Which way is up?

There are few questions in life more important than “Which way is up?” We joke about that, describing someone who doesn’t grasp what’s going on around him by saying “he doesn’t know which way is up.” The question, though, is one that you really do need to answer almost constantly, whenever you’re awake and upright. If you stop answering it, you won’t stay upright very long. The question is so important that evolution developed mechanisms to answer it continuously and automatically, so you may hardly be aware of dealing with it. Fortunately, there are different sources of information available that you can use, so that’s not usually a problem.

The subconscious choices you make about which source to rely on can have important implications for how you experience and function in the world. This is a clear example of the idea I explored earlier, that you can compose very different experiences from the same external situation depending on how you filter and select information from the perceptual stream that constantly engulfs you.

Information about verticality is available both from within your body (proprioceptive) and from outside (exteroceptive). The proprioceptive information includes signals from the vestibular system in your inner ear, the haptic (pressure) information you receive from your contact with the surface supporting you, and the patterns of supportive tension in your musculature. The exteroceptive information comes primarily from the visual images your eyes provide of the world around you.

At any given time you favor one of these types of information over the other, and many people tend to favor the same type most of the time. Your preferences for one type or the other can have a strong impact on your somatic organization in general and your experience of the ground in particular.

Relying heavily on vision for verticality information encourages rigidity and can be a significant factor in being stiff and poorly grounded. Vision defines verticality within the external frame of reference defined by horizontal and vertical lines in your environment — walls, doorways, window frames, and the like. This encourages you to orient to that external frame, toward subtly tensing and fixing your head in space. This tends to be accompanied by a narrow perceptual field and poor body awareness, both of which also encourage tension and contribute to poor balance and lack of grounding.

The available proprioceptive information, on the other hand, orients you to the felt direction of the field of gravity rather than to an external approximation of that field. Your vestibular system, in particular, acts like an inertial navigation system providing ongoing small corrections in response to your small shifts within the gravitational field. Like any inertial navigation system, it is most sensitive if it is lightly gimbaled. It works best when your head is balanced lightly on your spine and able to float in space — exactly the opposite of the fixation produced by the external orientation. This both encourages and is encouraged by a more relaxed and fluid overall balance on your skeleton.

The following exploration should let you experience the difference between these two orientations. Sit quietly for a few minutes with your eyes closed. Sense the supporting surface beneath you. Move to the front of your chair and tilt, just slightly, in different directions. Sense how that changes your pattern of contact with the chair, and sense the small automatic adjustments your body makes to maintain your balance. The purpose of this is to move you toward a more proprioceptively open place than you may normally inhabit, to begin the exploration.

Open your eyes, but don’t look sharply at anything in particular. Keeping a soft open focus, broaden your visual field by noticing things in your peripheral vision. This visual softening and broadening will also increase your auditory and proprioceptive awareness. The sounds in the room will become more present, along with your sense of your body and it’s place in the space of the room.

Slowly and easily shift your weight into your feet and stand up, keeping your soft open focus. Without focusing on anything in particular begin to move around the room, feeling the shift of weight as your support transfers from one foot to the other. Notice your upper torso, the feeling of openness in your chest, and allow your head to float at the top of your neck.

As that experience becomes clear, shift to a sharp visual focus. Pick out something in the room and look directly at it with a hard focus. As you do, notice how your torso tightens, how you fix your head more rigidly in space, how your sense of contact with the ground diminishes. This is what happens as you move back to a more sharply visual orientation.

Shift back and forth a few times, between the hard focus visual orientation and the softer more open proprioceptive orientation. Can you feel your torso relax and your head begin to float as your visual focus softens? Does the ground become more palpable as that happens? Can you feel the ground fade away and the rigidity return as you harden your focus again?

Can you clearly distinguish the two states now? Which feels more familiar, more like the way you normally are in the world? Which is the way you’d rather live? If those two answers are not the same, perhaps you would like to change the way you compose your experience of verticality.

It is common today to live more in the hard focus world, a result of the social conditioning we’re exposed to growing up. Having the experience of a different possibility can be relatively easy, as I hope you’ve just experienced. But embodying that possibility and maintaining it in life is more difficult. Difficult, but not impossible, if you’re willing to make it a priority. Awareness practices such as T’ai Chi and the Feldenkrais Method can help, though practice alone cannot guarantee success. Such practices can show you new possibilities, but you must go beyond the practice alone to integrate those possibilities into your life and your way of being. You must choose to change the way you bring the world into focus, and return to that change again and again until it become a familiar choice. I hope my suggestions here may help you do that.

If you’ve stayed with me through this post and tried the exploration outlined above, please leave a comment about how it worked for you. Were you able to experience the shifts I’ve suggested? What did you learn from the process? What other thoughts do you have on all this?

Thanks for exploring with me.

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2 thoughts on “Which way is up?”

  1. The question…which way is up….can not be answered universally …only individually….we do not know where we are relative to placement of our planet in space ….we do not know the beginning or end of space so we do not know which way is up……john

  2. It’s all a question of what frame of reference you use to ask the question. The frame that’s relevant here is the one provided by gravity, which provides an absolute answer for your position. I’m discussing different ways of approximating that answer in your life.. . . ralph

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