Being Seated But Not Sitting
We are all suffering and being challenged to grow. As therapists, we are uniquely attuned to our clients’ suffering and perhaps the suffering of the world. We are not just seated across from our client helping them know and use their feelings, we are having the very same feelings in parallel. This is the collective experience of broken systems, the suffering of limited connection with others, the suffering of not knowing what to do, the suffering of sitting and looking at a screen all day. We share together with our clients the tension that comes with limitation through restriction.
One of a therapist’s greatest tool is to know thyself, so when we experience suffering, pausing to observe our suffering brings us into our awareness—noticing the collapse in our chest, the tension in our throat, the pure exhaustion of maintaining the torrent of emotions that flow through us. When we feel our suffering we then form the possibility of knowing not only the feelings and sensations this brings, but also how those feelings and sensations manifest in our clients. We are not in a time of uncertainty that holds any greater amount of uncertainty than any other moment in time. What we now collectively sense is greater awareness of the uncertainty. With awareness we create the possibility of change and the change we want seems to be liberation. Sometimes simply asking a client how they are already practicing their automatic responses brings not just their awareness, but new possibilities. How do we, as therapists, use ourselves to make space for new possibilities, while drawing the clients’ attention to their familiar behaviors? We aid clients and ourselves by stepping towards actions that move us along a new path in life.
Below is a story of a session that recently occurred using tele-therapy. As we sat in chairs looking at each other through screens, the possibilities for change became available by attending to what was there, namely the client’s back pain, and the posture that aggravated it: sitting.
Note: Sandra’s identifying characteristics have been altered to maintain confidentiality.
I have been seeing Sandra for a year. Our sessions tend to be depth oriented. Sandra is white and works as a consultant who helps individuals and corporations understand and transform white privilege and systemic racism.
During a recent Zoom session she was seated and clearly uncomfortable. She couldn’t sit still. We began dropping in:
Antony: How are you feeling? Sandra: My back is killing me. All of this sitting still in Zoom meetings is not good for my body! I would rather be out in the summer garden digging in the earth and moving. Antony: I see how uncomfortable you are, do you want to take a moment to stand and stretch? Sandra stands and stretches as we continue talking. Antony: The feeling of your back hurting, where does that come from? What do you know about it? Sandra: Well, I don’t think it's good for me to be sitting so much. We just aren’t meant to be doing this much sitting.
Antony: Sitting in chairs?
Sandra: I'm not sure if its sitting in chairs or just being this immobile. You have often commented we are designed to move.
Antony: Yes, we are made of moving parts. So let's know more about your back pain.
Sandra sits back down.
Sandra: Yes, I really feel it when I’m sitting in this chair.
Antony: Sandra it sounds like you’re saying on some level you know you are not meant to be sitting this much. And now you are suffering for that.
Sandra: That’s true. Why are we all sitting so much? It really feels like we have all agreed to a system where sitting is normal.
Antony: that’s true. Many people for quite a while have agreed to spend their days sitting while working. Maybe this is an agreement we do not want to sustain?
Sandra: I feel like we are saying that my back pain is a result of sitting and in someway it is oppressive. Not only that, but I am unconsciously agreeing to it.
Antony: I’m curious how, when, why, sitting in chairs became a system?
Sandra: I once read an article in the Atlantic about the hierarchy of chairs. It said originally the height of the chair was an indication of societal ranking and It was the ruling class who sat upon the highest chair or throne. It wasn’t until recently during the industrial age when chairs became widely used.
Antony: Sandra, are you saying chairs, and the use of them, are a physical remnant of an ancient system of hierarchical oppression? A way of denoting class and power?
Sandra: (long pause, this is Sandra’s life work and we are sitting in it this very moment. Her eyes tear.) I am overwhelmed, it’s everywhere, There is just so much work to be done. It is uncanny how oppression is woven into the fabric of life. It’s right here in this chair.
Antony: yes, its embodied. Our bodies are suffering as a result of unseen oppression. Can I suggest that we get up and move?
The experience of suffering is a common thread that weaves through the fabric of humanity. When inviting Sandra to “get up and move” I had two intentions: one to provide some relief from the pains of sitting, and also to bring the contrasts of sensation that would come from moving her body. Working with her presentation of back pain and the meaning she made of the sitting posture, we were able to access new possibilities in forming a sense of relief and liberation.
We have lived in our societal nervous system where unconscious agreements make our individual pain possible. Liberation lies in a precious breath that we are especially aware of needing at this time. The possibility for human equality must begin with the presence of breath and the understanding that suffering is impermanent.
Being seated as therapists means being rooted in the body of wisdom that allows us to pay attention to what is there in the room while working with clients.
The struggles of this time are an opportunity to stand up for what we as therapists inherently believe in, helping clients manage their suffering, healing old wounds, and creating a safe place to be human.
Therapists do not need to hold all the complexity of the world, only the complexity of ourselves and our clients. A therapist’s task is to use awareness of their own body and perspectives, combined with skillful training, as a path to creating possibility for their client; from here, we can go anywhere.