaxed.
In the Buddha’s time, most people still inhabited naturally aligned bodies. They didn’t drive cars or have to sit in traffic after working all day at a desk job. They didn’t sit in front of a television or computer screen for hours, tweeting or posting on Facebook or playing video games. They didn’t exercise and workout with misaligned bones that only embedded the misalignment ever deeper in tightly bound musculature. The Buddha’s contemporaries were likely to spend much more time on their feet, engaging in a multitude of physical tasks that required such activities as walking, bending, reaching, lifting, squatting—and when they sat, they sat on the floor, with folded legs, supported by an aligned pelvis that set the stage, quite literally, for an elongated and supple spine that rested atop it.
Would the Buddha Now Add a Sixth Hindrance to the existing Five Hindrances outlined in his teachings?
The Five Hindrances to effective meditation that the Buddha referred to in his teachings are:
1. Desire/Attachment — seeking pleasure/happiness through the senses
2. Aversion — rejection and avoidance of what is; hostility, hatred
3. Restlessness — agitation of the mind; inability to remain calm or focused; rumination
4. Lethargy — fatigue or sleepiness; heaviness of body; laziness of mind
5. Doubt — Lack of commitment or trust in the process; thoughts of giving up
Each one of these hindrances is a mental factor that interferes with progress in meditation. While not a mental state per se, UNNATURAL POSTURE has become such a common detriment to effective meditation in today’s world, that it can, in some cases, drive the Five Hindrances as follows:
1) One is desiring of and attached to the wish to find relief from physical pain caused by misalignment;
2) One feels aversion toward the physical pain being experienced;
3) One’s mind is agitated and restless when faced with chronic pain caused by poor posture;
4) Collapsed posture sets up the nervous system to experience fatigue, lethargy, and sleepiness;
5) One wonders if so much discomfort and pain is worth it and considers quitting the practice.
Unnatural posture interferes with the effective progress of many modern-day meditators, while fueling and driving the Five Hindrances. Thus, it is somewhat “tongue-in-cheek,” that I propose that Structural Misalignment/Unnatural Posture be recognized as an honorary Sixth Hindrance. This suggestion is made in deference to and with all due respect to the Buddha and his infinite wisdom.
The good news is that relaxed, natural posture relies on knowing rules of alignment that can be learned by anyone. Moreover, in order to put these rules into practice, one has to be mindful! After years of meditating and struggling with chronic pain while sitting and walking, my recurring confrontation with the Five Hindrances was reduced substantially as I learned how to support myself with greater ease. This wasn’t the end of all physical pain, of course, but it diminished greatly, and my confidence and commitment grew with the knowledge that whatever physical pain I did experience now was an unavoidable part of the process. Overnight, my struggles with the Five Hindrances were greatly reduced, and not something that was unavoidable and therefore necessary. It could be addressed with a new awareness, of the sort that the pain I experienced was unand then being willing to apply those rules to oneself—by being mindful! Thus, m
Mindfulness and natural alignment are like two friends, each enhancing the other. The more I was able to inhabit my body with ease, the more I seemed to possess a willingness to be mindful. And as mindfulness grew, so did an ability to be anchored in an aligned body. It’s hard to be effectively mindful when one is in pain, or in a a state of collapse—or, conversely, to be striving to “hold” oneself upright with tension—all of which interfere with the flow of energy through the body/mind. And it’s hard to be aligned with the center of one’s being while lacking a willingness to be mindful.
Mindfulness is finally hitting the big time, now that it’s countless benefits are being recognized. More and more people are enjoying the spillover effects of discovering a nameless stillness that resides within. Hopefully it won’t take as long before we come to understand the essential role natural alignment plays in cultivating, enhancing, and accelerating the benefits of mindfulness.
* Sutta 36 of the Majjhima Nikaya
Kathleen Porter is a posture and movement coach. She is the author of Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living: The Practice of Mindful Alignment (Inner Traditions, 2006 & 2013) and Healthy Posture for Babies and Children (July 2017). She has traveled the world researching and observing populations who live in naturally aligned bodies and who move, work and age with ease. She is the creator of UpRightNOW, an online program she is developing for adults and children alike, and her company Natural Posture Solutions manufactures several small posture aids.
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