The Thinking Body

How do we go beyond office ergonomics and liberate our full kinesthetic creativity in the information economy?

Excerpted from Wisdom Hackers @ The Pigeonhole


We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bone. — Henry David Thoreau

My desk job was making me sick. I loved the creative work I was doing, helping clients solve their problems, and I really liked my co-workers. But something didn’t feel right. I felt trapped. I wasn’t sure if it was just some clichéd post-grad school millennial malaise or something physical. Then one day I woke up with my neck and left shoulder painfully frozen. My doctor said it was because I had a “physically demanding job.” I mostly sat still at a computer all day. A combination of acupuncture, chiropractic and physical therapy made my neck and shoulder better. The pain went away, but my work stayed the same. I felt intellectually stimulated, but something was missing. I wasn’t quite sure what, but in retrospect, my body was trying to tell me something.

The turning point came when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. The storm and resulting flood forced me out of my apartment for just over a month, although at the time I had no idea when I was going home. “Life is too short,” I thought. I still wasn’t sure what my body and mind needed, but I knew it was time for a change. I quit my full-time job. I picked up another adjunct professor gig teaching digital design and started my own community-centered design studio. I also ramped up my exercise regimen with some yoga and weight training and got more serious with practicing capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art disguised as dance.

Fast-forward to today. I devote most of my working hours to my design practice. I still teach design and social innovation at a local university, and I teach capoeira one night a week now too. I’m healthier and feel more autonomy in my work and life, but I’m still trying to balance the demands of my largely sedentary design and writing work with the more physical and kinesthetic aspects of my teaching and capoeira. This Wisdom Hackers journey has got me thinking that maybe there is more that needs to happen than just “balance.” Perhaps there is a way for me, and for others, to better integrate the physical and the kinesthetic into their creative, but mostly sedentary, work.

Recent research has shown that sedentary desk jobs may be hazardous to our health. Sitting is apparently the new smoking. As a response to the potential health threat of extended sitting, some offices have embraced ergonomics and adopted the use of standing desks or even treadmill desks. We talk about “yoga hacks” and other exercises to help us undo the damage. We now even have apps that remind us when to take breaks from sitting and staring at a computer — technology to help us disconnect from technology. At the tech news site VentureBeat.com Greg Ferenstein explains how he “walked 18.5 miles in a single day without losing productivity” at his computer by using a treadmill desk.

But is this enough? Or are we missing the point when we focus on our bodies and kinesthetic movements at work merely in terms of optimizing or retaining productivity? Can we go further in rethinking how millions of us work in the information economy?

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Stanislav Grof reports: “Albert Einstein discovered the basic principles of relativity in an unusual state of consciousness; according to his description, most of the insights came to him in the form of kinesthetic sensations in his muscles.” What if we all had access to and a greater understanding of our own kinesthetic sensations? What scientific discoveries and cultural and artistic innovations would arise if more of us could tune into this kinesthetic intelligence? We may never find out by sitting in a box.

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Read the rest of The Thinking Body by subscribing to Wisdom Hackers on The Pigeonhole.