Here are some extracts from a forthcoming book on standing meditation: On Your Own Two Feet.
With practice, standing can feel balanced, steady and comfortable; then you feel grounded but relaxed. That’s essential when the winds of turmoil and trouble start blowing, but it’s also a quietly pleasant way to get to know yourself in terms of body, heart and mind. This is the aim of meditation. And of all meditation postures, standing gives you the easiest way into a steady state, because it establishes a firm but easeful connection to the ground beneath you.
Here’s how. Stand with the legs apart and coming straight down from the hips, so that the stance approximates to the width of your upper body – your chest, or, if you prefer a wider stand, your shoulders. The exact width isn’t crucial, but the felt sense is that the stance is fully planted.
Stand like a tree, with the feet as your roots. Feet are generally encased in footwear, and accustomed to meeting a constantly flat surface; because of this, they lose their flexibility. So your feet might benefit from a couple of minutes of flexing: standing on one leg, flex the toes of the other; standing on both feet, lift your heels off the floor and raise your body with your toes; standing on both feet, lift your toes up and back. You might flex like this a few times. Imagine the toes spreading so that they are like monkey’s feet, or like fingers. The toes should not be carrying weight; your feet are alive and aware. Then, as you feel your way into a stance, tip a little from side to side and back and forth until you find a settled and easeful balance. A balanced and aware stance helps to release tension or gripping in the upper body – particularly in the abdomen.
When you stand, with your aware feet planted on the ground, soften your knees a little, so the legs are slightly bent, just enough that the muscles in the thighs and the calves aren’t locked into position. The standing then feels flexible and alert; it’s as if you could jump at any moment – but you’re relaxed. You might practise bending your knees a little to sense how the ankles take up a supportive role; then bob up and down a little to get familiar with the flexibility of the stance.
Then soften your knees and adjust your focus to include the entire vertical axis of your body, centred on an imagined line extending down your spine and into your feet. Ease your arms away from the sides on your body – just enough to slide your hand between your arm and your ribs. Keeping your eyes open or half-open, release awareness of what you don’t need right now. Like you don’t need holding in your shoulders; relax. You don’t need a face; let it go. Let your fingers be free. Focus on that upright axis and as that becomes clearly felt, steadily extend your awareness out into the body around it – that soft and warm stuff. Keep going slowly with the intention to encompass any tense or uncomfortable places and let warm awareness embrace them. When you get to the edge of your body, extend awareness into the space, the open ‘no-pressure’ envelope immediately around you. Covering the entirety of the body in its space, linger and enjoy.
To extend the exercise in more detail: tune into the feel of that stance, and, as you get settled into your stance, encourage your upper body to sink just a little, so it feels like it’s nestling into the cradle of the legs and the feet. It’s as if your upper body is like a vase or a bag, settled into the supportive stand of the legs – which are connected to the firm base of the two feet planted on the ground. Fully rest in that support and feel a few easy cycles of breathing in and out.
Ensure that you’re not sagging, or leaning the abdomen forward – so very slightly turn your tailbone under, as if between your legs. Your buttocks will relax, and your belly tuck in. The weight of the upper body will be carried by the legs rather than the lower abdomen. The arch between the legs, the perineum, should feel open.
Your thinking mind will probably chatter and want to get busy, but don't give it much attention. Instead, relax into your belly, and as you breathe out, extend your awareness to the soles of the feet. When the outbreath has completed itself, feel the inhalation come in by itself. As you sense the rising energy of your inhalation, follow the rise by extending awareness up your spine.
Notice how the torso swells and subsides – especially the front, but, to a lesser degree, the back. With your arms hanging freely by your sides, and slightly away from the sides of your body, extend awareness around the sides of your torso, so that you cover the entirety of that swelling and subsiding section of your body.
Tilt the lower point of each shoulder blade into your back so that you remove the shoulder hunch. As you feel your chest open, relax your shoulder blades down your back as if you are slipping out of a coat. You'll become more aware of your spine; it will strengthen and act as the central axis for your upright stance.
Allow a few turns of the breathing cycle to fill out and integrate this upright position. Then extend your awareness down your arms and into your hands. Relax the fingers and focus on the palms, imagining them opening and listening to the space. You may keep your hands open by your sides, or bring them lightly together, with the fingertips touching for greater sensitivity and a sense of containment.
When your hands feel open and alive, slowly draw your awareness up the spine, from the tail on up into the neck and the base of the skull, as if you are carefully tracing the curvy line of the vertebrae with a finger. It’s like the trunk of a tree, with the growing tip supporting the skull.
Get a feel for that support. Imagine that the skull is settling on top of that spinal axis like a ball resting on a fountain of water. While attuned to the rhythmic flow of breathing, relax the neck muscles, the jaw, and the tissues of the forehead, temples and eye-sockets. Keeping your eyes slightly open (releasing tension might make you feel a bit dizzy at first) let the entire ball of the head rest on that aware spine so that the muscles in your neck and face can ease up.
Let some breathing pass through as your body adjusts to this change and begins to enjoy it. Feel the firmness of your spinal axis and extend awareness down from the base of the skull down to the tail bone. It may not be complete; there may be dull patches or blocks in that line. However rather like a river clearing its blockages, this upright axis will clear itself over time as awareness spreads over the entire form. So, steadily extend your awareness until it’s like an envelope covering your entire body in all directions.
Linger in that, letting the breathing flow through the body in its envelope of space. If your body starts to tense up, bob up and down slightly or lightly swing from side to side. Otherwise, as you feel more and more stable, acknowledge and let go of discursive thought and any emotional turbulence.
Balance and Wholeness: Upright Body, Upright Mind
The mind should be engaged, interested and receptive – while refraining from imperatives or judgements. This can be achieved through softening the focus – that is to get less intense about physical points and be more attuned to a steady and heartful listening. Relying on mental effort alone produces a negative result because that overrides the intelligences of body and heart. In fact, imbalance, tension and constriction in the body are largely due to unskilful mental energy. Non-stop urgency and stress leave their effects in the body’s nervous system; as do their numbing antidotes – escapist entertainment, or passive immersion in whatever a screen is broadcasting. There’s also the imbalance that comes around because of operating only one part of the body while the rest is left inert. For example, sitting for hours in a chair effectively ignores and switches off the flow of energy in the legs and back. Instead, energy gathers and intensifies in the head, neck and shoulders. The result is that breathing is limited, and the coordinated flow of energy through the body is blocked.
Another negative bodily condition occurs through operating in artificial systems’ time rather than in natural embodied time. In the automated world in which we live, energy has to follow clock time, jumps and surges towards notional ends – then is suddenly arrested by the sound of a buzzer or the flash of a light. And if we don’t find the time to return to a grounded and embodied state, the nervous system gets set to a hasty ‘on-off’ way of life. Then we lose touch with the regulating effect of breathing, and how that helps the body to naturally relax and refresh. So, make a note: the energy of emotional/mental activity is based in the body. Get the body into balance first; then meditation follows on quite naturally.
Standing, because it gets you grounded without requiring a high degree of focus, offers easy access to the embodied state, wherein bodily intelligence comes to the fore. With this, your body’s energies return to the more natural flow, and that flow suffuses the fascia tissues that wrap around and connect all parts of the body. It wakes up to being interconnected and balanced.
You may experience imbalance in terms of the left and right sides of your body. One side may have a lot of energy running through it, and the other side considerably less. The contemplative response to this is to first span the entire width of your body with awareness, and holding that wide frame, attune to the breathing.
This step alone may allow the breath-energy to suffuse the entirety and restore balance. A further step would be to first discern the furthest edge of the strong energy – that is, if you’re strong in the right, how far does that energized area extend? What is its edge? And beyond that edge how is the body? Then: can you detect the left side? Try sweeping your attention from the right side slowly towards the left, expanding your awareness as you cover the edge. Repeat this exercise carefully several times. Then connect the exhalation with the movement of attention: it’s as if you are breathing across your body. Practise also focusing on the left side, and as you breathe in extend your awareness to the right.
As you deepen the balance and connectivity of your body, the energy that flows along with breathing can spread through the entire bodily form. You can practise this sweeping through any isolated or restricted areas of your body – such as the throat or belly. Remember, don’t demand anything to open or be other than it is; just maintain connective and empathetic awareness. If there is empathy rather than a directive, awareness will meet the energy in an area of the body. Widening and softening will allow discordant energies to release into the wide field of the whole body in their own time.
As this occurs, the body gets to feel like a single homogenous form that is both soft and strong. No single part is carrying another part; nor are we unconsciously carrying our body around in a state of distracted stress. So as the body comes into unity, be receptive to that and let it moderate your attitudes and intentions. Through attunement to the aware and connected state, ease and goodwill come to the fore. Through accessing energies, awareness can meet, steady and release bodily or emotional conflict, and support positive qualities of body, heart and mind.
This interconnected balance becomes psychological. Because we have a place to stand, we don’t have to keep creating one via opinions and territory and beliefs. Instead, we gain heart. And that heart-based sensitivity aligns the mind to ethical integrity, goodwill and ease.
So the upright, open and stable body supports an upright, open and stable mind. Both are necessary and one supports the other. An upright mind is balanced, receptive to self and others and non-obsessive; it is a beautiful flowering of human potential.
Bathing in energy
To encourage deep refreshment, sweep your awareness from the crown of your head downwards – as if you’re pouring oil, or something warm and fluid over your head, and letting it run down the front of the body. Feel the softness of the tissues at the front relaxing; relax down your arms and into the palms of your hands.
If you’re feeling unsteady, it’s good to put more emphasis on the back, and sweep down from your shoulders into the soles of the feet. If you’re feeling too tight, bend the knees a little and encourage the abdomen to loosen and be held by the supple legs.
As the entire body consequently wakes up to itself, there is a sense of enjoyment. Simple, calm pleasure. Get used to that; what is your body now?