There’s a thing we say about aging, that gravity takes its toll.
And it’s true.
The soft tissues succumb to the downward pull, losing their elasticity. The spring and bounce that characterizes youth dessicates. And yet there’s a way we age long before our time, offering ourselves up as sham sacrifice to the force of gravity. Unaware, we squander ourselves, exerting stupid effort where a modicum of leverage would suffice.
Even now you’ll notice where that sacrifice is made if you stand still and listen.
Your body will scream quietly at the first signs of shear in the joints.
Stand for a minute.
Stand in place for an hour and watch yourself squirm, compensating for a lack of organization.
Notice where you first fatigue during the demands of a typical day, a warning bell of muscular effort in the absence of skeletal support. These are the regrets of old age making themselves known in advance. These are the parts of yourself that will wish for better care far too late…
That is, unless you do something about it now.
That tension is begging for respite.
It’s begging for support.
Consider the biological situation taking place.
The bones are specialized tissues, hard-won over millenia for the purpose of resisting the downward pull of gravity. They are durable structures exquisitely wrought from the primordial goo of being to resist the compressive force of weight. It is their job to handle gravity. The muscles play only a minor role. They ought to anyhow.
What tends to happen though is we get ahead of ourselves. We disconnect from the internal signaling, the first hints of tension, and force ourselves into mishmash shapes through the day in service of some idea: an idea of productivity, of “proper” posture, of the good boy or girl sitting still and paying attention for 8 hours per day. We contort ourselves to fit a shape, disembodied mind madly manipulating flesh, forcing ourselves into positions that require more work to maintain.
Slump for a moment.
Notice the first subtle tugs of muscle that come to the foreground in order to keep you upright.
Imagine compounding that muscular activity, that dull toil, for minutes…for hours…for days, weeks, months, and years of your life. Is it any wonder that we imagine old age as shriveled and brittle? Is it any wonder that we as a culture abhor the very thought of getting old?
We’re left with few role models of aging with grace, far too few who’ve retained the dignity of internal support that comes from clear awareness of where their bones are in space. The bones, again, are the most durable and in many ways most essential parts of ourselves. The bones reveal where we stand and how we carry ourselves.
Without giving them their due attention they blur from our awareness, and life begins to feel like a helluva lot more effort.
If you’re still slumped, don’t merely right yourself.
Don’t just exert force to lift yourself out of that collapse.
Force is a poor substitute for support. It works well enough for the short term, but the long term effects are never pretty. Will that’s exerted to prop up a shoddy system has an inevitably limited runway of use. Let your mind run wild with associations here, remembering that you already know this in your flesh.
Notice where gravity is winning within your structure. Ask those parts what they’d prefer: work or support. Ask those parts, but don’t just ask. Be sure to listen. The answer is quite clear when we take the time to hear it.
Where do we find that support?
Below. Always below.
Now, bear with me here. We’ll address the aches and pains. We’ll circle back to the pretty externals of upright posture, but in order to make a lasting change we must sink our roots a bit deeper than the superficial. I think you’ll find the process much richer and more enjoyable for all its uncanniness.
As I said before, that support is always found beneath. We can hardly ask the tissues above to support those below. On what ground would they stand? By what feat would the fruit carry the roots?
If we wish a respite from the toil, we must turn our attention downward from the parts of us that cry out from too much strain.
It’s a curious phenomenon, one I don’t think is inconsequential: in myth and lore and story, the direction of soul is always downward. While spirit may fly upward in the bright air, soul is found at depth, down in the dank loam, the dark humus leftover from the remains of life gone back to dirt.
For a culture that values ascension, always up, up, up this move downward is an uncomfortable thing. It feels lazy, weak, exposed somehow. It feels out of control.
It feels like we should do something for God’s sake.
We come to know ourselves through our doing.
We identify with the work of muscles.
It’s exhausting, but it’s a familiar sort of exhaustion.
We tie up our self-image in the busy-ness and activity in a culturally-reinforced mania.
Ease, truly resting into oneself, is a foreign concept.
We can imagine the dread of the retiree who finds themselves with too much idle time and not enough personality to fill it. Or the executive unable to sit contentedly at the beach with his kids, counting the dollars lost in opportunity cost.
I tear up a bit as I write this, recognizing that mania in myself. I think of the frenzy of work that characterized my 20s and wonder if what I gained was worth the cost. I know that drive toward work is old, stretching back generations. The men I was named after defined themselves through work.
Even now I shudder wondering what I’d be without the work through which I’ve come to know myself, but beyond the shudder there’s a quiet part of me who’s curious to find out.
We’re talking after all about bones and muscles and aches, and I know that the part of you most familiar with work wants answers. That part of me does too, so let’s see if we can find some.
Again I say that the support lies beneath.
Merely lifting oneself through active exertion does little but pass the buck. It’s a cheap propping up from the top with little consideration for lasting change. You’ve experienced — as have I — the frustratingly short-lived change wrought by “sitting up straight.”
Instead I invite you to consider what lies below the parts that ache.
If the shoulders ache, consider the spine.
If the low back wimpers, consider the pelvis.
If the knees scream, consider the feet.
Beneath it all consider the ground, the immovable surface above which you align yourself.
What parts of yourself are in contact with the support underneath?
And what’s the quality of that contact?
Is it sluggish and heavy? Timid and tense? Collapsed and expectant? Absent and hard to notice? Matter of fact and none-too-personal? Full and sensuous?
And if that’s the quality of your connection to the support beneath you, is it possible that these words characterize something else as well?
Our relationship to support defines our lives.
Wherever it is that you sense that contact, notice what happens if — with a movement only of your attention — you reach through yourself into that support. Notice what happens if — like a seed germinating — you send roots downward through the ground and shoots upward through your self.
Notice if the intention down affords you some sense of levity.
Discover for yourself if it’s possible to find more ease by “doing” less of that which you already know how to do all too well. A sense of attention placed on all that’s beneath supports all that’s above.
I’m using images here rather than proper cues of course.
Images have a way of waking up something in us that concepts don’t. The old, lasting ideas are known best through images. Likewise the too-new-for-words.
What I hope is that through a piece like this you’re put in a strange situation of considering yourself very differently than you have before. I hope this is a lens through which you might see something new of yourself.
Physical culture has been robbed of all substance by the comic overemphasis on biomechanics. We’re quick to incorporate the language of things into the language of self, and I’ve never seen it work out all that well.
Time is the great revealer of ideas’ merit. I’m drawn to old teachers who move as if they’re young. They’re the ones who’ve let life demonstrate the soundness of their ideas. You really ought to be skeptical of the young, including me. The new is a source of progress, but it’s responsible for an overwhelming burden of proof, showing that it’s at least not worse than the old and time-tested.
Trust the old and durable.
Trust the bones within you and ground beneath you.
Gladly and gratefully be supported by them for every move you make in life.
It is much, much less effort that way.