Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Are You Sitting Comfortably? Well Don't

Charles Simic Sitting Down to Write
   Sitting still for long enough - having both the will and the opportunity to sit still for long enough over a substantial succession of days - is at least half the challenge of writing, as we all know. Twice in the past week, however,  I've come across the idea that sitting is unhealthy, undesirable and pretty much the root of all our ills (rather than, say, Teresa May or Nigel Farage.)
   Firstly, a training about work-place health conducted by the British Heart Foundation suggested that sitting for more than half an hour at a time is not only harmful to our posture, circulation and blood-sugar levels but can even lead to depression and anxiety. The trainer went as far as coming up with the catchy (if fairly nonsensical) soundbite "Sitting is the new smoking!" as we all sat through his hour-long session, hoping that this information would not filter down to our students, for many of whom sitting still for five minutes let alone half an hour would be a fine thing.  
  Secondly, and with rather more thought behind it, I caught a programme on Radio 4 last night while making dinner called Is Work Too Easy? whose thrust was it's less poor diet that has lead to the rise in obesity than our desk-bound, sedentary jobs and inert lifestyles sat binging streamed boxsets and posting selfies of ourselves eating bowls of cereals we can't even be bothered to pour milk onto. One historian posited that its only a comparatively recent phenomenon to presume that sitting comfortably is our default position, as in previous centuries this would have been only the privileged preserve of monarchs on their ermine-lined thrones - serfs like us would have hunkered down on a rough-hewn, knobbly log-bench or failing that a soft warm midden. 
   I feel in several minds about all this.Certainly most of us spend far too long in front of screens either as "labour-saving" work-tools (and anyone who thinks spending half the day keeping up with circumlocutory intranet-threads about issues which could have been resolved in 5 minutes with a phone-call or chat is the best use of one's time quite probably has Asperger's Syndrome) or as a feel-good, fidgety diversion whose content we passively imbibe and internalise as though it were benign when really our browsing-habits and internet-footprints are being spied-upon, dissected and potentially sold on to other vested interests even as we surf. Technology has been increasingly appropriated by consumerism to encourage this unquestioning passivity and feed into an indulgent, indolent recumbency ("Sit back and control your lights/heating/washing-machine from your mobile phone") which is damaging to us on all sorts of levels.
  Anything that wrests us away from our devices for a time, that reconnects us to the sensory world around us and reminds us to be more active can only be positive - the benefits of walking even for a short distance each day have been proven to impact on both our physical and mental well-being (as long, that is, as we can keep our smartphones firmly lodged in our pockets). Equally, for many writers walking can be as integral a part of the compositional process as the sitting-down part: I have often warmed to the idea (I think it was Seferis's) that poems are out there waiting in certain locations, you have only to keep your eyes and ears open to find them.
   But the Yeats line "All things can tempt me from this craft of verse" seems to have become the story of my life and it feels now as though I need to engage in more of that "sedentary toil" which WB elsewhere recommends. Anyway, it seems limiting to characterise all sitting as unhealthy or lazy: a different, more creative perspective might be given if we think of meditation-practice eg. Zen Buddhist zazen ("the aim of zazen is just sitting, that is, suspending all judgmental thinking and letting words, ideas, images and thoughts pass by without getting involved in them.") You could say this is the opposite of writing-practice, where the poet is getting deeply involved in passing words, ideas, images and thoughts, but the suspension of judgmental thinking (at least in the early stages of composition) and the focus on sitting still in a mindful way is perhaps broadly the same. 

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