Why We Sit Still

June 6, 2020
Sam Marfleet

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Blaise Pascal

Sit perfectly still.

Don’t move a muscle.

Do you feel it yet? Every tiny sensation amplified to a hysterical scream? Has your mind started pleading? Offering riches and a lifetime of comfort if you would just move? Right. This. Instant.

Unless your side-hustle is impersonating statues, you’re probably unfamiliar with how intensely uncomfortable long periods of stillness can be.

Try it now. For, say, fifteen minutes.

Not great, right?

That such an extreme experience is always available to us is surprising. There’s an aspect of intention to it which seems to work unintuitively. I can accidentally be still. Lazing in a hammock or sitting in this chair thinking of what to write next. But the moment I try to stop moving, my mind gibbers in protest.

I have an itch. My leg isn’t supposed to go numb like that, is it? I think it might need to be amputated. Did I leave the stove on? Do I own a stove? I really should check.

As it happens, you can quiet this frantic response and it’s not a matter of trying harder. There’s a trick to it—if you can call it that.

Pay more attention to the sensations that arise.

Let’s say you’re stood at attention, caked in green makeup, doing your best Statue of Liberty impression when, suddenly, you feel an itch at the very tip of your nose.

Not again.

From experience, you know that this could be the beginning of the end. So you try to push the sensation to the back of your mind.

What are my multiplication tables again? Don’t itch. Who was the 18th president of the United States? Don’t itch. Damn it, Jessica, this is exactly the kind of weakness that lost you the 2019 World Living Statues Festival! Don’t. Itch.

With every attempt to push the feeling away your thoughts become more desperate. Not pleasant. Also not likely to work.

Now, instead of ignoring it, let’s scratch this itch with attention.

Oh darn, an itch! Hrm, where exactly am I itching? Am I itching anywhere else? What does an itch feel like? Is it a tingle, a burn, a vibration? Is it getting louder or quieter? Oh, it’s gone.

Like magic, right?

What’s happening here is the unbundling of stimulus and response. When you pay close attention to what is going on in a moment of panicked itchiness, you realize that what you thought was one thing is actually two.

There’s the itch (stimulus) and the desire for it to stop (response).

This is important. Suffering—the unfulfilled desire that the sensation stops—is not the same as the sensation itself. The panic is not the itch. It is an independent thought that arises separately.

You may not have control over the sensations that arise or even the thoughts that follow them. But you do, in some sense, choose which of these you give attention to.

You can choose to starve the panic by being more curious about the arising sensation.

This is also why trying to ignore the itch doesn’t work. By doing so you are only paying closer attention to the thoughts that are causing you suffering.

This isn’t just an act of masochism or parlor trick. It is a practice for our lives.

Bundled together, stimulus and response are a phenomenal survival stack. Very good for escaping jungle cats. Potentially very bad for delicate discussions with your mother-in-law.

In fact, if you think of your average day, I’m certain you’ll find hundreds of instances where it pays well not to give yourself to the very first response that pops into your head.

Telemarketers. Driving. Meetings. Ad nauseum.

Paying closer attention to the space between something happening and your reaction reveals a greater freedom in how you respond to events. At the bottom line this means taking fewer actions that you regret and making more decisions that you can stand behind.

And that alone is worth the practice.

But for those who want to follow me deeper into the rabbit hole, I cannot promise I will be entirely cogent.

What my own practice has shown me is my deep unwillingness to pay attention to anything in present moment. I’m constantly leaning into the future. Waiting for the next thing.

I feel, quite strongly, that when I give sensations a name I am closing myself to experiencing them. If every sensation is a mysterious box then my labels seal them shut and ship them off.

Oh what’s that? Pain? Don’t want to feel that, next! What’s this? Pleasure? Very good, I know what that feels like. Will there be more?

Putting on my faux-scientist hat, I imagine that there are great energy-conservation benefits to this tight link between stimulus and response. Surely it would be exhausting to go full on Double Rainbow every time I have an orgasm. But, come on, the bedroom? Are we that attention-deficient? Is nothing sacred?

A strong monkey brain might make for a long life but, I daresay, not a very rich one. Meditating—particularly on unpleasant sensations—allows me to do the difficult work of building my curiosity. Increasing my willingness to non-judgmentally experience the present. That, I hope, reveals the remarkable center of ordinary life.

And for that reason we sit still.

n.b. I have never been more itchy while writing an essay.