THE BLOG
12/19/2014 11:17 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

How to Meditate Lying Down

via Hwansan Sunim

There are two modes of Son Buddhist meditation: "Son in the midst of stillness" and "Son in the midst of commotion." I simply call them the "quiet" and "active" modes of meditation. Quiet meditation commonly refers to traditional seated meditation but includes any meditative form where you're not moving. Active meditation refers to meditating while in motion in the midst of daily life.

Active meditation is considered more advanced and confers the advantage of not having to set aside a special time and place to meditate. Practically speaking, however, in order to get to this level we first have to learn how to meditate in a variety of physical postures. Recently, I've shared with you "How to Meditate Sitting in a Chair, Part 1 and Part 2" and "How to Meditate Standing Up." Today I would like to present a method for meditating while lying down.

We will then have mastered meditation in the three primary postures that most people assume in daily life when they're not moving: sitting, standing, and lying down. This means that you will now be able to perform meditation whenever and wherever you have an opportunity to stay still -- whether that be sitting in front of your computer, standing on line, or when you're about to take a power nap.

Traditionally, in a Son Buddhist monastery, we are taught to meditate lying down when we're about to go to sleep. It is said that this is the best way to enter sleep, and I personally have found this to be absolutely true. Entering mindfully into a relaxed physical state -- free of unnecessary muscular tension -- while engaging diaphragmatic breathing and the "Yi-mwot-go?" ("This. What is this?") hwadu ensures a deeper, much more restful and satisfying sleep. The next morning you wake up feeling physically replenished and emotionally vital and optimistic. There is a feeling of abundance, an overflow of energy and hopefulness, and the day just starts on a better note literally as soon as you open your eyes.

I also believe, however, that meditation lying down is helpful for beginners when they feel overwhelmed, when they feel truly emotionally stricken and depleted of energy by some difficult turn of events. When you're in a state of emotional disarray, it can be hard even to hold yourself upright in a chair. At these times, it's good to know that you can meditate lying down. So here's how to do it.

Lying Down Correctly: The Corpse Position

Historically, the ancient Son masters were quite terse and told us only to practice meditation when "walking, standing, sitting, and lying down." They never actually described a procedure for meditation lying down. Personally, I have found that the so-called corpse position (savasana) in yoga seems to be the most natural and effective way to meditate lying down. If you've done yoga before, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about and for this meditation you can assume the posture as you've been taught. If you don't know what the corpse position is, that's okay, you can just follow along below.

1. If possible, especially when you feel overwhelmed, it's best to choose a broad surface, one much longer and wider than your own body. This provides the feeling that you're lying on an ocean, upheld in your time of weakness by the world, the earth itself. A broad surface also allows your body to extend and lengthen as much as it wants without worrying about bumping into something or flopping a limb off an edge. When your heart is aching, spread a blanket on the floor.

2. Whether you're on a giant bed, mattress, or a blanket, lie down on your back so that your spine is in a straight line, parallel to the sides of the bed or blanket. Imagine that your spine is a chain that's been put on the floor and pulled straight so that all of the links are aligned and disentangled from one another.

3. Your legs should be about hip distance apart.

4. Your hands should be spread out about a foot away from each hip with your palms up to the sky.

5. In this position, the left and right sides of your body are perfectly symmetrical, perfectly balanced.

6. Keep your eyes open and look straight up, but don't stare at anything on the ceiling or above you. Again, allow your field of vision to present itself evenly. (If, however, you're meditating in preparation for sleep, it's okay to close your eyes.)

7. Place the tip of your tongue lightly against the roof of your mouth just behind your upper row of teeth.

8. Now, flex the muscles of both legs very strongly and raise them a few inches into the air in a brief, powerful leg lift. For a moment, your legs are two pillars of steel suspended low in the air.

9. Then, drop them and let them lie where they land. Your legs will probably land in roughly the same position, and your feet may tilt out to the sides. That's okay. Relax your legs completely and leave them alone. You're through with them for now.

10. Now arch your lower back and raise your hips up a couple of inches off the mattress or floor. Tense the muscles in your lower back and buttocks.

11. Then, drop your hips back down again and relax them. You're through with them now, too.

12. Now arch your upper back so that your spine rises in a bow while your buttocks and shoulders remain anchored on your sleeping surface.

13. Then, drop your back down again.

14. Now clench your fists powerfully. Straighten your arms and raise them a few inches as you flex all of your arm muscles as strongly as you can for a few seconds.

15. Then, drop your arms again.

16. Finally, shake your head from left to right like you're gently refusing something. Imagine that your face is swinging from left to right, back and forth like a metronome, slowly losing momentum until your chin comes to a stand-still perpendicular to the floor.

MEDITATION TIP: If what you're lying on isn't long enough, bend your knees so that they jut up like small peaks and place your feet down flat. Your lower back should be flush against the bed or floor so that it's amply supported. On the other hand, if what you're lying on isn't wide enough, then tuck your arms against the sides of your rib cage while keeping them straight with the palms up. If even that's impossible, clasp your hands by interlocking your fingers and place them over your lower abdomen. In your meditation practice, feel free to be creative. Then, you'll be able to practice meditation lying down on a small sofa with your legs hanging off of the armrest or even in the backseat of a car. The point is, anywhere you can lie on your back, you can meditate.

Preparation Breathing: Detoxifies and cleanses your mind and body

1. Inhale through your nose and completely fill your chest. Hold your breath until it feels mildly uncomfortable. Then, exhale completely through your mouth.

2. Repeat three times. Then, engage diaphragmatic breathing.

Diaphragmatic Breathing: The primary breathing method of Son meditation

1. Inhale softly and slowly through your nose as you push out your belly as if it's filling up with air. Inhalation time should be about 2-3 seconds.

2. Pause when your belly feels 80 percent full for about 2-3 seconds.

3. Exhale even more slowly through your nose as you draw your belly in toward your spine as if you're squeezing the air out. Exhalation time should be about 3-4 seconds.

4. Each time you inhale, imagine that you are drawing in all of the qi or life energy of the universe into your dantien or energy reliquary about 2.5 inches below your navel, midway between your belly and your spine.

5. Imagine that this qi energy is filling your body, saturating your cells, and seeping into the marrow of your bones. Every cell in your body is bathed in and humming with this energy, becoming repaired and rejuvenated.

6. Remember the primary advantage of the lying meditation position: You don't have to exert any muscular effort whatsoever to maintain this position. Therefore, you have more awareness and attention to give to the state of your body. Globally scan the inside of your body, the hollow spaces inside your limbs, torso, neck and head for signs of tension. With great attention, try to relax every single strand of muscle so that the only muscles you're using are the ones needed for breathing. Go to a state of complete physical surrender and peace.

MEDITATION TIP: You'll notice that the diaphragmatic breathing on your back requires greater effort because your abdomen has to fight the pull of gravity in order to move. Nonetheless, keep your breathing very smooth so that your lower belly rises up and down very evenly. Imagine that you're breathing underwater. Beginners can clasp their hands over their lower abdomen and the up-and-down motion of your belly will let you know you're doing the breathing correctly.

Thought Regulation: "Yi-mwot-go?" and the Great Doubt

1. Continue to perform diaphragmatic breathing, but when you exhale, in your mind intone, "Yi-mwot-go?" and generate the Great Doubt.

2. "Yi-mwot-go?" means "This. What is this?" What is this that directs my body when I move? What is this that generates the thoughts that I think? What is this that feels the emotions that rise up in me? When someone calls my name, what is it within me that recognizes the sound of my own name and looks to see who called? What is this that is asking, "What is this?"

3. By repeatedly asking ourselves this question in coordination with our breathing, we create, maintain, and increase the state of Doubt. Mentally, this is a condition of urgent questioning, the state of attempting to know the unknowable and see the invisible. Emotionally and physically, it is a sensation of feeling stuck -- the way you feel when you can't remember where you put a set of missing keys. Ultimately, we are attempting to direct our attention back at its own source.

4. Then, the Great Doubt acts as a cleansing flame in our bodies and minds, purging us of tension, worry, hostility, fear and sorrow. We feel consoled and unburdened, luminous and at peace with ourselves, and in the end, free.

Lying Meditation in Preparation for Sleep

If you are meditating in preparation for sleep, intone "Yi-mwot-go?" in your mind a little more gently than usual. Please bear in mind that mental and emotional intensity do not require you to tense your muscles. Keep your whole body soft -- including your face -- and intone "Yi-mwot-go?" calmly and clearly. Continue to do this until you drift into sleep.

Lying Meditation for Emotional Recovery

If you feel enraged or terrified, lying down for meditation may not be the best way to cope. This is because both anger and fear are, in part, a preparatory physiological state for extremely fast movement and great energy expenditure -- fight or flight, basically. When you're angry or afraid, it may be best to do something active like cleaning your house or going for a brisk walk so that you can burn off the excess energy. Then, afterward, you can perform one of the quiet forms of Son meditation -- sitting, standing up, or lying down.

If, however, you feel heartbroken, empty and unmotivated, depressed, or simply physically exhausted, lying meditation may prove very helpful. What you need to bear in mind is that there is an art to meditating while lying down. Discipline is needed. You want to feel completely at rest so that you can heal and recharge, but on the other hand, you don't want to simply doze off. Your mind must be very clear and alert even as your emotions remain calm and your body still. In this highly refined state of mental clarity and absolute physical stillness, you keep your attention completely fixed on the Great Doubt of the "Yi-mwot-go?" hwadu and allow the painful emotion -- the grief, regret, shame, guilt, loneliness, or whatever -- to pass on by like a cloud that drifts across the sun, momentarily obscuring it before moving off and going on.

Lying Meditation for Physical Recovery

Son meditation while lying down is also ideal for when you're sick and bedridden. Especially, if you're feeling frustrated, wanting to get better quickly so that you can get back to work, practicing meditation will help both in coping with your frustration and passing the time.

Lying Meditation for Waking Up

Finally, when you wake up after a good night's sleep or a nap, instead of popping right up and engaging the world in a disoriented, unfocused state, assume correct lying meditation posture and take a couple of minutes to meditate. Even one minute is good. You'll find this is a far more pleasant and healthy way to segue from sleep into complete wakefulness. When your mind and body are fully awake, balanced, and prepared, then rise and go out to greet the day -- while meditating, of course.

I hope this meditation practice is as helpful for you as it has been for me. Please join me again next time. Until then, take care.

Palms together,

Hwansan Sunim

Videos of our TV program "Son Meditation in English with Hwansan Sunim" are available in The Huffington Post. They can also be found on Youtube. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/seonbuddhism.