An important rule in proper meditation is to relinquish control of one’s limbs, because the brain uses movements of arms and legs to express restlessness, discharge nervous energy and avoid the deeper awareness of painful subjective experiences. Without even noticing, we wiggle, jiggle, shake and scratch, not realizing how deeply we interfere through arm and leg movements with the penetration of our attention and awareness into deeper unconscious energy flows that drive our suffering. After we have properly stacked the spine, consciously relinquishing control of one’s limbs is a natural aspect of mindfulness meditation (both sitting and lying down), as we focus our intention on the exploration of energy flow without movement. This is why someone sitting in meditation seems motionless. I use the word ‘seems’, because the spine itself is always involved in slight adjustments of effortless posture as it moves like a hollow bamboo in the wind with the cycles of the breath, the pulsations of the cerebro-spinal fluid and the alignment process of noticing tensions in the inbreath, releasing them down into the earth in the outbreath and at the end of the outbreath realigning the spine within the effortless space of balanced sitting. Good sitting meditation posture never looks or feels like a telephone pole, but rather like a hollow bamboo in the wind. From this perspective, the limbs are kept still, but never stiff.

There are however exceptions to this rule. These pertain in formal practice to the two situations of meditators who have experienced psychological trauma and those with physical pain, in informal practice to the issue of gesticulation during communication.

With psychological trauma, being still and bringing intense attention to the body during formal practice can activate implicitly encoded painful memories, causing the meditator to experience intense somatic pain, emotional activations in the form of panic, or bodily movements in the form of shaking, convulsing or flailing. When the meditator is not overwhelmed by panic and therefore not in need of interrupting the meditation in order to get back into the window of tolerance, it can be useful and important to know how to allow the body to move in whatever way necessary, without interfering with these spontaneous movements. Although also possible during sitting meditations, this applies particularly to bodyscan meditations, during which the meditator is lying down, and therefore freer to allow the body to just let lose and take over with its spontaneous movement discharges.

These movements are spontaneous and not willfully activated by the meditator. The instruction in such a situation would be to allow ‘it’ (the body) to move without ‘you’ moving it. Physiologically these movements are part of the body’s self-healing processes as it reactivates and moves through the polyvagal stages of trauma recovery, from freeze to fight-flight to social engagement function. These spontaneous movements are the result of re-activation of freeze states into the fight-flight stage, as the body works its energy flow back to the more integrated energy flows of the healthy social engagement system, when the middle prefrontal cortex (MPC) comes back online. The hallmark of these movements is that they spontaneously move through the body like a storm through the landscape, coming and going, and that when allowed to flow, they do not engage the meditator into wanting to flee and interrupt the meditation. Often, but not always, emotional and cognitive content may arise, old unresolved narratives and memories may surface, which then have to be worked through in psychotherapy. While the movement discharge proceeds, it is therefore crucially important to continue the practice of meditation, including using all the appropriate tools of meditation, the intention to pay attention with kindness in certain learned and skillful ways. Blocking such movements in the mistaken belief that one has to remain still during meditation practice, would be a misguided and damaging way to practice. In mindfulness practice, stillness is not the absence of movement, but the meditator’s ability to not be reactive and interfere with the inevitable movements and energy flows of life. The deeper the ability to get out of your own way, the greater the stillness you will be able to access, and this stillness is exactly the wide open plane of almost infinite possibilities we learn to access through deep mindfulness.

The other exception to the rule of not moving one’s limbs during formal meditation pertains to the case of physical pain caused by physical problems. Indeed, during meditation all kinds of different functional pain experiences can arise, during which it is not advisable to move if one wants to deepen one’s practice. These functional pain experiences often seem to unexpectedly arise from nowhere, and they tend to decrease the more one works with that energy flow during meditation practice. If they don’t decrease during practice, they mostly tend to disappear the moment one changes the posture. There is however another kind of pain experience that is due to known physical conditions, such as a disc or joint problem. In these cases, trying to stay with the pain is futile. What usually happens is that the pain simply increases the longer we stay motionless with it, until we reach the point of entering the fight-flight red zone that is counterproductive to the work. Pushing through is the last thing one wants to do in this situation. Instead, the approach to such pain has to be much different. One explores it as long as possible without moving, as long as we can stay within the green and orange zone of the window of tolerance of energy flow, in other words, as long we don’t force or push through. Once it becomes clear that the body needs adjustment in order to avoid tensing up, we mindfully engage in a posture readjustment, so that the pain can diminish or disappear. This mindful adjustment is a skillful way to honor our organism’s need for healing in the case of known injuries and limitations.

Meditation is not something that we do an hour/day, but a state of mind we cultivate 24/7 in order for it to eventually become a mindful trait we generally embody. This means that the issue of limb movement is not just relevant during formal practice, but also in everyday life as we act and express ourselves. The principles we just described with regards to trauma and pain also apply to everyday life, as we are called to pay attention to the way we sit and behave with regards to unnecessary limb movements caused by inner restlessness. Situations in which we wait in line, sit anywhere for any possible reason or have a coffee with someone, are perfect opportunities to continue to deepen one’s access to deeper energy flow in everyday life by watching our tendency to move unnecessarily, the way we did during formal practice. This being said, I now want to draw attention to another form of spontaneous limb movement that is connected to communication. These are the gesticulations during conversations and speeches, as well as the pacing around during presentations.

Mindfulness practice alerts us to these communication-related limb movements, which are the non-verbal companions to our words. These are partially defined by our genes, temperament and social customs, such as Italians for example are more vivid gesticulators than British people. Deeper examination will quickly reveal however, that these natural companions to communication are often mixed with non-intentional expressions of inner nervousness, which interfere with and diminish the power of non-verbal communication. Mindfulness practice will allow you to slowly shed the need to cover up anxiety, embarrassment, other emotions or inner restlessness through unnecessary movements, and allow the natural, more attuned spontaneous movements accompanying the content of your communication to shine. Your sense of being solidly grounded in yourself and your world, as well as your power of communication will increase, because your gesticulations become a more attuned expression of the content you try to convey through words.

Meditation practice is simple, but complex, and it is not easy to become a skilled meditator. Cookie-cutter approaches to meditation practice are toxic. We always have to meet the whole organism that we are, not only those aspects that meditation directly addresses. It is therefore so important to know how our organism functions as a whole in order to become a skilled meditator.

Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.