On the Cult of Sitting: I Move, Therefore I Live

Rather than the question of existence, if the question were one of living, I conclude: I move, therefore I live.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

"I stand before you," is a common idiom used when addressing people. It is powerful, but so is movement. It is the sibling of thought. When you walk, your mind literally travels through time and space. What a joy, then, it is to move; when we don't, we feel a physical and mental lack of freedom. The less one moves, the less possibility of happiness, for those opportunities need travel. Imagine becoming crippled, and then deprived of crutches or a wheelchair, confined to a seat, never allowed to move. This example is not a philosophical thought experiment or a scientific quandary of existence; this is, for many of us, our reality.

Sit Still and Pay Attention

Sitting and the variations of rest and leisure can be blissful and much-needed. We can voluntarily choose not to move — that is freedom — but there are times throughout our daily life when we feel a duress to sit and be still. In school, we are told to sit still, be quiet, and think. What an oxymoronic standard of being: to think, yet not move; to think, yet avoid speaking. It has its time and place, but when we couple it with professionalism (or our ridiculous interpretation of gravitas), or a societally determined measure of behavior, is when it becomes a practice without purpose. "Sit still at school and once you graduate, get a job and sit still indefinitely..." Sitting still used to be a form of punishment for misbehaving children, but now it's your reward for growing up. Thanks, but no thanks.

Sanity is not truth. Sanity is conformity to what is socially expected. Truth is sometimes in conformity, sometimes not.
— Robert M. Pirsig, Lila

We are told to think without doing, and we do without thinking. I cannot call it a tradition, as this construct has always been changing. Each past variation is not quite like the version we have known. Like a ghost train, never in the same place more than once. We do not know how it started, and no one is driving it, but since being on it is familiar, we stay on it, wherever it takes us, whether it is beneficial or not. But what is scarier is this impression that someone must know what's going on, or there must be some logic to it, when really it's a runaway train, and we are heading nowhere, for no reason or purpose. We rationalize reasons after the fact, but whether reasons exist or not would not change the trajectory. It's just to make ourselves feel better.

The Tyranny of "Being Good"

Sitting still, is a social mechanism developed by society to measure how well we are behaving. Sitting and stillness is rest, both for the body and mind. Now we sit to work. Sitting to conserve energy so that we may prolong work. We sit and eat lunch at our desks. In some offices, there is anxiety to leave for lunch. Robbed of the freedom of lunch! It is not a company policy; there is no rule in the HR handbook. It is the set expectations of the culture of your work. There is no stealing of physical liberty; what has been stolen is our peace of mind. (I can have a tattoo but I still have to keep my head down.) We are still that student, fearful that our teacher will know that we got up from our chairs or did something off-task. Perhaps, as children, we felt fewer restrictions. Maybe it is only now that we have become the fearful child.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, philosopher Robert M. Pirsig describes the importance of peace of mind:

Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all.

We can be complicit — perhaps rather than communing with those who are physically present, we connect with people online. We spend more time with our coworkers than we do with some of our family and friends — yet we are just as lonely around them as we are alone. Why do we not connect? Why choose to live a solitary life around people? Why not enjoy the life that we have, rather than fantasizing about a life we don't? We have given up on that portion of our life. Our life begins when we leave work, but if work is the bulk of our time and we have accepted that as misery, or at best mild malaise, then we are accepting that the majority of our life is meant to be miserable. That becomes our ideology. So we focus on one and a half days out of the week. (Sunday evenings are spent dreading work.) So why maximize the times you are free; why not maximize the time you are not so you can feel free? And the truth is that the weekend can be just as confining; it's our only time to catch up on our personal life, and there is a shorter deadline. Then why have two separate lives? And no, I don't mean make work your life: no work life or personal life, just one pleasant life. Monday to the day you die. I can only speak for myself, but before I die, I want to live. All we lack is freedom. Now this does not mean do things to get terminated (it is not binary), but I think we can all agree that there is more we can do for our well-being.

Driven by Self-Limiting Fear

Is it so odd to get up every so often to get water, use the bathroom, see coworkers, connect, and uncage? Is it defiance to get up every hour to stretch your back, rest your eyes, and allow much-needed blood to circulate? What about pacing just to think and solve a problem? Will your boss and coworkers actually care? And if they do, does it matter? Must you take the elevator because everyone else does? We are slaves to the rules in our minds. We ask for more societal freedoms of physical liberties, to do whatever we want to our bodies, but our minds may be more confined, paralyzed, and medicated than years past.

It has been said that to get ahead in the career world, productivity is second to the perception of busyness. You must look busy, and the irony is, somehow, stillness is busyness. Movement and productivity: laziness. Wouldn't a lazy person sit all day pretending to be busy? Isn't an active person — an active person? We fancy the mind because that is how many of us get paid, yet we avoid the thing that is best for our mind: standing and moving. We act against our best interest and the outcomes we seek. If your work wants creativity and productivity, building a sedentary culture goes against the bottom line. It is like putting a leash on the mind, tying it to a pole, then telling it to "mush." What I am positing to you is that this is mostly self-imposed; people are not as concerned about you as much as you think they are; you are not the center of their universe (they are). People may be more oblivious than you think. They take notice when someone does something great or makes a great error.

There is a large gap between more movement and losing that promotion or getting fired. We fear we cannot self-modulate — if left to our own devices, we will become a mad person — so, we go to the opposite extreme. We did this in school, studying all night and getting very little sleep before an important exam. We do not "cram" because we believe it is the most fruitful way to take a test; we do it because we are afraid of not having done enough. Rather than balance, this has been our default life principle. "Better to be safe than sorry," but I disagree, you can be sorry regardless.

(Children Running, 1893 | Eadweard Muybridge)

(Children Running, 1893 | Eadweard Muybridge)

Movement is, without question, the most scientifically proven way to increase brain development, better thinking, creativity, and workflow. We understand this in the raising of a child and in steeling the mind of the elderly, but what about the rest of us in the middle? Does this not apply, or are we aware of the hypocrisy but feel helpless to change it? If we were created by optimal design (whether it be a godhead or a unifying feature of the universe), our work environment and our societal norms are conversely not designed with the same level of consideration.

Modern Naturalism

In the vein of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, if every person had access to the divinity of nature and the ability to take nature walks, we wouldn't be so reliant on meditation, medication, and distraction. There is a Korean saying in the countryside, "Insomnia is a luxury for those who live in the city." In rural and rustic places, there is disease and physical suffering — stemming from infection, malnutrition, and famine. In the modern trappings of the city, we live longer, but one could argue we get sick sooner. The variety of ailments available in the cities would take several volumes of books to describe, and that's only the mental health conditions. Some ailments are so esoteric and foreign, only those in first-world America have it. So we search for quick-fixes because we can afford them, solutions that do not require changing our regular lives. And they don't work.

Meditation is beautiful, and in the context of people who are always outside, moving and working, it is an act of thoughtful balance — and balance is beautiful. Some of us meditate in the vein (perhaps "vain" would be more apropos) of the CEO, as a "hack." (CEO-style meditation is, in fact, a "thing.") We don't do it to find balance, we do it to be successful, to emulate the people we aspire to be like — not the Buddha, but the "spiritual" billionaire. It is a variation of the part of us that looks for ancient remedies, not because we want to be closer to wisdom of the past but because we want a quick way to lose weight. These are all expressions of the trinity of contemporary desire: to be as wealthy as possible, as young as possible, and as skinny as possible. Meditation then has become like everything else, something we can do while sitting there, to prolong the sitting we were already doing. Meditation was a method of deep-thinking and no-thinking. Rather than fluidly moving from the two schools of meditation, we picked one: no-thinking. No movement.

It is purported to relieve anxiety, so we can keep working. However, sitting too long itself causes anxiety. Why not take a long walk, sit under a tree, and reflect? Why not hike to the top of the city and enjoy the view? Meditation, in the way we are currently using it, is anti-meditation. It is not anti-establishment, it only reinforces the status quo — its only value is to increase utility — neurotic productivity. If the CEO is who we are emulating, then the employees remaining still, docile, and exhaustingly utilitarian, seem ideal. Perhaps the life of a rockstar CEO involves a lot of travel, swimming with dolphins, and partying with celebrities. Then stillness and quiet can give them balance. However, balance means different things in different contexts. A village can be "yang" in the morning but "yin" in the evening. It all depends on what is overabundant.

Meditations on Nature and Walking

(Via Unsplash)

(Via Unsplash)

It was mind-body-spirit-nature, then it was reduced to mind-body-spirit, then just mind-body, and now just the mind. Without the other aspects, the mind suffers and shrinks, like a caged bird. We think we have nature, when we used to consider ourselves a part of nature. To give it a scientific analogy: nature would be the greater body and us its cells. This holistic view of the world is the one held by scientists, which is why they warn us about sustainability and climate.

We hold a much more narrowed and inaccurate view. "Here is nature, here is us, and we are separate." Are we the spirit? It's up for debate. What is the body? It is no longer us, it is a tool to get our true selves around. What has the true "self" been reduced to? It has been reduced to the mind. We have a brain, but the mind is intangible; it is a philosophical thought that has historically been interchangeable with the term "soul." Without critical thought, we have an entirely incoherent method of thinking. The satisfaction of thinking has lost its luster, reducing until there is nothing left. We reduce: becoming a bikini, a bicep, money, a diploma, a reputation, our work.

What is our natural state? Is it not a state of play? A mental and physical union of exuberance?

Nature makes us smart. Nature makes us move. It frees our eyes and spirit. It feeds the body. It makes real the mind. Nature is life, and I don't mean it in some cliché way. "Life" literally is a synonym for the term "nature." We have forgotten what words mean; words express ideas and experiences.

Scottish-American naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir wrote in John of the Mountains:

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

Walking and napping are things of beauty and are in themselves the spices of life. I have heard, the overlooked reason New Yorkers can maintain such a fast pace is their direct access to Central Park. In the park: they walk, play, eat, meditate, read, ride carriages, kiss, smile, breathe, think, and live! Without Central Park (the park at the heart of the city), it would be a different place. It is their culture, walking and eating outside. To dismiss the relevance of the park shows limited perspective.

(Central Park | New York City Department of Parks & Recreation)

(Central Park | New York City Department of Parks & Recreation)

When we do walk, we put it in a small box, much like how society organizes us into neat little boxes: by our job, our gender, our race, or our sexual identity. How sad it is to do this to walking, something that is of such immense and diverse profit, only allowing it to trickle the most minute of privileges. It has become exercise, and exercise itself is relevant, but allowing it to be more than exercise does not take away any of the physical benefits. We reduce walking, and if we are not open to the other possibilities, those other possibilities may not visit us. Awareness is needed — this is Zen.

Naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walking:

The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours … but it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.

Thoreau is stating, walking cannot be made sterile; it has a multitude of uses. Walking and nature is like access to clean water; it can only make us happier and increase longevity. The Greek physician Hippocrates said in his ancient wisdom and foresight:

Walking is man’s best medicine.

We fear multiple effects, so we lessen it to one thing. This fear is born out of the unknown; we fear what we cannot comprehend: variety. If the possibility of another aspect appears, we feel we have to choose the former or the latter when it can be both. Say to someone, "Walking is moving meditation," and you may hear, "Well it's exercise, too." It becomes a binary "this vs. that," a false dichotomy when it can plainly be both, and so much more. But we fear we will lose the former to the latter — or we must find that thing that is best and only limit it to that. We are obsessed with "best." Then it is not just an issue of creating a habit of movement but that we must also become better thinkers. If we are to get up from our desks, we must be able to hold plural thoughts in our heads at the same time. We must drop the notion of "best" because "best," too, is a subjective social construct.

On this, Robert M. Pirsig wrote:

Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word ‘quality’ cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates.

There is no mystery to meaning and joy. We feel it, just as we feel unpleasantness and misery.

A lover of hikes, a friend, frequently walks up to the tops of summits to enjoy their views. A college professor by trade, he stays there for a while to stretch, breathe, and clear his mind. Over the years, he has noticed fewer people on the trail and more people driving up, stepping out just long enough to take a photograph of themselves, then leaving. He wondered if people had forgotten how to walk (not in a sarcastic sense but in the philosophical way), and why they didn't just save themselves the trip and download a picture if that was their only goal. I told him because they wouldn't be in them. (However, I have heard there is a market for people who want to be digitally placed in travel photos...)

We're mistaking the effect (the picture) with the cause (why the picture is even important). Somehow in our contemporary arrogance, if we dirty our shirt, if we sweat and get our feet dirty, it is not respectable. It is lowbrow and to be avoided. "Cut to the chase", "To make a long story short", "Get to the point," but the point without the context, without the process, is absurdity. Just a meaningless picture devoid of memory. Nonsense. Then it is detachment, a distraction from living. The illusion of free-will and choice. Because we have something material, and the ability to consume is how we now measure freedom. "I have more stuff, therefore I'm freer than you." But to gain "stuff," we give up connection and individuality. We surrender freedom.

Transcendental Walking

The physical act of walking is easy. We walk to our cars to get to work, we walk to our cars to leave work, and we walk into our homes to sit down on the couch. A routine miracle. Something machines have yet to replicate with any versatility, coordinating 360 joints with precise and broad visual input, while maintaining balance on two feet, transcending time and space. It took eons of evolution for us to get up, to walk upright; it is our pinnacle, yet for many of us, it's a wasted advantage. To truly appreciate walking takes an enlightened attitude.

Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

Few people know how to take a walk. The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence and nothing too much.

You will find just as much talk concerning movement in Eastern scripture as you will about stillness, just as much on no-thought as there is on deep-thought — this is balance. Fast, slow, any thought is good, any movement is good:

It is not wise to rush about.
Controlling the breath causes strain.
If too much energy is used, exhaustion follows.
This is not the way of Tao.
Whatever is contrary to Tao will not last long.
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

To get up, stretch, move, and liberate requires an attitudinal/ mental shift, before our bodies can accept it with any consistency. It requires spiritual growth. It is an intellectual pursuit. Are we humans or are we chairs? We argue over social constructs of politics, religion, identity, and freedom — to consume what we want, freedom to modify our bodies, all from the comforts of our chair. We have created better chairs, advanced chairs built with robotics, and better beds, yet we still suffer. These are merely fixes around the edges, but the soul of the matter is the question of being human. Do other animals sit and stay still for the majority of the day? Seasonally perhaps, when they hibernate. Then are we in permanent slumber? In varying degrees of unconsciousness? Even sloths and amoebas move to the fullest extent of their capacity. Then are animals more aware and sentient than us? Zombies or stupid machines, you pick.

The Method of Existence

Automation and the future of artificial intelligence is about getting machines to see, to speak, to move, and to be versatile. The way we used to be. Are machines more "alive" than we are? Then what are we? A rock? (Even a rock rolls down a hill on occasion.) Then we may need to re-adopt those native religions that respected the inanimate object because we have willfully become inanimate objects. (A rock may seem an unfair assessment, but when we compare our capacity to the utilization of our capacity, we become more like the rock than the amoeba.) Then do we even exist?

Widely considered the father of modern physics, René Descartes pondered this with an experiment. He imagined himself without a body; a soul floating around the room was not too difficult to imagine. Then he tried to imagine himself without a mind, but to use the mind to imagine itself away was not possible. That is when he declared:

I think, therefore I am.

Thought is proof of existence. Then the lack of thought is nonexistence. We could have a simulated body, and everything could be an illusion. Then the only evidence of our existence is our sentient thinking. (Awareness and self-awareness are the goals and fears of AI.) The thing we have been dreading and avoiding, the thing that causes us such stress. But I am suggesting it is not thinking itself that is stressful; it is not knowing how to think that is stressful — just as Emerson proposed regarding walking. Imagine walking while feeling lost; that is stressful. If that same walk is one of observation, what a delight. Observation itself would be a better compass for finding your way than blind worry. But if there is consolation, anxiety itself is proof of existence.

Robert M. Pirsig explained:

Any person of any philosophic persuasion who sits on a hot stove will verify without any intellectual argument whatsoever that he is in an undeniably low-quality situation: that the value of his predicament is negative. This low quality is not just a vague, woolly-headed, crypto-religious, metaphysical abstraction. It is an experience. It is not a judgment about an experience. It is not a description of experience. The value itself is an experience.

Even if it is to a low or negative degree, we exist. What is puzzling about the nature of humans currently, specifically those who live as "enviable" residents of the modern metropolis, is that we allow our human qualities to be stripped without struggle or complaint (I do not mean physical liberties: a tattoo or going topless). We accept it as rules of the game, and this is what we must do to play this game, to become pieces in this game. We are these "things" who feel stress and duress sitting in their chairs all day so we do not stand out. Sitting is the literal opposite of standing out.

I Move, Therefore I Live

"Oh... you want to be a carpenter...," yet there is no "oh" of disappointment if someone wants to be a banker (even after the financial crisis). There is a certain obscenity to this practice and if we boil it down to its most absurd base, a "bad guy" who sits in a nice cushy office is better than a "good guy" who is outside on their feet all day. (Even when the most powerful figure in the West is a bearded, long-haired carpenter.)

(Hiking at sunset | skeeze)

(Hiking at sunset | skeeze)

The original biological test for life was movement. First through the naked eye, then microscopes, then time lapse. Even now, when questioning whether something is dead, an inanimate object, or living, starts with this question: is it moving? If we are not moving, are we an inanimate object? Or worse, living flesh with no vitality? We joke that whatever it is we are doing is "soul sucking," that we are "dead inside," but is the joke on us?

Rather than the question of existence, if the question were one of living, I conclude: I move, therefore I live.

Moving, getting dirty, using our hands and minds, is living, yet "making" a living has nothing to do with actual living. It is about keeping our hands clean, being still, and only using our brains in a mechanized way, in this employer-employee dialectic until we can be replaced by something that can do it cheaper and faster. Yet the former is "primitive" and the latter makes our parents happy — a happiness based on prestige and perceived income. These are constructs not facts. Like any dogma, we believe in them not in their honesty, but because we are too passive to think otherwise. Even when we are constantly proven wrong.

As much as we are a "mind," these manufactured rules also exist within our minds, the collective minds of society. Since we have not thought it out, we default to something bizarre, a copy of a copy of a copy of a behavior of someone who never existed. Do not misunderstand; there are expectations and normal protocols, but the margins of normalcy are much greater than you realize. If movement truly is radical, then all hard-earned social progress is merely ornamental; it does not change the actual environment of how we spend our days.

(Walking in the city | Unsplash)

(Walking in the city | Unsplash)

I cannot stress this enough: I am only talking about getting up more and enjoying life. It is not controversial, and intellectually, everyone thinks it is a good idea. You will find more support than you think, and people will follow suit. If you make a pie chart of your time, work takes up most of the real estate. Let us not pretend that it doesn't. We have to deal with it. Being a grown-up means placing your bets on the available resources. It does not mean placing no bets because you do not like what is available. It is about balance and compromise (we used to hate it when our parents and teachers said "compromise," but it was said for practical reasons). Do you want it your ideal way or nothing at all? "I'll show them!" You are not "showing" them; for you are "them." There is only you, and you are hurting yourself. For most of our ills, it is us doing it to ourselves.

So get up. Move. Think. Breathe. Live. I do not mean it as some metaphor or figuration, I mean it as a standard of living. Moving while working, smiling and living, playing. What was normal is now novel. Then live a novel life. And stop being so serious.

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