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Set and Setting in Meditation. 

I keep coming back to the question: does it matter how you meditate? How important is the manner of sitting in meditation?

When it comes to hallucinogenic experiences, it is often stressed that “set” and “setting” have a large influence over the experience. Set would refer to the personality or psychological state of the individual; setting to the social and physical environment one is in at the time. Though I first heard of this in association with Timothy Leary and psychedelics, it would appear to apply to altered states regardless as to the fashion in which it was generated. It also appears that humankind has exploited the element of setting in the rituals found in human cultures throughout human history so as to not only generate the set but provide guidance for it. This is betrayed by the practical, instinctual and conditioned elements of the ritual setting.

The ritual may require fasting, isolation, drug use, sex, the odors of incense, the flickering “photic driving” of the fire or colored candles and “auditory driving” of the drumbeats — all means of inducing an altered state of consciousness.

The prescribed position or choreography of movement within the physical ritual environment may also have importance. Some ceremonies may require dancing in part to get the blood pumping and generate a frenzied mindset. Even sitting meditation demands particular postures because they permit easier breathing and serve as the most optimal position for sitting over an enduring period. Whether eyes are to be opened or closed is also a practical consideration. Though I have only done sitting meditation with my eyes closed, some do it with their eyes open. As one guy doing it this way described it, this trains him to be present, non-judgmental and non-reactive in a dynamic environment. Not surprisingly, it also helps when keeping eye contact.

There may also be suggestion of more instinctual roots for some of these behaviors. Consider how animals, including humans, display dominance and submission through body language and behavior, enact preprogrammed courtship rituals and so on. Armed with what Amy Cuddy calls “power poses,” she has shown how we can turn it all around. In various lectures, Cuddy explains how we can utilize the effects of our body language, how we can deliberately adopt them so as to generate within ourselves the corresponding state. Perhaps certain postures or ritual behaviors are prescribed for the same reason: to generate a specific state and impose a prescribed structure on one’s experience of it.

For me, the meditative setting certainly comes with an element of conditioning, too. Sitting cross-legged and eyes-closed provides a context-specific trigger: setting previously conditioned by routine set. Lying down is a body-arrangement adopted when my intention is to sleep, for instance, but sitting down on a chair is a body arrangement I may adopt for a number of reasons. Neither would be optimal for meditative practices. Sitting crosslegged serves as a very specific trigger for me as I only sit that way when practicing meditation. The setting has nothing but reinforcement from the set, and so ultimately serves to feed that reinforcement back to the set.

However basic in terms of meditation positions, sitting “Indian style” is the only asana I have tried out that is not excruciatingly painful after more than a few moments. In other rituals, cultural conditioning may create elaborate triggers.

Rituals often also occur at a prescribed time, too, be it a time of day or night, an anniversary such as a birthday, a season, perhaps a particular astrological configuration or moon phase. Time helps generate set through building up energy through anticipation and focusing it on a particular theme. Think of when you’re approaching your favorite holiday: every year you wait until its season, wait to carry out the associated tradition. Momentum builds as the time approaches, working towards a climax, helped along as you hear its songs and myths, see the decorations and engage in the traditional patterns of behavior.

Traditions can be more personalized, too, of course. With my sitting meditation, I have found it helps to set a daily routine; a commitment with respect to where and when you will meditate, for instance, as well as how long. Keeping this vow to myself despite being tired or in other difficult circumstances can be quite a test, but I do it nonetheless. It is often suggested that one use a timer, as it will help you avoid wondering how long you have been engaged in the meditation and allows more surrender to the process, more engagement with the here and now. For the most part, that appears to work well for me.


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