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Posture: The Great Big Rump

by Dr Nick Drengenberg

Copyright 2017 Nick Drengenberg, all rights reserved world-wide

Other articles by Nick — Confessions of a Do-er   |   The Bearable Lightness of Being   |   Floating in a Sea of Tissue   |   I Wouldn't Start From Here


Many of us work in offices, where a large part of every day involves sitting at a desk. Something we practiced for years at school as well. Musculoskeletal disorders have emerged to reflect this, with a proliferation of different forms of strain and injury caused (apparently) by all of this desk work.  And in recent years there has been even more alarming news for desk workers, with claims that too much sitting can even be lethal, this sort of thing: washingtonpost.com — health-hazards-of-sitting.

Is sitting really so terrible?  It seems the most innocuous and gentle of human activities. Arguments will be made that it's the amount of sitting that we now do which is the problem, that we're more sedentary than our ancestors. That sedentary idea is important here, much of the danger of sitting relates to it (again, apparently) being a static, unmoving thing, unlike walking or running for example.

That's a framework which needs a bit of thought — the opposition of movement and rest. Are they opposites? Superficially it seems obvious that they are. But what about a spinning top? It moves and doesn't move, at the same time. Have we mixed up two quite different things in our demonisation of sitting — immobility, and inactivity? Immobility can involve an extensive level of activity, whether it's a spinning top or (as I will argue) a human being. So we shouldn't be too quick to assume that somebody sitting at a desk for example is being inactive, even if they are relatively immobile.

What if the human body is like a spinning top, something that achieves stability through dynamic activity? The work of David Gorman over the past several decades has shown that this is very likely the case. That the body is constantly active, even when it appears still, adjusting itself to the instabilities in our everyday activities and using these instabilities to our advantage, to help support us and give us effortless, poised activity. (Or at least this is all right in our very nature, another question is whether we're actually using that capability in our daily life.) So what does this mean for sitting?

If we take as a starting point a staple of the sitting-angst movement — posture. What does posture mean? Most definitions will tell you it's about 'holding' the body in a particular position. Which says a lot right there, if it's about holding yourself in various ways, that implies your body is a lump of inert stuff that you have to physically haul into various poses.  And if you don't, it will collapse into a great amorphous lump in your chair. It's revealing that many feel that their body has to be manhandled in this way, it betrays precisely the conception they have of themselves as having a 'mind', and then this big lump of dead weight underneath them that the mind has to somehow get into various shapes. Or into shape, as the fitness industry might say. Why isn't my body already 'me'? Why do 'I' have to try to direct it from somewhere up inside my head?

It's this implicit split in ourselves, between what we think of as me, and my body, that is at the heart of problems with posture. It doesn't even occur to us how strange it is, that our 'body' somehow needs explicit direction from our 'mind' (which we usually identify as 'me'). That we need to tell our bodies to 'sit up straight', for example. Why wouldn't 'straight' be a property of all of me, that would also be reflected in my thinking and attention and what I'm doing in my work? After all, it's only in certain circumstances that we do go and try to give explicit directions to our bodies in this way, in many of our activities we don't make this split at all, if I'm at a party chatting to somebody and engrossed in what they're saying while I sip my drink, it's unlikely I'm at the same time thinking "ok, stand up straight here, shift that shoulder a little bit, move the weight more to the other foot...". None of that is necessary, I'm a unitary being in that conversation, I'm not even aware of having a body or a mind. I'm just me, and actually if I really look harder there's not even much sense of me either, my attention is fully occupied by my friend talking and the taste of my drink.

So how do we end up so appallingly slumped in our chairs at work? And even sorer when we try to sit up straighter, hauling ourselves up (or at least thinking that's what we're doing) using muscular effort, thinking we're therefore achieving 'better posture'? A small detour may help to explain how this happens.

Those who work with eyesight sometimes talk about the difference between looking and staring. Looking is basically just seeing things, without any conscious effort or even thought of doing something called looking. You're just immersed in your activity, whatever it is, and you're seeing what's going on, like talking to some work mates at morning tea and noticing their faces and cups of tea, and so on. Staring on the other hand is a distinct act, a fixed gaze at something. A narrowing of your experience to exclude most everything else that's happening, to focus exclusively on what you're seeing.  You're shutting out, consciously or not, the sounds around you, what you're feeling in your body, the temperature, and even other things to be seen in your surroundings. Computer use is a classic example of this, how after some time that screen becomes almost your entire world, you're so narrowed into what's on the screen that everything else fades away.

Once you're narrowed like that, the rest of the world you're excluding from your experience will then come knocking. You'll start to feel pains in your body, for example, as the effort and strain of excluding all of that other information begins to take its toll, and the tightness that produces in your body starts to hurt. You'll start to think "my aching back", or "my neck hurts". And other things that may happen, such as sounds from elsewhere in your office, will be felt as distractions, something taking you away from your intense focus on your screen.

In reality these things aren't distractions, they're just other things happening at the same time as you doing your work, that you've been shutting out of your awareness. The myth here is that you can't have both — that you can't be broadly aware of all of these other simultaneous things, such as how your whole body is feeling, what sounds are happening, what smells, or whatever — and at the same time have your attention on your work. It has to be one or the other, from a young age we're told to 'pay attention', which usually means shutting out all of those other simultaneous things happening to narrow onto one small thing. But that distinction is completely unnecessary, you can be broadly aware of all of those things going on without taking your attention off your work, and in fact you do that regularly in other activities, such as when you're eating dinner or watching TV and chatting to your family at the same time.

When you do allow a relaxed and open awareness like that, your 'body' will in turn be open and relaxed and free. How we are is also how our 'body' is, they're not different things. How could our bodies not be us, at the same time as our minds? It's this narrowing habit we get into, often because we're focusing on the end result of something we're doing rather than the activity itself — we're straining to get to that future moment of having finished something, rather than living the doing of the activity — that in fact creates this sense of a split between body and mind. When you're narrowed like that, you will start to feel like those pains happening in your body are separate to what you're doing up here in your head, in your 'mind', staring at the computer screen. Those damned, distracting pains 'down there', in my 'body'.

This is why I've called posture a 'rump', in the title of this piece, because a rump is "a small or unimportant remnant of something originally larger", to use a dictionary definition. Posture is what is left over when you exclude most of your being to focus only on that screen, or some other activity. Most of your body and surroundings are being ignored, and we then get this bizarre split idea of that great lump of ignored flesh having to be postured back into place in some way. But that lump of flesh is doing exactly what you are doing (it is you!), it's not really engaged in its surroundings because you aren't either. You may be daydreaming, or you may be focusing on where you want to get to in your work, rather than on the doing of it. In which case your 'body' has tightened right up to allow you to push away all of those distractions and feelings, while you focus only on the ends of what you're up to, rather than the means. Then when that narrowing and strain causes inevitable pain, the strain is swapped for a slump, to try to relieve the tension in your body. That yo-yo strain and slump can go on all day, because the root cause — narrowing, or being off with the fairies — is being ignored. And by ignoring that we more and more feel divided, as if the me up in my head and the pains down in my body are somehow separate things.

Separation. Space

Another way of looking at this is that we partition our activities off into separate narrow boxes. Let's say the basic human baseline of being in the world is sitting or standing anywhere, taking in the sights and sounds, in a relaxed way. After all, if we stared at a friend who was talking in the way we do at computer screens, they'd probably start to worry that we were a bit obsessed! Where we then get into problems is when we assume that baseline can't be taken off into our other activities. That to walk somewhere we have to go inwards in an "excuse me for a second" sort of way; that 'walking' is something you need to do as a separate thing, meaning you have to now shut out all of those other things you were doing and noticing and focus on getting those legs moving.

We often do the same for 'sitting', or 'standing', or 'running. We assume those are separate activities that require you to withdraw from your basic, relaxed awareness of what's happening around you so you can go inside yourself in your attention and make those things happen. "You can't pay attention to two things at once", as the saying goes. But we then forget that sometimes we walk while doing other things (the old expression, 'can't walk and chew gum at the same time' says a lot), that sometimes we can sit or stand for long periods without noticing any strain or pain, or without needing to do anything to make the sitting or standing or walking happen, they just happen.

This is where we need to go back to that distinction between movement and rest. Because not only is the body very active in doing something immobile, like sitting or standing, but the entire idea of moving is not as straightforward as it seems. From Zeno, with his paradoxes, to Einstein with his relativity, there have always been questions as to whether movement is what we think it is. The difficulties all boil down to one simple but often overlooked thing, the splitting of a moving object or person away from their context. It's the idea of space, of people and objects occupying 'space', as a sort of container inside which movement happens. And so something moves when it changes location within space, from A to B as we say.

But this isn't our actual experience. Space is an abstraction, and useful for certain purposes, but in reality we don't occupy space. We experience the things around us, as things, not as objects sitting in some abstract coordinate space. When we 'move', we can do this in two main ways. One, as with computer use above, involves us focused only on where we want to go, rather than paying much attention to anything along the way. That's what we usually call movement, because there's a clear separation between us as objects, and our surroundings so that we can say we've moved from here, to there. We ignored most of the context along the way, and concentrated only on the two endpoints — our start and finish points. The other way we can move is to not ignore that context, and then our passage from here to there becomes very different, it becomes a continuous series of lived events, so that at each 'point' along the way we're just in the moment, in the context of that moment. There's no clear sense of moving from here to there because every point along that journey is in itself another here or there.

This is the crucial difference to understand, if we want to avoid slumped posture, and effort in our movements. It is not about anything to do with the 'body', it's about our engagement with our surroundings. Somebody who is slumped at their desk is not fully engaged with what's happening around them, and that's why their 'posture' appears bad. It has nothing to do with how they're doing anything with their body, and fixing it certainly won't be about using effort to 'sit up straight' as is usually advised. Their body is them, it's simply reflecting what they are doing, which is to take leave of the basic presence of the movement and focus on where they want to end up, rather than on all of the contexts of getting there. Or to escape into daydreams or imaginings, which will have a similar effect of making their body freeze up or go limp.

The same applies with walking or running, or standing. You can do all of those things as separate, distinct 'movements', and feel the effort and strain. Or you can replace all of those apparently separate activities and relax back into your full, automatic awareness of your surroundings, and then to stand will be to live a whole context between chair and standing, and to walk or run will be to do the same. Your shape will change depending on whether your engagement with your surroundings involves 'moving' rather than sitting still, but the core experience is the same in each case — just being there, in your surroundings, engaged. You won't feel like you're moving from here to there, because you'll be living all the points in between fully as well. The difference between sitting and moving won't be between mobile and immobile, it will be between being engaged with some things, or being engaged with more things. Of being just in one context, or in many.

We will never understand sitting if we continue to use the mobile/immobile framework. We will never understand movement either, using that framework. That entire framework comes from the narrowing we do as we go about our daily tasks, it's a type of illusion. Once we get narrowed towards the ends of what we want to achieve, rather than the means of getting there, suddenly our 'minds' separate from our 'bodies', our entire bodies from their contexts, and you get an experience of me, up here in my head, trying to control my body, to hold it in space or move it through space.

All complete unnecessary and able to be corrected in an instant. With no ergonomic chairs or exercises.


There is a small biography of personal details about the author below.

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Read more articles on the work by Eillen Sellam, David Gorman and others
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About the AuthorDr Nick Drengenberg

Nick Drengenberg trained and worked as an engineer, before working as a teacher of high school students for almost 10 years. During this time he also trained in philosophy, and now works as an administrator at a University, with active research interests in a variety of areas, including the LearningMethods approach.

He recently co-authored a book on learning analytics, which explored how technology and education have not really ever understood each other very well, and what to do about it.

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