You might wanna sit down for this.
Chances are you already are. Studies indicate the average American sits anywhere from 10 hours to half their day. While many scientists advocate against our sedentary lifestyles, it appears that, especially in the midst of an ongoing pandemic and its virtualizing implications, sitting remains at the seat of our everyday experience.
We sit in car seats, bus seats, train seats and plane seats. In class and at home, with friends and alone. At movie theatres and auditoriums, restaurants and bars, from strip clubs to churches, weddings to funerals and all that’s few and far between.
And the technology of sitting — endless: we’ve constructed couches, benches, sofas, futons, armchairs, dining chairs, swivel chairs, office chairs, folding chairs, rocking chairs, rolling chairs, pews and bleachers.
Some seats serve many functional, practical purposes such as a wheelchair, ski lift, barber chair, director’s chair or a toilet seat. Seats can be imbued with holy calibers such as a royal throne or can carry with them sinister connotations such as the electric chair. As a society, we’ve organized our entire lives in service to sitting — an interesting hybrid between rest and activity, motion and idleness.
After much reflection on the meditative nature of walking and what it means for us to embark in ambulatory motion day-to-day, I recently began to wonder about what happens when we sit. Sitting encompasses a considerable amount of our lives. Every seat in existence literally holds a multitude of memories, experiences, thoughts, feelings and sensations. In my bedroom, there’s a royal blue futon fixed firmly beneath my “Last Supper” print (with the Black Jesus, of course). As my favorite place to sit, I read and write there, watch TV, Zoom into class and club meetings, occasionally eat breakfast, lunch, dinner and perform a whole bunch of other behaviors and activities…all in one space. Having had a terrible, habitually malfunctioning desk that was too difficult to comfortably sit at in my old apartment last year, I grew accustomed to conducting my daily tasks via sofa, couch or futon. That same old apartment had a rather 70s chic sofa with brown and beige tones that miraculously matched the vintage vibe of the rest of the crib. That sofa was my solace during my sophomore year in quarantine, as I imagine it was for all the tenants before me and will be for all the ones after me.
After all, so much of our seating is shared seating. Over winter break, I thought about the history of the communal furniture in my family home. We have a forest green couch, years older than me, which I swear acquires more and more pillows (the ancillary accessory of seats everywhere) whenever I visit home. I see that same couch, as well as our two big brown leather chairs, in the background of many of my baby pictures. I’m always amazed at everything those seats have offered and endured all these years.
At my frat’s chapter house, I feel much of the same sublime sensation — as I picture the pivotal pasts the seats in our chapter room, dining room and basement have held. I can recall many discussions sitting on the balcony of Beta Theta Pi, our firescape, in our library and in our card room. On the weekend, after a night out, many of my brothers congregate and converse whilst sitting on the steps of our mezzanine-lobby, like the students of “Gossip Girl” (the original, of course) convening on the steps of The Met. When we sit in communal living spaces, we engage in critical conversation, deliberation and elucidation.
At my Improv practices for ComCo, my lovely troupe sits in the bohemian basement of the Michigan League in a row of turquoise chairs that are arguably as zany-looking as the 12 of us. We designate two of the seats as our only allowed material “props” for our scenes. Even in the infinitely imaginative, fantastical world of improvisational comedy, chairs stay supreme. And there’s certainly a serene sensation mixed in with utter excitement when peering out and seeing the average Angell Hall Auditorium A transformed into an arena of mirth and amusement with every seat (and heart) full at showtime.
Then there’s The Michigan Daily newsroom, in which mini-worlds are created at the desk of each column and cohort (Michigan in Color being the best, of course), energy abundant and auras emanating from each coalescence of collaborators. It’s insane to think how much magic is made in the tiny little corner where we meet and take a seat every MiC shift. It suggests to me that sitting in socialization is always an alchemical process, inviting dialogue, discourse and deeper knowing.
We can access this deeper knowing sitting alone in isolation as well. In modern times, however, I fear and find it’s much more difficult to sit alone by ourselves without feeling the illusive lure of our electronic devices calling our name.
One doesn’t have to look very far — on the bus, in the dining hall, in class during lecture, awaiting an order, at halftime during the game, in the corner at a party, at any idle moment of uncertainty and anxiety — many flee to their phone. Yes, we’re already very aware of our electronic urges and cyborg tendencies. Yet, oftentimes, we collectively diagnose our culture with a digital tech addiction without understanding the symptoms underlying our outrageous usage. Our digital lives have the capacity to invite us to a world of intellectual enrichment, social connection and spiritual growth.
However, under the dictates of capitalism, much of our electronic use has become an ego-enriching activity. Capitalist ideology indoctrinates us with false notions of individualism, urgency, productivity and growth. Under the system, our sense of worth becomes tied to an always unfulfilled ego, leaving us perpetually desiring differentiation, constant evaluation and separation from our peers. When sitting on our devices becomes a never-quenched need, it becomes apparent that our illusory ‘i’Phones engage us actively through our passivity in the reproduction of capital. In chains to an ongoing oppressive algorithm, every sedentary moment is now in service to the scroll, to ceaselessly rolling in revenue for mega-corporations. Our inclination to sit and scroll, especially in instances of liminality, suggests to me that our society has an outstanding inability to sit with our own thoughts.
As Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal put it, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly alone in a room alone.” This remains true as sitting by ourselves often devolves into a dinner date with the devil. Vice reigns victorious as we indulge in drugs and alcohol, electronics and entertainment and other sensuous pleasures to cope with our solitary.
Very rarely do we rest. Very rarely do we just sit. Yet it is only in just sitting in meditation, in reverie, in the presence of God, a higher power or the harmony of the universe, that we are able to connect with our higher selves and transcend to more attuned states of being. Meditative awareness, as American spiritual author Ram Dass claims in “Journey of Awakening,” allows us to meet each moment as “incredibly significant on level upon level.” This awareness can arrive in visual, concentrative, rhythmic and mindful meditative practices when we view every action as an act to God and our higher self.
On my occasional walks to the Arb, I have a series of seats I often find myself frequenting. These spots, mixed with memory, location and feeling always fill me with such relief as I sit down and ponder the boundless natural beauty bestowed upon me. Beyond the park benches provided, I’ve made seats of my own in the space, from fallen tree branches by cozy clearings in the autumn evening to hilltop hang-outs beneath the starry night sky in the springtime. We can sit anywhere outside to ponder our vastness, our interconnectedness, our ephemerality and non-duality. We lay down and greet the ground, the Ancestors and the soul of the Earth. We bask in the beauty. Soon, we fade away. We become the backdrop. For a fleeting instant, we’re free from the psychical prison of the brain. We’re reminded, once more, that as Japanese Buddhist philosopher Dōgen Zenji states, “Mind is none other than the mountains and rivers and the great side earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars.”
Sitting and eating can also be a mindful activity. To Dass, we can think consciously about the taste, texture, aromas and auras, the repeated experience of “intentions, movements, and touch sensations.” Jungian psychotherapist Thomas Moore views food as a source of enchantment that sustains our soul. He invites us to acknowledge the “presence of a hand” in our meals, or in other words, the sensation of sonder that arises when we consider the abundant amount of thought, effort and labor put into the food we typically carelessly consume. Much like the Grace given to God before meals, we can sit and find gratitude and divinity whenever we dine.
We can extend this “presence of a hand” to every seat we sit in, allowing us to have a greater appreciation for the everyday laborers in our life who so commonly go unacknowledged. For a while, I worked for Conference Event Services, attending the canopy tents on campus. A regular task of mine was setting up the folding seats for students and faculty to sit at during the spring, summer and fall as an outside alternative. It was a simple service being provided, one in which while working I, along with many others, was able to sit down, read, relax and rest with much downtime. When it was time to clean up and close down, subtle gestures such as folks leaving when they were supposed to, putting their chairs back to where they got them from, wiping their table down so I didn’t have to or merely saying “thank you” made my job much more worthwhile. Unsurprisingly, I’ve noticed a general lack of appreciation for part and full-time service workers on this campus. We regularly fail to give transportation workers, food service employees, maintenance and custodial staff the recognition they deserve as we sit comfortably in the various venues they’ve arranged for us.
Sitting can be serious. The politics of when we sit, where we sit, how we sit, who we’re sitting with and what we’re sitting on can matter significantly. Body language can make or break an interview or audition. Where we sit on the first day of school can change our life. I’ve made best friends from assigned seats in class, from open seats on buses, from having to stand at a meeting because there were no seats available. Sometimes we are not the same person we were sitting down when we get back up.
Historically, the famous sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s prompted monumental changes in our country’s socio-political infrastructure. The Montgomery Bus Boycotts gave rise to seating as a form of segregation. Loitering laws criminalize seating and oppress poor peoples all over the world. Seating can situate us in hierarchical schemes. Look in courtrooms and in Congressional chambers. It is no coincidence that we refer to elected positions as “seats.” Sitting is political. It is an assertion of self-authority.
In the Biblical Christian tradition, Matthew 22:44 states, “The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” Psalm 47:8 proclaims, “God reigns over the nation; God is seated on his holy throne.” When personal health problems led me to sit in unnerving anxiety before a medical appointment last week, I felt tempted to recklessly ruminate over my fate as I waited in the examination room. But instead of lingering in the liminal, I recalled that, as Ephesians 2:6 asserts, “(God) raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” and allowed the absolute divine grace of God to deliver me from all fear and trepidation. Plainly put, as Jesus, himself, said in John 6:10, “Have the people sit down.”
So, clearly, we should have several seats. But in doing so, we should see our sitting holistically as a hybrid enterprise encompassing immense possibility and potential. Indeed, our sedentary states enable us to access an authentic connection with the self, with one another and with the Spirit. And if we let that sit with us long enough, we can rise and realize that they’re all one in the same.
MiC Columnist Karis Clark can be reached at email@example.com