Ten Meditations on Sitting

by Liam Heneghan

309px-Auguste_rodin,_il_pensatore,_1881-1882,_041. On 16 June 1904 before leaving his home at 78 Eccles Street, Dublin, Leopold Bloom sat and took one of most momentous and leisurely shits in literature. Joyce reported: “Asquat on the cuckstool he folded out his paper.” Bloom browsed a while, then “midway, his last resistance, yielding he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly, as he read.” A significant portion of those people from whom I recently solicited information on their favorite sitting places side with Bloom on this one. They confide this seated pleasure as if it was their secret alone. My father, in contrast, claims his favorite place to sit was beside the Minister for Education in the Irish Dail (parliament) during question time. My mother’s sitting drinking coffee in front of The Colosseum. Mine is on the Old Kenmare Road, near Killarney, my back against a rock, facing the mountains, bog cotton fidgeting,a stream murmuring in the middle distance.

2. Dr Dov Sikirov, an Israeli internist, studied the straining forces applied by 28 healthily defecating volunteers when sitting versus squatting. The defecators were equipped with stop watches and were asked to subjectively assess the intensity of their efforts. Each volunteer recorded six shits, producing data on a grand total of 168 stools. All metrics indicated that sitting required the most excessively forceful evacuations. The reason for this is connected to the human anorectal angle, measured between the longitudinal axis of the anal canal and the posterior rectal line. At rest the angle is typically 90°; sitting keeps us in “continence mode” whereas squatting reduces the angle for a smoother launch. Dr Sikirov holds a patent for a Toilet device (US 7962973 B2) designed to facilitate defecation in a natural squatting posture over a conventional toilet bowl. Others recommend elevating the feet on a small stool.

3. Of his famous statue The Thinker (1904), Auguste Rodin wrote “What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back and legs, with his clenched fists, and gripping toes.” The thinker sits. In contrast, in as much as such things are possible in a statue, the bronze sculpture of Linnaeus (sculptor, Robert Berks, 1982) at the Chicago Botanic Garden is all motion. He reaches out for a plant. Nietzsche's Zarathustra sat outside his cave for 10 years. But after those ten he descended “into the deep”. “Like thee”, he said to the sun, “must I go down, as men say, to who I shall descend.” The word sat and variants occurs, over 70 times in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883 to 1885). Nonetheless, the word “walk” occurs more than 30. The famous statue of Darwin in the Natural History Museum on Cromwell Road by Sir Joseph Boehm (unveiled on 9 June 1885) is of Darwin sitting. When the statue was moved in 2008 it took a team of 8 people about 26 hours to move the 2.2 tonne monument.

4. The Web of Science, an online scientific citation indexing service, lists 4,625 academic papers with the word “sit” or “sat” in the title. About 300 of these are about Boolean satisfiability (abbreviated SAT), a computer science term, the remainder are in the fields of sports science, rehabilitation, orthopedics, clinical neurology and so on. In contrast, 26,414 articles have the word “stand” in the title, of which, 7,000 or so refer to stands of vegetation — an unbroken canopy of trees of the same ecological community type. The word “walk” occurs 23,294 times in titles of papers. Over 4,000 of these papers are on “walking” in the statistical sense of “random walk”. For instance, Brownian motion may be described as a random walk where molecular collisions, occurring at random, buffet particles suspended in a fluid. On JSTOR, the digital library, which in addition to science also titles hosts humanities texts, “standing” dominated a search for these terms, though the terms sitting and walking are found in a ratio of about 4:1. Though we generally sit to write, nevertheless, in our writing prefer movement to sitting.

5. The average adult spends 50 – 60% of their day sedentarily (Latin sedere, to sit). A study of 6,329 adults showed that older adolescents and adults over 60 years of age are the most sedentary groups. Females are more sedentary than males before the age of 30 but become less sedentary over the age of 60.

6. Sitting involves minimal metabolic energy expenditure. The calorie counting app MyFitnessPal does not offer calorie credits for sitting as a cardiovascular exercise — not even one calorie. Not even if you are watching TV.

7. Sitting is associated with adverse health outcomes including poor cardiac health, type 2 diabetes, and premature death. Even in those who exercise regularly prolonged sitting compromises health. In a study of four thousand Azorean men body mass index was positively correlated with sitting after the researchers controlled for age, meal frequency, alcohol and tobacco consumption, island of residence, education level and total physical activity. Young Australian women sit for more hours each day than do the middle aged cohort, though all sit for more about six hours a day, a little less on weekends. If the ratio of walking to sitting in our lives tracked the ratio in our writing about it, we would no doubt live longer healthier lives.

8. In a 2004 study six aesthetic plastic surgeons impartially examined 1320 photographs of nude women in “different postures and actions” and examined the buttocks of 132 female patients to assess for “signs” of buttock beauty. They reported four independent characteristics in the gluteal region that indicated excellently attractive buttocks: a lateral depression, infragluteal fold, supragluteal fossettes, and a V-shaped crease. The results, reported in the journal Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (28:340-347), were published with a helpful photograph illustrating the consistent features of the perfect ass. The role of the buttocks in sitting is neglected in this otherwise comprehensive work, but helpfully surgeons are recommended to mark where the buttocks rest while sitting to avoid injury to vessels and nerves.

9. “Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” Matthew 26:36

10. At the end of Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s book, The Giving Tree (1964), about a rapacious boy plundering the goods and services of an overly generous tree the boy returns to the tree at the end of his shitty life. “I am very tired”, the boy complained. “Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, “well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting”

The illustration is one of Thinker sculptures made by Auguste Rodin.

Follow me on Twitter @DublinSoil for 140 character updates on my columns. Links to some previous 3QD columns here.

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