At different times in my life, I’ve been inclined to sit up straight, and I’ve been inclined to slouch. Maybe the same is true for you.
Unsurprisingly, at the times when my default is to sit up straight, I’m usually active in dance, yoga, or some sort of regular exercise that both strengthens my back and brings awareness to my bodily experience. This is kind of the mechanical explanation for posture: practice makes perfect. Just do it.
But recently a book helped me to re-member another, subtler aspect of sitting up.
It takes some courage.
Really. When I’m sitting erect and alert, I feel more permeable. I am not hiding. My body feels sturdy, in a way, but also fragile and exposed.
I think it’s possible to experience this fragility, openness, and permeable vulnerability even with a crooked spine. But for me, the straight spine is quite an effective jump-starter. It’s something I can control* that has a noticeable, positive (though sometimes challenging) effect on my mental state.
The act of sitting up automatically invites non-cognizing awareness. I’m not thinking, Okay, now shift the right hip 3 centimeters forward, raise the upper back 30 degrees… The awareness encourages the movement, and the movement encourages awareness.
This kind of awareness, or mindfulness, can feel pleasant, but it also contains a dark undertone. It is frightening to open awareness to painful sensations. Painful realities. Especially when I can’t control them with my thinking. I can’t think my way out of a sensory experience: an unpleasant smell, a twinge, a wave of nausea. And at the same time, burying them under mental chatter, while it may provide some temporary respite, does not make the unpleasantness disappear.
Why does this matter?
Maybe it doesn’t. But for me, returning to a straight back is like a small homecoming. In fact, regardless of whether I’m sitting straight or not, simply noticing where I’m at with my posture brings a different, brighter quality to my experience.
This is all dhamma stuff, in a way, and at the same time it’s non-sectarian, and not self-improvement. Straighten up, or don’t.
Here’s part of the chapter on Sitting from the abovementioned book, Sensory Awareness: The Rediscovery of Experiencing, which I checked out of the library on the urging of my friend David, a regular at Interfaith Bible Study at the Faithful Fools.
Now let us try coming to actual sitting. We leave the back of the chair for good, sensing the readjustments throughout our structure as the support is given up, feeling how we come more and more into the vertical, simultaneously reaching down to the seat of the chair and rising up from it.
If we are now really to relate to what we sit on, we must become much more awake than usual in the region of us directly in contact. Let us rise a little from the seat, pause, and gently find our way back without using hands or eyes. Can we find it? Ah! There is a definite meeting. Our nerves are as good down there as anywhere.
The question comes up: are we just padding down there where our sitting originates, as we may have always imagined? By no means! We begin to feel a definite structure, possibly as firm as the chair itself. To explore it let us raise one buttock and slip a hand underneath. Somewhat gingerly, we sit now on our own hand. Something in our bottom is not just firm but hard. Can we raise the other buttock, to sit on both hands at once? Ouch! We had not dreamed there would be such hardness. With relief, we divide our weight between our two hands, so as not to crush either. What is so hard in there? Even our heels do not seem so hard.
Cautiously, buttock by buttock, we leave our hands and return to the unprotesting seat. It becomes clear that, whatever the singular nomenclature for our bottom, sitting is actually divided between two sitting-bones. We can allow an equal or unequal distribution of weight, for more or less pressure on the seat, and of course on our own tissues. We can also “walk” with these sitting-bones. With a little experimentation, we find we can walk here and there on the seat until we are quite familiar with it, perhaps discovering a very agreeable perceptiveness in our own pelvis. Finally we may perch ourselves on the very edge of the chair, where our thighs no longer rest on anything, but bridge out into space. By this time our whole pelvis may be wide awake. [83-84]
*Even as I typed that sentence, my back slowly unfurled and straightened up in front of the computer! Ha! Now, we can’t always control our posture, or make our spine erect. I’ve been reminded of this over the last couple of months, watching my dad recover from a terrible spinal infection that initially made sitting up on his own impossible. Slowly, with agonizing pain, tremendous patience, and a lot of assistance, he regained the ability to sit up, to hermit-crab around the rehab center in a wheelchair, to stand, and now to walk, with a walker. What a gift, to be able to sit up straighter and straighter with less and less pain.