A Rough Guide to Meditation Posture + Recommended Supplies

One of the most common questions I get revolves around meditation posture.  In turn, this guide is my attempt to share the essential info on how to go about the sitting posture.  It’s sort of like several articles in one — use the index as a guide and feel free to bounce around!

What Is the Best Meditation Posture?

There is no such thing as the “best posture.”  Traditionally, we’re instructed to practice meditation while sitting, standing, walking and lying down — basically, any position we can put ourselves in.

However, the stereotypical image of a meditator is of course doing “sitting meditation.” This is because it tends to offer the best balance of relaxation and alertness. For example, there are fewer distractions than when walking, less likelihood of falling asleep than when lying down, and a little more relaxing than standing.

In turn, for sitting meditation, we simply want to choose a posture that helps us feel relaxed and alert. Trust yourself. Whatever seems like it works is probably best!

There are a few styles of cross-legged meditation (shown in the photo below), and it’s also perfectly okay to sit in a chair. Different postures work best for different people, so it can be good to experiment!

All Postures are Uncomfortable!!

Some people have chronic pain or discomfort, and the experience of being in their body is not particularly pleasant.  Other people can get comfortable in a meditation posture for a few minutes, or maybe even an hour or two, but in either case, that position too eventually becomes uncomfortable.

Even the most flexible and in-shape person in the world will experience discomfort after walking for 7 hours continuously, or lying down for 14 hours without moving.

What I’m trying to say is that meditation is not about avoiding discomfort, but rather learning to be with both comfort and discomfort with equanimity, perspective, and patience.  However, it’s certainly a good idea to be kind to ourselves and choose optimal postures.

So set yourself up for success.

If cross-legged meditation isn’t comfortable for more than a few minutes, then sit in a chair — really!  If that doesn’t work, give more time to walking meditation or lying down meditation.

You could also take a longer-term approach and do what I did — develop a regular Yoga practice.  Over the course of years, your body will become noticeably more open, flexible and comfortable.

To Share a Personal Anecdote…

When I started meditating I couldn’t still without discomfort for more than five minutes.  During my first meditation retreat, the teacher literally called me in for a private interview to ask if I was doing alright because he noticed how much I was fidgeting, moving, and adjusting my body.  It was rough!

Fast-forward many years and I can now sit cross-legged for about 60-90 minutes pretty comfortably.  When it inevitably starts to get uncomfortable (some days when I’m downsy it happens very quickly!), I don’t move right away and use the discomfort as practice.

And, while I sit cross-legged on a cushion about 75% of the time, I also sometimes use a bench, do standing meditation (especially when I’m sleepy), occasionally do chair or lying down meditation, and turn most of my walks into “informal meditation.”  In other words, it can be helpful to switch it up!

This is say physical discomfort in meditation is something most people experience, but armed with info like this, our posture will

See this article on the difference between formal & informal meditation.

A Few Key Tips for Sitting Meditation

Here are some helpful tips for any of the postures shown above.

  • Maintain an upright/straight spine with about 5-10% slack, like a guitar string that’s neither too loose or too tight.One tactic to experience this is to imagine there is a string that runs from your pelvic floor, through your midsection and up to the crown of your head. Take a big inhale and imagine you are lifting that string up to the ceiling as much as you can.  Your spine will be 100% upright.  Notice this is rigid and tight.  Then on the exhale relax the string, and find a resting place where your spine is upright, but there’s about 5 to 10% relaxation/slack in the string.
  • Keep your knees either at the same level as your hips or lower.  This helps keep the natural curve of the spine and will help prevent back pain.  Often times, this means sitting up higher.
  • No “floating” knees!  If you’re cross-legged on the floor and your knees don’t touch the ground, put a cushion or blanket under them so they aren’t floating a few inches above the ground.  This will help prevent knee-pain, and will also help keep your feet/legs from falling asleep.  This is shown in the photo below.
  • Relax your muscles! It’s very possible to keep an upright spine even with a relaxed pelvis, abdomen, jaw, shoulders, and forehead. One powerful practice is simply noticing our unconscious tendency to tense our muscles (which also tenses our mind!).
  • For sitting cross-legged, “Burmese style,” also shown in the below picture, is the most popular.  Unless you have an extreme amount of hip flexibility, I do not recommend half or full lotus, as it tends to put subtle levels of stress on your knees that will reveal themselves in the long-run.
  • In the below photo, note that his feet are going to start to hurt a lot, as he has no cushioning under them. Always put a rug, blanket, “zabuton,” etc. under your feet.

Is it Okay to Adjust my Posture During Sitting Meditation?

Yes! It can’t be stressed enough that there is nothing special about staying perfectly still (or even the sitting posture itself) — it’s all just an aid to help us be more aware.

However, we are training our ability to be responsive instead of reactive.

In turn, if any mild discomfort starts to come up, the idea of insight meditation is to notice your worries and other reactions, and see if you can allow them to be there without grasping onto them or trying to push them away!  See if you can find patience, ease and choicefulness even amidst discomfort.

Often times, shifting our attitude a little bit and giving discomfort permission to be present leads to it fading away.

Although, if it doesn’t fade away, and the discomfort becomes stronger or just too painful, then it’s actually really wise to shift your posture. Just consciously notice that you’re doing it!

What to Do if my Legs or Feet Go Numb?

Similar to what I said in the previous section, the first step is simply to notice it and give it permission to be present!  Physical numbness can also be a beautiful opportunity to develop wisdom: to notice our reactions, emotional responses, the sense of it being “bad” or the idea that “my meditation will be better if it goes away.” Simply to notice all that and allow the numbness as well as the mind space to just be.

However, people do get particularly nervous about their legs or feet going numb, and fear it might be causing harm. I’m not a doctor so don’t take this as sound medical advice (and defer to your doctor’s judgment if you’re really concerned), but my opinion is that unless you’re maintaining numb legs for a few hours at a time, you’re not going to hurt yourself.

I’ve done many meditations with over an hour of numb legs and the feeling always returns. In many years of teaching, going on retreats, and talking with hundreds if not thousands of other meditators, I’ve never heard one story of someone doing irreparable harm because their legs went numb during meditation.

In other words, if it’s at a distraction level that’s gentle enough you can still have a patient, curious, accepting and/or equanimous attitude, don’t worry about it!

However, if it becomes too distracting, there are two good options:

  1. Adjust your posture!  See the previous paragraph — no brownie points for sitting like a statue, but if you do move your posture, see if you can do it intentionally and consciously instead of just reactively swinging your leg out 😉
  2. Use this gentle “method” to return the feeling to your legs. Basically, leg/foot numbness happens because your sciatic nerve, which runs from your lumbar spine through your leg, gets pinched around your hips. The remedy, random as it may sound, is to lean forward for about 30-40 seconds, put your hands on the ground in front of you, and put your weight into your hands.  Feeling will return!

What Meditation Cushion to Use?

Of course, you can just use a chair or any pillows/cushions lying around your house. However, getting the optimal supplies can make a big difference in the enjoyability and easefulness of meditation. I personally like to have a bench, a home cushion, a zabuton, and a travel cushion. However, for most people, one cushion or bench and a zabuton (if you’re not on a carpet/rug) will do the trick. I regularly use all of the below, and they each make excellent choices:

  • Best affordable cushion. This one is made out of organic cotton and is sufficiently wide and tall. I really like it.  Note that if a cushion is too narrow for your behind to sufficiently rest on it, it tends to lead to numb legs.
  • Best overall cushion. This is my “every day” cushion and favorite overall. It’s made by a guy at the Portland Saturday Market, so can be purchased there live, but he may also ship. Note it’s made out of a millet blend, which I find quieter and more comfortable than the more common buckwheat grain.
  • Best travel cushion. This inflatable cushion has three chambers, which gives you a little more control to get the ideal support. I use this a lot for travel (even just going to the park!).  Enter the code “pathofsincerity” at purchase, and both of us get a small discount!
  • Best meditation bench.  If you get a bench, I would recommend one with upholstery, as it will be softer on your bottom than solid wood. The linked bench also has hinged legs, which make for easy transport.  However, if portability doesn’t matter to you, the company in the “best affordable cushion” link has a fixed-position bench at about half the price of this one.
  • I also really like kapok cushions as they feel like cotton but are more durable (fabric doesn’t compress), although I’ve mostly stuffed my own, so have none from personal experience to recommend. If you go this route, just make sure to get one wide enough and not too overstuffed.
  • Zabuton. A zabuton is a roughly 3′ x 3′ plush floor mat you put under your cushion, and what your feet rest on. If you have carpet, a thick rug, or don’t find it inconvenient to just place a couple of blankets under you, then a zabuton isn’t necessary.  However, especially if you have hardwood floors, getting a “zabuton” makes a big difference.  Getting the right zabuton is way lower stakes than getting the right cushion, though I have a cotton one and while it works just fine, if I were to get a new one, I’d choose a Kapok one, like in the link.

Another article you might enjoy is should the eyes be open or closed during meditation?

How To Quit Shopping On Amazon (And What It Will Ask Of You)

After shopping regularly on Amazon since 2004, I recently quit entirely.

This post will tell you how I did it, how I made the transition to life-after-Amazon as easeful as possible, and how this decision has helped me step into deeper integrity.

Importantly, I am primarily writing this for people who already understand Amazon is detrimental to society, and desire to make the switch, but are overwhelmed by the ubiquity of Amazon and don’t know how to go about it.

I’m not going to lie to you — it will take an effort to break from the biggest retailer in the country.  However, my hope is that the strategies & reflections below will cut through the complacency, and bring that part of you that wants to more fully to the forefront.

The post is written section-by-section, so feel free to bounce around the table of contents.

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The Appropriate Amount to Give at Donation-Based Events

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As someone who leads regularly donation-based events, is steeped in a Buddhist tradition that has existed entirely on donation for 2,600 years, and lives in a community where donation-based events are bountiful, one question I often encounter is, “what is the appropriate amount to give?”

What follows is a guide on how to approach that question.  However, I’m not going to actually tell you “the appropriate amount of give,” as that sort of misses the entire point!

Instead, I hope to show you the intentions behind that offering, different ways to think about appropriateness, and hopefully empower you to make your own informed decisions. Continue reading

Ultimate Meditation Resource Guide – Books, Courses, Movies, Buddhism, Technology, etc.

This resource guide is the fruit of 15 years of intensive dharma studies.  I tried to put the best of everything I’ve encountered into an accessible, progressive guide to help you deepen your own journey. It felt like an impossible task to make it readable, but with the table of contents, hopefully it will flow smooth enough!

Here’s a few initial notes:

1) This guide will emphasize “depth” into a single tradition (Theravada-Vipassana Buddhist Meditation / mindfulness / insight meditation), but also “breadth,” exploring how other resources/teachings can really help to expose blindspots, develop complementary skills, and take us much deeper.

2) Books & media are helpful, but actual direct experience is what makes the real changes – pay close attention to the resources to actually dive into meditation, such as guided meditations, courses and live opportunities.

3) I’ve direct linked to anything available free online, although basically all of these are also available as hardcopies for sale, and some as audiobooks.  While free is great, I personally prefer mediums that don’t involve looking at a screen, so I’d generally recommend printing them, or buying the book / audiobook.

May this be of benefit to you!

The Quick & Fast Version – Top Recommendations

You’re about to encounter an enormous guide that might seem overwhelming, so I thought I’d right away offer my top recommendations that get right to the point.  Feel free to only read this.

  1. For total beginners to Eastern Spirituality, try The Dalai Lama’s The Art of HappinessIf you are more intellectually inclined, go for Sam Harris’ Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without ReligionInversely, if you are going through a tough time, try Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart.
  2. Easily the #1 book I recommend is Gil Fronsdal’s, The Issue at Hand, which is a concise & excellent presentation of Buddhism and meditation.  Part of what makes it so great is that it is impactful for both beginners and intermediate students.
  3. Take a meditation course.  A few possibilities include:
    1. My live, bi-annual Awareness+Wisdom Insight Meditation course
    2. This short & easy course for total beginners to mindfulness meditation
    3. Gil Fronsdal’s 6-week intro to Insight Meditation course.
    4. An in-depth online meditation course with two of the most senior Insight Meditation teachers
  4. Read my favorite meditation book, Relax & Be Aware, by my teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya.  He also has several books available for free download on his website — you could read the excellent Don’t Look Down on the Defilements, They Will Laugh At You in less than an hour.
  5. Broaden your practice by reading:
    1. Bhikkhu Bodhi – The Noble Eightfold Path.  Short & straightforward, perhaps the best book I’ve read that explains the greater Buddhist framework.
    2. Ajahn Jayasaro – On Love.  Could read in one sitting – short, deep & original while staying true to the classic Buddhist teachings.
    3. Robert Augustus Masters – Spiritual Bypassing.  It is important to learn how meditation can be used to avoid our wounding vs. genuinely heal, transform & grow.
    4. Kristin Neff – Self-Compassion.  Also, check out the free meditations and exercises on her website.  Meditation without heart falls flat – important to find some way to bring it in.
    5. Adyashanti – True Meditation.  Peppering our meditation with a little non-dual simplicity helps ground us in the essence of the practice.
    6. Rob Burbea – Seeing that Frees.  When you’re interested in a more nuanced book with seriously deep meditative wisdom.
  6. Keep Practicing!
    1. Try Insight Timer, get involved with a local community, go on a retreat, commit to practicing every day, even if only five minutes!
    2. Parooze the rest of this list at your leisure.

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Studying Theravada-Vipassana Meditation

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Zen Meditation vs. Vipassana / Insight Meditation

Buddha Moon Image

In the Buddhist tradition, there are three major lineages / styles-of-practice: Theravada, Mahayana & Vajrayana.

Personally, I spent several months living at the Upaya Zen Center, where I practiced Zen Meditation full-time (a style of Mahayana Buddhism).  I also spent a couple years as a Buddhist Monk in Myanmar, practicing Vipassana day-and-night (a style of Theravada Buddhism).

Today, I’ll discuss what I see as the essential way they are the same and different — let’s start with a story!

A Buddhist teacher once asked a group of kindergartners, “what is the purpose of eating breakfast?”

One responded, “to have energy for the day.”

And then a second young one answered, “the purpose of eating breakfast is to eat breakfast.”

These two answers beautifully illustrate the primary similarity and difference between Zen and Vipassana.


Both traditions are grounded in mindful awareness of the present (“eating breakfast”).

However, the primary emphasis in Vipassana is on cultivation, on channeling our mindfulness in such a way that we develop insight, wisdom and, ultimately, inner freedom (“energy for the day”).

In Zen, the primary emphasis is on being present for the sake of being present — their perspective is that inner freedom is found right here, so we should just focus on the actual act of “eating breakfast,” or whatever else we’re doing.

What we’re getting at here is a fundamental difference in mindset / attitude.  Let’s consider some more examples:

The purpose of driving is to get from point A to point B.
The purpose of driving is to drive.

The purpose of calling technical support is to get your device fixed.
The purpose of calling technical support is to call technical support.

The purpose of reading this article is to learn about meditation.
The purpose of reading this article is to read this article.

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A Deeper Dive Into This Distinction

Let’s use the driving example.

Of course, when you leave work and it’s time to go home, there’s something really important about knowing that your purpose is to go home.  If you completely let go of that purpose, you might drive the complete opposite direction, get lost, run out of gas, alienate your family by not arriving home, run into a brick wall, etc.

In other words, you really do need to have a sense of direction.

But there’s a potential pitfall here.

If you’re so focused on where you’re going, you never appreciate where you are!  You might have a 30 minute drive, and the whole time your mind is off in the clouds, imagining what you’ll do when you get home.  Multiplied to your entire life, if you’re too goal oriented, or always focused on where you’re heading, you miss out on your actual life.

If you deeply study Zen and Vipassana, both of them actually agree: you need to have a sense of direction, but you also need to be present for the ride.

However, as I mentioned before, the Zen tradition more so emphasizes being present for the ride, which helps you increase your capacity to let go, and to really appreciate & make friends with the present.

Inversely, as Vipassana emphasizes the cultivation, they lay out the road map to get home with all the possible routes, and help you troubleshoot any potential complication.  If there’s a traffic jam, do this.  If you get a flat tire, do that.  If you start freaking out, do the other thing.  This approach causes you to deepen your intuitive wisdom on what works and what doesn’t, and slowly leads to an effortless and robust presence.

When I’ve met “intermediate-level students” from each tradition, the Zen folks come across differently than the Vipassana folks.  When I’ve met “advanced-level students” from each tradition, they each carry the similar qualities of wisdom, groundedness & presence.

In other words, while they take different roads, they both actually lead to the same place.

A skilled teacher of either tradition will eventually get you to learn both of these lessons on a deep, internalized level.  Personally, I’ve found it helpful to study both traditions as they balance each other out well, but it’s really not necessary.

As in the initial story, the most important part is the simple fact of “eating breakfast,” getting in your car, or being mindfully aware of the present.

In summary, there is more that unites Zen and Vipassana than differentiates them!

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Is focusing Intensely On My Studies The Same As Meditation?

I get a variety of questions sent to me, and every so often I post them on the blog.  These have a bit of a different flavor than most blog posts, as I’m trying to give a practical/useful answer to an individual.  Enjoy!

Question:  Is it possible to be mindful while being intensely focused on something like studying, or being “in the zone”?

Answer:  Hello there, it depends on how you are focusing.  For example, if you are intensely focused on your studies, and a fly starts buzzing around your ear, how do you react?  If you start to get really annoyed, and then ten minutes goes by, and you realize you’re “out of the zone” and are in a bad mood, this isn’t what mindfulness is about.

Inversely, you’re on the right track if you’re able to notice, “oh, a fly is buzzing, no problem, just some sounds in the background, I’ll keep on with my studies.”  In other words, in mindfulness practice, focus needs to be paired with an eye to self-understanding or “wisdom,” noticing our different reactions, emotions and thoughts.   This aspect of “wisdom” helps us have more choice & freedom in life – which is the ultimate aim of mindfulness.  Most people find it really helpful to develop this through “formal practice,” but you can absolutely do it through other activities too.

It has a bit of Buddhist jargon, but I found this short article really insightful – it tells the story of when someone asked when of the top Buddhist meditation masters of the 20th century, “what is the difference between rock climbing and meditation?”

Worried about Meditation posture – what to do?

Question:   Hi David, I’m wondering how I should sit when meditating? I can comfortably sit with my legs crossed but I am worried about my posture.

Answer:  Hello there, the first thing to know is that there is no such thing as the “best posture.” The point of the posture is to help ourselves feel relaxed and alert, so we can engage in our meditation. This is usually aided by having a straight spine, keeping our knees either at the same level as our hips or lower, and remaining relatively still. Different postures work best for different people, but if you can sit comfortably with legs crossed, this sounds great – keep at it!

If any mild discomfort starts to come up, the idea is to notice your worries and other reactions, and see if you can allow them to be there. Usually once you notice them, they tend to fade away. However, if the discomfort becomes stronger, or it becomes really painful, then it’s actually really wise to shift your posture. Just consciously notice that you’re doing it!

Four Ways to Evaluate a Spiritual Teacher

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Why Spiritual Teachers are Important

Someone once asked the Dalai Lama if it was necessary to have a guru or spiritual teacher.  He said, “no, it’s not necessary, but it can save you a lot of time.”

Over my years of diving deep into Yoga & Buddhism, dabbling in several other traditions, and conversing with hundreds of other seekers, I’ve come to strongly agree with the Dalia Lama’s quote.

While the deepest truth is always inside us, a teacher helps point the way when we’re uncertain or stagnated, and likewise inspires or nudges us to keep on going forward.

Having a good teacher is considerably more effective than doing it alone.

However, a bad teacher can leave us the same or even worse than when we started.

In extreme cases, this might be the guru who sleeps with their students against their will.  In lighter cases, perhaps they just lead use to a false finish line, where we think we’ve “got it all figured out,” but are actually quite off course.  In other words, since it’s really helpful to have a good teacher, an essential question is:

How to evaluate a spiritual teacher?

The rest of this guide will break this question down into four major components.  Here’s the outline:

1) Way of Being (and a story)
2) Ethics, Integrity & Accountability
3) Accessibility (and how communities can be teachers) 
4) Their Actual Teachings
5) Conclusion

Note: for me, “a spiritual teacher” isn’t anything mystical or fancy; it’s simply a guide, mentor, or anyone who helps us into a deeper experience of what life is all about. Continue reading

Meditation Groups (Sanghas): Why Go & The Most Important Things To Look For

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In another post, I listed every single Buddhist meditation group in Portland, Oregon.  Today’s post is both a counterpart to that one, and also a more general piece that speaks to meditation communities in any location.  Here’s the rough outline of this post:

1) The major reasons why meditation groups are worthwhile
2) What to look for in a meditation group (objectively)
3) What to look for in a meditation group (subjectively)
4) Concluding challenge

As a note, I use the words community, group and sangha interchangeably — a collection of people that gather together to deepen their meditation/spiritual practice (internally, with each other, and in the world). Continue reading

Every Buddhist Meditation Group/Center in Portland Oregon

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Intro to Buddhism & Meditation in Portland

When I first arrived in Portland, I spent countless hours both online and conversing with others trying to find the various Buddhist communities in town.  After some years of exploration, I’ve learned every single Buddhist group in Portland (I think!), and have organized them here on this page.

At the time of writing, I’ve personally visited about half of these groups.  However, I am not offering any specific endorsements.  The intention of this page is merely to state the options.  I will try my best to keep my comments factual and data-focused.

At the same time, it’s really helpful to have a framework on how to evaluate a meditation group.  There are some things we all want (like integrity and kindness), but there are also different desires (like prioritizing meditation instruction vs. community, or a strong teacher vs non-hierarchy, etc.).

In a companion post, I offer an in-depth guide on how to evaluate & choose a meditation group/community.  I highly recommend reading that article, and to consider what you’re looking for in a community.  This will greatly help you navigate which ones are “for you” and which ones aren’t.

Although, the best test is always just checking a few of them out and getting a feel for what seems to resonate.

A Few Final Notes to Keep in Mind:

  • While every center has its own flavor, some centers have multiple groups throughout the week, led by different instructors, and may have a very different feel.  It can be helpful to check out multiple groups at the same center!
  • You don’t need to “join,” “sign up” or go through any “initiation” process to go to any of these groups.  You just show up, and are free to never come again, or keep coming back as long as you like!
  • You also don’t need to be a Buddhist.  In general, Buddhist communities tend to be very inclusive, and aren’t interested in converting anyone.
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