21 May 2016

On Prayer Postures and Prayer "Furniture"

[[Hi Sister, This is probably not a serious question, but I was looking at some of the pictures on your blog and I noticed a number of them have people praying while kneeling or sitting on the floor. I also see you use a podium. Do you recommend these ways of praying for others or are they only for religious? Is it more helpful to sit on the floor to pray than in a chair? Why do the people in the pictures you use choose not to use a kneeler?]]

Thanks for your questions. I think they really are serious ones and relate to something we don't always consider enough in learning or helping people learn to pray. Recently the importance of prayer position was brought home to me in a way that was surprising. A couple of years ago I was knocked down by a man with a grocery cart. He backed into me and I fell onto the concrete with both knees. They were seriously bruised and that meant that I was unable to use my prayer bench. (This is a small bench that fits across one's ankles and allows one to sit back while in a kneeling (or seiza) position. It takes weight off of one's knees but not completely. Cf next two pictures.)

I moved to using a chair for quiet prayer and I stand to sing office using the lectern or ambo (reading desk). Standing has been excellent for singing Office so long as I am okay with not pausing for more than brief periods of quiet prayer during the hour; meanwhile this arrangement seemed to work pretty well for quiet prayer --- though not as well as with my prayer bench. Still, I thought it was necessary until my knees healed completely. Well, after more than two years and apparently incomplete healing, I decided finally to try using a zafu (a "sewn seat" or sitting cushion) with a memory foam pad (instead of an actual zabuton) beneath it. I could not use my prayer bench even with the memory foam pad nor sit seiza (my knees were still painful with this kind of pressure) but the zafu turned out to be really excellent; it allowed me to sit in an entirely relaxed but alert and attentive position which is a lot like using the bench.

Immediately I noticed a significant difference in my prayer. Once again I was able to center in more quickly than in a chair, but much more importantly, I was able to remain relaxed without getting sleepy or slouching. This meant that using the zafu I remained alert and attentive while completely relaxed --- something sitting in a chair did not always allow --- and my prayer improved as a result. That this seemingly simple change in posture could make such a meaningful difference was a sort of surprise because I hadn't sufficiently recognized the persistent effect of not using my prayer bench (that is, of not sitting seiza) over the past couple of years. (I had attributed occasional sleepiness, etc to other things.)

The pictures I have included in this blog indicate that we each find the very best postures for personal prayer because it is the most important activity we participate in for several hours each day, day in and day out. Whether one sits upright and relaxed in a chair or decides to use a prayer bench, zabuton, and/or zafu is important only insofar as whatever one chooses 1) allows one to be comfortable for long periods of stillness, 2) allows one to be both relaxed but alert and attentive, and 3) allows one to breath without constraint. Every person I know experiments with what works best for them. Sometimes age, illness, or injury means adapting and adopting new postures. As I noted, it is possible to find a comfortable position which does not also foster alertness or attentiveness so one may need to experiment, try other alternatives, speak to others who have done the same and see if there is something available that works better than what one has been doing for this reason too. This experimentation is absolutely not just for religious but for anyone who prays regularly --- and especially for contemplatives who spend significant time in quiet or contemplative prayer.

Unless their health does not allow them to get up and down in this way, or injuries or disability causes pain or discomfort, most of the contemplative Sisters I know tend to use prayer benches, Zafus, and/or zabutons (a cushion for sitting or kneeling which can be used alone or beneath the others) for longer periods of quiet prayer.  But all of these Sisters spend at least an hour at a time in such prayer a couple of times a day. Other religious and non-religious I know pray similarly but usually for somewhat shorter periods. (Those persons doing Centering prayer  sometimes use these aids and postures for 20-30 minutes at a time at least twice a day.)

Retreat centers and monasteries often have a variety of options for sitting in quiet prayer. (If you want to "sit" in your room rather than in a chapel, or if the retreat place has none in their chapel, prayer benches, zafus, and zabutons have the added benefit of being entirely portable so one can bring these along wherever one goes.) In a lot of this we have borrowed from Buddhists for whom sitting is something of an art form. Attention to posture is incredibly important and this is an element of prayer monastics take care to attend to. Another element here is simplicity and aesthetics. Using these aids (bench, zafu, zabuton, etc) allows greater simplicity in one's prayer space, and that will also mean less distraction and greater "silence" or quies and beauty there as well. Still, that is a matter of taste so if one chooses a chair with a small table for prayer (a very typical setting), one can work out the rest of the space's aesthetics to best serve one's prayer.

There's certainly nothing wrong with using a kneeler if 1) you have the space, 2) can afford one, and 3) find it works well for you. My sense is that Carthusian monks often use a kneeler or stand/sit on their "misericord(ia)" (a seat used for leaning which is allowed as an act of mercy!) but I don't know if they do so for long periods of quiet prayer. They well may, especially when they are younger --- and this may be a form of penance for them as well. (For me the two things, prayer and this kind of penance, seem to conflict in this context.) I know some older monks sit in a relatively straight backed chair where they are more comfortable and also are able to remain alert and attentive. Carthusian nuns will use a prayer bench or zafu in cell so maybe there's a gender thing involved here as well --- but it's entirely possible many Carthusian men use prayer benches for quiet prayer (and probably make them themselves!). I just don't know.

However, the Carthusians aside, for longer periods of quiet prayer I simply never found using a kneeler really practical. Since I can no longer easily kneel myself, and although I still own a Prie Dieu (kneeler), I just don't use it anymore. Instead for lectio divina (which often includes periods of quiet or contemplative prayer) I use either a comfortable chair or the zafu combined with a small bench or table for my Bible or Office book (or whatever I am reading). I suspect the folks in the pictures you are talking about have tried a variety of things and find the pictured approaches and postures most helpful for comfort, reverence, and attentiveness, as well as for simplicity and aesthetics. You or anyone committing to periods of contemplative prayer should absolutely feel free to do similarly.

Followup Question:  [[Sister Laurel, thank you for writing about this. I wondered if someone with a serious back condition could use either a prayer bench or a zafu? Which one would you recommend?]]

Well, as with most things it depends on the person and the condition involved. I have a friend in my parish who has a severe back condition that makes sitting in a chair during Mass difficult at least some of the time. She once used a zafu for quiet prayer but cannot do that now. She transitioned to using a prayer bench (though I am not sure what kind she eventually chose) and can sit seiza using one of these. She confirmed that the prayer bench allows her spine to be in proper alignment and is much more comfortable than the zafu. If you can kneel comfortably a prayer bench may be a good choice for you; it will take the weight off your knees. If you can sit comfortably with your legs loosely crossed in front of you a zafu may be the choice for you --- though some also sit seiza using the zafu.