Tuesday, February 28, 2006

ditch the buckwheat?

And just when I'm in the market for my very own cushion I read a comment that says stay away from buckwheat. I've been sitting on rolled up pillows and whatnot and was going to buy something better, but thought I'd ask advice before plunking down the money. What SHOULD I be looking for? Round? Square? 8 inches tall? 12?

For some perspective, I'm in my 40s, fairly fit, with short legs and I'm relatively flexible, with one caveat - a bad knee. I bunged it up four years ago (running windsprints of all things) and it pretty much aches all the time. I can sit in half-Lotus, quarter Lotus, whatever you call it when one leg is on the floor and the other's on top of the other leg or calf. When I first sit down, the pain in the knee is pretty bad, but it gets less over time, or goes numb more likely. Right now, though, I absolutely cannot walk when I get up from sitting, usually a half hour or so. I read accounts of people "jumping up" after sitting to run talk to their teacher or whatever and it just floors me that anyone could even contemplate any motion at all other than a long agonizing stretch before hobbling along.

All that said, is there something I should be looking for in a zafu to help make my sitting more comfortable?


At February 28, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Try a chair!!!

I made myself a very simple wooden 'Zafu' by taking plans for a seiza bench/stool (off the web somewhere) and dropping the height until it was closer to a Zafu height. I added a bit of padding to the top (for comfort) and that was it. Because it is not a zafu I can get a large chunk of my arse onto it comfortably but still 'sit'

At February 28, 2006, Blogger Friend said...

google: omnibench

i have a bad knee too. this works and it's portable!

At February 28, 2006, Blogger lkjlkjlkj said...

I am myself suffering from numb legs. I also sit a lot. So I figured that spending some money on good solution is OK.

The ultimate answer for me was TEMPURĀ®. TEMPUR is the material originally developed by NASA to relieve the pressure built up from the G-Force experienced by astronauts during lift offs. It is really great material. It adjusts around your body perfectly and distributes pressure evenly.

TEMPUR sags a lot. You may need other cushion under your TEMPUR cushion or really big one. I have a round zafu filled with TEMPUR. I use sometimes support cushion under it. Price range is 100$ - 200$ depending how much material you use.

At February 28, 2006, Blogger endofthedream said...

Hey DB ~

You'll have to see which bodymind mechanism's "foolosophy" you are drawn to.

There are some dudes (and dudettes), like Brad, who see zazen and its concomitant "posture" as CRITICAL. To these folks, zazen is almost an exercise (not far from some schools of yoga). For them, pain, discomfort -- as long as it isn't doing genuine damage to the body -- is fine. And they feel that the posture is a SIGNIFICANT portion of the act of zazen.

I used to align myself with that thinking. I had a bad knee (from doing marathons) and would just put up with the pain which persisted both during and after zazen. I worked my way up to the half-lotus and felt so MUCH MORE a "real" zen student. For me it was all ego driven. There was an image in the mind of what "true zen" was about and I was driven to act in accord with it, else I didn't match the image and the ego felt bruised.

Somewhere along the way the silliness of such thinking became clear to me. Silliness for ME. I don't call others silly who persist in such thinking since, as all my other posts assert others (like moi) don't get to "choose" what they think. They are driven by the innate conditioning-in-the-moment (which is all they are) to think see feel believe what they do. So be it.

I don't ascribe to this type of thinking at this time. As far as I'm concerned "genuine" zazen is a state of mind, pure and simple.

A state of mind.

And, as such, it can be carried on anywhere, anytime. Sitting on a bus. Standing in a grocery store line. Lying on the floor at home. I do ALL my "formal" zazen sitting back in an easy chair, just letting whatever comes, come. It's essentially shikantaza (or Toni Packer's "meditative inquiry"). No goal. No purpose. If the desire to sit arises, and if that desire is ... unavoidable :-)) ... then sitting happens. Sometimes it's wonderful other times it's as Brad points out,...boooooring. :-)

This type of practice may be too unstructured for some. If it appeals to you not, they do what does appeal to you (a truism since that's what we all do anyway! Hahaha!!!).

But I will tell you, for whatever the reason, the most effective, and satisfying meditative experiences I've had all began (and persisted) when the martial attitude that is prevalent in much zen, fell away. There was still the DRIVE to sit, arising, I suspect out of the satisfaction that the activity generated. But the "how" of sitting and the format of it, once gone, allowed the passion of meditative inquiry and exploration to open vast new free-er realms of discovery.

At February 28, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

I have a buckwheat zafu and I'm perfectly happy with it. Who says buckwheat is bad and why?

At February 28, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

I am also with eotd:

I will do zazen in a chair, on a zafu, in bed, lying down. It is all the same to me.

There are some taoist reasons for choosing one position over another but they are not relevant for simple zazen.

In general, I think finding a way to sit that is without pain is better than finding ways to ignore the pain that arises.

By all means sit in a way that causes pain as part of a specific meditation practice, but in general, why not just find a way to sit without pain and concentrate on the matter at hand.

I have found that being hung up on sitting 'properly' just gets in the way. I sit in one way with a group and another at home.

At February 28, 2006, Blogger healthyscratch said...

DB - like you, I'm fairly fit and flexible, with a surgically repaired ACL (although unlike you I'm "only" 39).

Haven't been doing zazen very long, but I avoid sitting in any kind of lotus position, I can force myself into one, but it's not worth it.

Burmese works out pretty good for me, you might want to change the way you sit and see if that helps.

At February 28, 2006, Blogger rot-13 said...

DB said,

" And just when I'm in the market for my very own cushion I read a comment that says stay away from buckwheat."

But-wheat is oh-tay!

Sorry, hadda say it.

I was surprised to hear people here saying to avoid buckwheat cushions for long sittings, but different people's butt-bones are different, I guess. A buckwheat-hull zafu never starts feeling hard to me, and there's no natural padding on me ('cept maybe between the ears).

In fact, I'd much rather not sit on a regular padded zafu. My lower spine is missing a couple of knuckles: discs removed and replaced with titanium. This happened when I was much too young for such stuff, and ever since then I have to be careful what chairs I sit in. The wrong chair causes fairly severe pain (and is it a law that every restaurant on the planet has to have evil chairs?).

If I sit on a squishy cushion, my spine tries to bend in ways that it can't, and ouch ensues. Buckwheat hulls settle into the shape of your backside, and then they stay that way. Thus I can settle the cushion to the right shape and thereafter it won't sag -- much easier on my spine.

With a bad knee, you might like buckwheat cushions in another way: they tend to be a little thicker than other zafus. Less bending of the knee.

But you won't be able to tell until you sit on one, I guess.

endo, you mentioned Brad's insistence on "proper" zazen. I dunno. He does have a point, though, in that Zen is heavily influenced by Taoism, with its notion of chi and whatnot. If there were anything in that, then proper position would make a huge difference. Mind you, I'm far from convinced that there's anything in it. But it's easier for me to stay alert and centered if I'm not in an easy chair, I'll say that.

There's a story about some old Chinese Ch'an master who couldn't bend his knee, so sat with one leg straight. One of the old ideals was to die while sitting in meditation. When this guy was ready to die, he had some husky young monks break his leg and bend it into the correct position. He died sitting that way.

I'd have wanted to die, too, in his place. But anyway, it's not just Brad. Zen has always taught that position was critical. As far as I know, that only changed when Zen came to America. (I'm not certain about that.)

Oh, and DB, about your unhappy knee: a lot of knees damaged by running have been improved by cycling, if you do it right. That is, saddle high enough so that the knee never bends more than 90 degrees, and keeping the bike in a very low gear such that your pedal cadence is 90 rpm or higher. The tissues that running tends to wreck, bicycling tends to rebuild. And aerobically, cycling's way better than running.

Just a thought.

At February 28, 2006, Blogger endofthedream said...

Hey rot-13 ~

You wrote, "[Brad] does have a point, though, in that Zen is heavily influenced by Taoism, with its notion of chi and whatnot. If there were anything in that, then proper position would make a huge difference."

*****Yeah, I agree with your conditional: "if there were anything in that." :-)) I say there isn't. I say that what we get from China, India, and Japan is a function of those culture's norms and beliefs. All spiritual practices express and evolve out of the culture in which they were created and the teachings of those practices reflect the society and its conceptual constructions.

You wrote, "Mind you, I'm far from convinced that there's anything in it. But it's easier for me to stay alert and centered if I'm not in an easy chair, I'll say that."

*****And that's fine. I would suggest that such is the way you are "wired" at this time. And for you, such is "the truth." But it ain't The Truth. (The Truth is only what is True for All Beings throughout All Time.) For me, there is no problem staying alert and centered in an easy chair. So there must be something to THAT way of sitting too. The Recognition of the variability of all manifestations in phenomenality, and the Understanding that none of the manifestations are in control nor have anything to say about how things are done or seen or experienced, is the arising of Wisdom. And, the end of the search.

You wrote, "But anyway, it's not just Brad. Zen has always taught that position was critical.

*****This is not true of all Zen teachers. There are some who have stressed that which is critical is one and one thing only: the frame of mind of the meditator.

And even THAT misses the mark. Thinking that there is a "right" and "wrong" way for each individual is a misunderstanding of how It manifests ItSelf Arising in phenomenality.

Awakening, Realizing one's True Self, happens with and WITHOUT meditation, in monasteries and in prisons, with much practice and little practice, with a great deal of study and ... out of the blue! There are just no rules to it. Really.

From Tony Parsons, a British nondual teacher: "The emergence of liberation is not affected by anything that one does, and once you come to believe that you have to be a certain way, you have entirely missed the point."

Missing the point is like looking for the glasses you misplaced while they are sitting on your nose! :-)))

Just See the insubstantial nature of all your thoughts, beliefs, ideas, notions. And Realized that such is true for all human beings. The entire "this is it"--"NO! that is it"--game....comes crashing down. (And, along with it, one's long-held and deeply-cherished investment in one's thoughts, beliefs, ideas and notions: in sum, one's "self.")

Again, from Tony Parsons: "You just need to see that you cannot do anything to be what
you already are; just open your eyes and see that this is it. Even your question is the answer to your question."


At February 28, 2006, Blogger Jules said...

I brought my buckwheat zafu to a retreat (which I use for my daily sitting, and it's great for that), but by the second day of the retreat it felt like I was sitting on a granite boulder. So, if buckwheat doesn't bother you after hours of sitting, whatever floats your boat. But I would never ever take a buckwheat Zafu to a retreat again. Other than retreats, buckwheat's fine.

In general, the higher you are off the floor, the more comfortable you are. I'd get a kapok-stuffed zafu with a zipper so you can stuff it with more kapok if you want more height, or remove some if you're too high.

I think upright sitting is important because the way you breathe and your mental state changes with your body position. "body language" really affects your mind, or maybe I should say "bodymind". Can you breathe as fully in a La-Z-Boy as you can sitting upright? No. Will you be as alert in a reclining position? I don't think so. Are these things important? I think they are.

Not to say that mindfulness can't be practiced or isn't useful in other positions and other places. On the contrary! All I'm saying is that if you're not sitting in an upright balanced posture, I don't think it's really zazen.

At February 28, 2006, Blogger Zenmom, aspiring said...


I find I meditate best when sitting upright...most other positions result in what I call "sleeping with the masters": dozing in front of my altar featuring photos of Thich Nhat Hahn, Jesus, and Sai Baba.

I hava a buckwheat cushion that is fine for sittings of less than an hour. I also have bench that works well too...but I don't have a bad knee. I often meditate sitting in a chair as well but I practice in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh who advocated "the crysanthemum position" which he says is "any position in which you are comfortable"!

Try borrowing zafus and benches from your friends as the trail and error phase can be very expensive!

At February 28, 2006, Blogger earDRUM said...

Oh Tay!

I too have a knee problem that prevents me from sitting in a full lotus. I pulled a ligament while doing Tai Chi a few years ago. (Shouldn't have listened to that newbie instructor when he told us to swoop that low.)

I don't think it matters so much what you sit on, as long as it works.

I think that there IS something beneficial involved in the straight spine posture. It looks to me to be the most efficient way of sitting. But my intuition doesn't come from zazen. It comes from doing physical activity (sport). Whenever I am in really good physical condition (not now), I notice that I gravitate towards sitting upright, with a straight spine. At those times, I notice that it takes less effort to sit that way. It feels better. And I think that maybe our blood circulation might benefit from it. Sitting that way seems to strengthen me. It just feels "right". Any other way of sitting feels like wasting energy, and distracting the mind from quietude.
The act of "doing what feels right" seemt to me to be a self-perpetuating activity. And this seems to lead towards developing better habits... which leads to less suffering, in the long run.

Having said all that, I also agree with endo's points. I achieved deep awareness (I don't want to use the "E" word) years ago by inventing my own form of modified shikantaza (which I described in another post).
So, although zazen may be the best method available, I don't think that it is the only one.

At February 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


No consensus, but some interesting ideas:
- benches: I've cobbled together something along those lines, but it just felt too high, like I was going to fall off backwards. Then again, my workmanship is slipshod at best. But I'll see what the Omnibench looks like.
- Tempur sounds interesting.
- And several folks apparently like buckwheat hulls okay.

I've seen designs somewhere or other for a dual chamber cushion, which my wife claims she could easily make. I think maybe a combination of materials, different in the upper and lower chambers might be the ticket. From the comments, it sounds like I ought to put the buckwheat hulls in the top chamber and something else to add some height to the bottom chamber and adjust as needed. Many thanks for the info.

At February 28, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

I think sitting in lotus posture is very important. It's not masochism or the superstitious relic of a bygone age. Yes, at first sitting in lotus is painful and I'm not saying you should meditate in pain. Try sitting in lotus while watching television until it becomes comfortable. Eventually it becomes comfortable and you'll discover that it's the best position to use for meditation. My teacher encouraged everyone to sit in lotus and I'm very glad I took his advice. Just don't force anything. If you feel pain in your knees, you don't have the flexinility you need yet, so back off.

As far as cushions go, I don't have a strong opinion. Higher is better, until you get the needed flexibility. I've found that kapok cushions work well, because they start thick and then flatten as they get older. But anything will do in a pinch. Last week while I was away at a hotel, I used the cushion from a chair.

At February 28, 2006, Blogger Jules said...

I'd like to add a piece of info to Jinzang's comment: hip flexibility is essential in lotus position (padmasana). I can't do it yet, and my knees bother me too sometimes. Don't stretch those knee ligaments! Some of them are supposed to be tight, and if you have a loose knee joint it can cause other knee problems.

So be really careful of the knees, and if you want to try full lotus, here's a plan of action. First, check out these stretching instructions.

Develop a habit of spending at least 15 minutes every day doing hip stretches. This will take months or even years, so just start the habit and forget about your goal. Before long you'll notice that the stretching feels really good, so do it for that reason alone. If you do it with the goal of padmasana in mind it might not seem like it's worth it.

Eventually you will be able to do padmasana without putting a sideways strain on the knees and stretching those medial/lateral ligaments. And your hips will be healthier, you'll walk more naturally, your standing posture will improve, and everything will be sunshine and daffodils forever. Ummm, ok, not really.

At March 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jules wrote " hip flexibility is essential in lotus position "

You're absolutely correct and my hip flexibility is sub-par at best. I'm at my loosest immediately after a good massage. Unfortunately, one can't get a good massage every single day of the year.

I just sorta realized I've been sitting seriously for about a year now, by which I mean making a concerted effort to sit daily. I had the vague idea that by now I would have settled into a preferred style or stance or position or whatever you want to call it, but I'm still experimenting, and will even sit in seiza sometimes, as that actually seems easier on my knees than otherwise, probably because it doesn't call for that needed hip flexibility.


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