- Sensitivity 3: The body as mammal. Skin aa sentience. Cultivating equanimity.
- Sensitivity 2: Body as object. Skin structure, functions, and aging. The problem of objectification.
- Sensitivity 1: Introduction. The five senses. Channels of bodily experience. Skin intro.
An exploration of the body’s supportiveness, tuned to foster faith in its benevolence:
Moving Breath Discussion
Right now, take a deep breath. It’s easy, right? You decide to breathe, and the body moves to ventilate the lungs. It seems simple, but that’s only because the body does most of its work outside conscious awareness. Many muscles contract and relax in complex, coordinated patterns, which the body handles on its own.
All we do is decide to breathe, we don’t even need to do that. When we’re paying attention, the body continues breathing, acting—rightfully—as if the mind is superfluous to that process. We don’t need to think about every breath, and most of the time we pay little attention. We could live our whole lives without much awareness of the intricacies of breathing.
Yet familiarity with breath brings rewards. Focusing on it calms mind and body. Shifting mental attention from thinking to breathing promotes bodily relaxation. We can further settle by altering the flow of breath. When we slow and deepen it, when we move more in the belly, our mammalian organism relaxes and rejuvenates.
In this session of the Fidelity series, we explore some of breath’s anatomy. We focus on the belly, lower chest, and pelvis. We see how the diaphragm, abdominal musculature, internal organs, and pelvic floor work together to ventilate the lungs.
The diaphragm is an umbrella-shaped muscle. Its dome rises into the chest, and its base hugs the lower margin of the ribcage. The lungs rest on top of the diaphragm, and the heart sits there too. The liver and stomach rest below the diaphragm, which wraps around them.
When we inhale, the diaphragm muscle tightens and its dome flattens, moving down. The lungs are enlarged by this downward pull, and air naturally follows, filling them. When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, and its dome rises back into the chest. This compresses the lungs, so air flows out.
When it tightens and flattens, the diaphragm pushes down on the liver and stomach. When it relaxes, the liver and stomach push up from below, raising the height of the dome and compressing the lungs.
Every breath is a dance of movement. The diaphragm flattens and relaxes; the lungs expand and shrink; vital organs move down and up; air moves in and out. To practice tuning into all this activity that enables breathing, try the mindfulness guidelines at the end of this essay or listen to the recorded meditation.
It’s natural to wonder: why do the organs push the diaphragm into the chest during exhalation? If the body is supine, gravity suffices. The liver, stomach, intestines, and other viscera are heavy and naturally tend to spread out. When the diaphragm relaxes, the pressure they exert pushes it into the chest, so the lungs shrink. But if the body is upright, gravity works to draw the viscera out of the chest, so their passive movement works against exhalation rather than for it.
When upright, belly wall assistance is required. Its musculature consists of three layers. The outermost has vertically oriented fibers, while the inner layers are oriented horizontally and obliquely. This complexity enables the belly wall to assist all sorts of bodily activities, such as walking, running, dancing, bending, defecating, and…breathing.
As the diaphragm relaxes during exhalation, the belly musculature tightens. This flattens the abdominal wall, which puts pressure on the viscera. Because the spine and pelvis limit movement backward and down, the organs can move only one direction: up into the chest. This movement elevates the relaxing diaphragm, which forces air out of the lungs.
The cycle continues. During inhalation, the diaphragm tightens and flattens, the belly muscles relax, and the organs flow downward and forward. During exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes while the belly tightens, so the viscera rise into the chest. In this ongoing dance, diaphragm and belly move in coordinated, complementary ways.
The pelvic floor also plays a role in breathing. When the belly muscles during exhalation, the increased internal pressure pushes down on the muscles that support the rectum, bladder, and reproductive organs. Pelvic floor contraction counters this pressure.
Like the abdominal wall, pelvic musculature is complex. Bands of muscle connect the sitting bones, sacrum, and pubis. They surround the anus and urethra, forming part of the sphincters that hold back feces and urine. They wrap around the genitalia and participate copulation.
By tightening during exhalation, the pelvic floor prevents incontinence and inappropriate descent of the heavy organs it supports. During inhalation, the floor relaxes slightly as internal pressure eases. Thus, during breathing, the pelvic floor and abdomen contract and relax in unison.
Of course, pelvic musculature participates in many bodily functions, not just breathing. During childbirth and defecation, it relaxes as the abdomen tightens. The child is born and waste eliminated as interior pressure pushes downward, the pelvic floor softens, and the vagina or anal sphincter open. (These dynamics sometimes lead to dysfunction, especially in the female pelvis. Because it is broader and may be stretched by childbirth, it tends to weaken with age. The result may be stress incontinence or—in severe cases—uterine prolapse.)
With mindful attention, we can feel the pelvic floor tighten and soften as we exhale and inhale. The mindfulness guidelines below and the companion recording can help you tune into this subtle sensation.
What about the I CAN quality of Appreciation? That’s the theme of this Fidelity session, but it hasn’t shown up yet. Or maybe it has.
What is more worthy of appreciation than the body’s ability to breath on its own? It frees us to do so much else. What is easier to appreciate than a full breath of clean air? And who appreciates breath more than someone struggling to get enough of it? Even the very word, ‘appreciation’, depends on minds that are powered by breath. Appreciation pervades every breath, from our first to our last.
- Tune into your breathing by focusing attention on the lower chest and upper abdomen. Feel the movement of the rib margin and a belly, expanding as air moves in and settling back as air moves out. Follow this for a few cycles. If it helps, consciously deepen your breaths for a few cycles to make the movements more obvious.
- Draw your attention inward and see if you can detect movement behind the lower ribs and upper belly. The sensations tend to be subtle, but it’s possible to feel them. Mental imagery can help. As you picture the diaphragm moving down and up, imagine feeling its motion. Gradually, you might notice that less imagination is required, and the feelings seem more noticeable. Go slowly and limit judgment. This is a practice, and your capacity to feel inner changes will increase over time.
- Let your attention move down to the belly wall. Notice how it relaxes and bulges as you inhale, then tightens and moves back as you exhale. This will be most pronounced when you are relaxed. If you are exercising or tense, the belly will not expand as much during inhalation (to compensate, the chest wall expands more). It can feel quite soothing to actively soften the belly during inhalation.
- Feel into the space behind the belly wall. Once again, tune into the subtle interior sensations of movement. The stomach, liver, and intestines are shift quite a bit when the breath is deep and abdominal. With time, imagery, and mindfulness, you can begin to feel the bulky but fluid interior moving down and forward with inhalation, backward and up during exhalation.
- Lower you attention to the pelvic floor. We commonly feel rectum and bladder, so begin by assessing their fullness. Then shift attention to the anal and urethral sphincters. To help you tune in, actively tighten them during a couple of exhalations. Then withdraw the effort and see if you notice a slight natural tightening as you exhale. Feel a broader region of the pelvic floor, the entire space between sacrum and pubis, and between the sitting bones. Breath a little deeper and actively tighten the floor and sphincters with every exhalation. (This is a good practice for strengthening the pelvic muscles.) Release conscious control after a few cycles, and tune into the body’s natural rhythm, as the pelvic muscles participate in breathing.
- Take in the entire region of the body from lower chest to pelvic floor. Feel all of the above sensations in a more general, wholistic way. Air flows in as the diaphragm tightens and moves down, the abdomen and pelvis soften, and organs slide down and forward, and air flows in. Air flows out as abdominal and pelvic muscles tighten, diaphragm relaxes, while viscera move back and up. See if you can shift your awareness until your mind feels centered in this fluid, potent region of the body, at one with this movement of Life.
How many time have you or someone you know said, “Life is hard”?
We say it because it’s true. Not only does Life pose challenges, but we often find ourselves reacting poorly. We make mistakes, cause harm, and worsen already-bad situations. As years pass, we accumulate battle scars from tough times and poor decisions.
I think of the elephant seals who settle on Northern California beaches during mating season. The big bulls battle one another, sporting patchworks of fresh wounds and old scars. Though—like elephant seals—we sometimes suffer pain and injury in the romantic arena, we are battered in many other domains. Familial, occupational, financial, political, and medical struggles abound.
Our minds and bodies accumulate the residues of grief, fear, regret, resentment, stress, tension, and more. In the words of Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score. Those with heavy burdens of hardship and trauma experience compounding problems due to unhealthy coping strategies, premature aging, chronic pain or fatigue, and major illness. In disadvantaged communities, individual difficulties are amplified by the systemic stress of oppression, poverty, neighborhood blight, injustice, etc.
Within the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) tradition, the lungs are considered repositories of sorrow, disappointment, and grief. This view matches the common experience of feeling emotional pain in the chest, where romantic rejection and major bereavement land like heavy blows. The usual term for this is ‘heartache’, but in anatomical terms, it would make equal sense to call it ‘lung-ache’.
Around age four, I was hospitalized with pneumonia and spent weeks alone under an oxygen tent. Why did I develop lung infection? A Western medicine (WM) physician might credit my parents’ chain smoking, the frigid Minnesota winter, and the stress of my parents’ recent divorce.
To this list a TCM physician would add the grief a child feels when the family breaks apart, a sorrow that lands specifically in the chest. Remembering the oppressive sadness of my dad’s departure, it’s easy to believe it triggered my pneumonia. And I’m open to the idea that my lungs got sick (rather than, say, my stomach) because of a unique vulnerability to sorrow.
Whether or not sadness is especially hard on lungs, WM and TCM agree that lung tissue is vulnerable to environmental stress. It is easily damaged by particulate matter and noxious vapors, such as from secondhand smoke. Infectious agents can cause pneumonia, especially if immunity is depressed. And the entire body is imperiled when lungs inhale air with insufficient oxygen or dangerous gasses like carbon monoxide.
So lungs are vulnerable. Environmental stress damages them. Emotional stress imperils them by depressing immunity. And according to TCM, they are uniquely vulnerable to sorrow.
For people of good heart, vulnerability evokes Compassion, which is the second root of the I CAN system. The vulnerability of our lungs thus invites us to cultivate compassion for bodies and minds. We foster compassion for ours mind when we acknowledge that mistakes, loss, and grief accumulate in every lifetime. We foster compassion for our body by recognizing how easily it can be damaged by stress of all sorts, while forgiving and caring for it.
Not only do lungs inspire compassion, they may also benefit from it. Mindful Biology views the body as a sensitive and responsive animal, warm blooded and needing support. When we meet our bodies (in this case, our lungs) with compassion, we support and reassure them. Stress eases and tension melts.
The alternative to compassion for body and mind is our culture’s normative attitude. From an early age we learn to be critical of both. We learn to view bodies as flawed machines rather than sensitive beings. We compare them to imagined ideals and feel embarrassed or angry when they—inevitably—fall short. We learn to view our minds like computers that ought to perform perfectly but seldom do. Blaming ourselves for unavoidable shortcomings, we feel shame and self-contempt. Meanwhile, the culture’s win-at-any-cost mindset teaches us to push body and mind to deliver success no matter the toll. Noncompetitive, simple lifestyles are portrayed as slacking or sinful.
We have a choice. We can obey cultural norms and treat body and mind with contempt. Or we can cultivate self-compassion.
Surely it makes common sense to offer kindness to body and mind, but in case we remain skeptical, abundant research has demonstrated self-compassion’s positive effects. Compassion for the body helps us honor the sensitive organism that gives us Life and respect its need for rest and care. Compassion for the mind lets us off the hook for our missteps while allowing our authentic nature to express itself.
The Fidelity series aims to foster faith in the body and awareness of the body’s faithfulness to us. We grow more caring and admiring toward this organism that remains with us throughout Life. We feel more at home in our body, and in time we start to view it as a sensitive, supportive companion. We find it easier treat it kindly, with less criticism, fewer demands, healthier behaviors, and more affection. We grow more connected with Life and thus feel less alone. What could be wiser?
Last time we used the upper airways to cultivate friendly Interest, the first root of the I CAN system. In this session we’ll let the lungs guide us as we cultivate compassion, the second root.
The lungs serve to move oxygen from atmospheric air to bodily water. They also move carbon dioxide in the opposite direction. In simplest terms, three bodily characteristics make this possible:
- Airways and movements that ensure lungs contain fresh air.
- A profuse blood supply separated from air by a very thin membrane.
- Properties of blood that facilitate oxygen and carbon dioxide transport.
We looked at the upper airways in the last session, and we’ll look at the movement of breath next time. The properties of blood will be covered in a later class series. Today, we’ll explore how the airways continue into the lungs and bring atmospheric air very close to the bloodstream.
In the last session, we saw how the upper airways connect nostrils to lungs. Within the lungs, airways continue and form an inverted tree of ever-smaller channels. Just as the twigs of a tree are tiny compared to the big branches of the trunk, the smallest airways are nearly microscopic, while the main branches (bronchi) of the windpipe (trachea) are thick as fingers.
Recall from the last session how a special surface lines the nasal passages. A similar surface lines the lung’s airways. This respiratory epithelium secretes a sticky mucus that moistens incoming air and captures particulate matter. Its motile hairs, or cilia, transport debris-laden mucus to the mouth for swallowing. Highly vascular, the respiratory epithelium heats the airways to near body temperature. Delicate lung tissue thus receives air that has been warmed, humidified, and cleansed
The smallest airways end at tiny bubbles (alveoli) of lung tissue, smaller than a grain of salt. With thin membranes and copious blood supply, these minute chambers bring atmospheric air very close to bodily fluids, which enables gas exchange, the whole point of the lung’s existence.
There are millions of alveoli, and though each one is small, the combined area of their lining surfaces is about 1000 square feet. This vast expanse of thin membrane adjacent to a profuse blood supply enables us to get the oxygen we need to power our bodies, brains, and minds.
Because our large, delicate lung membrane is exposed to a ceaseless flow of atmospheric air, it connects us to the environment in a most intimate way. This intimacy sustains Life by providing oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. But it also leaves us vulnerable to air pollution and infection.
Let’s return to the TCM belief that lungs harbor sorrow, and use lung physiology as an analogy. Just as lungs are sensitive to the atmosphere, our chest region is sensitive to social cues, as discussed above. And just as lungs enable vital gas exchange but are vulnerable to toxins, our chest accumulates both loving support and social stress. And because—sooner or later—social stress fuels sorrow, the chest region accumulates grief, just as TCM physicians say.
The chest harbors our individual hurts but also those of our loved ones. And while we often ignore the effects, it also harbors the sorrow of struggling acquaintances, the discouragement of people living on sidewalks, the grief of war torn and impoverished nations, the dismay of animals losing habitat, the tragedy of ecological destruction, and the weariness of an over-stressed planet.
So much sadness accumulates in our chest, it’s important to know how to process it. Compassion is key, and meditation can help us cultivate it.
If aren’t familiar with the prior session’s Upper Airway Meditation, please review it before proceeding.
- Focus attention on the airflow at the nostrils. Concentrate on the slight, fluctuating breeze just within the nostril orifices and on the skin below. See if the incoming air feels slightly cooler, the outgoing air warmer. See if the texture of outgoing air feels soft (moist), compared to the fresh (dry) incoming air.
- Follow these sensations up and back into the nasal passageways, both high up by the roof of the nasal space and down low along the floor, above the palate.
- After a few breaths focused on the nasal passages, follow the sensations to the back of the throat, continuing to track the changes in temperature and texture, which may be slight.
- Follow the changes down the throat as far as you can. With practice, sensitivity increases until they can be felt all the way into the upper chest. But at first, you may lose touch with them in the mid-throat. That’s ok, just move on to the next step.
- Tune into the movements of the chest. Feel the ribcage expand and contract. It may do so obviously or slightly, depending on the pattern of breathing in this moment. Feel free to experiment, deliberately expanding the chest a little on inhalation, so you can catch hold of its movements. Then let the breath flow naturally while you simply observe.
- Now feel the interior of the chest. Though filled with the lungs, heart, and major blood vessels, the interior often feels open and spacious. See if you can map its shape: back to front, left to right, bottom to top. Don’t worry if the boundaries seem vague, or if the interior space feels larger than you expect. Just notice what you find without judging it.
- Now feel the emotional tone in the chest. Depending on your current emotions, the feelings may be uncomfortable and heavy or pleasant and buoyant. They me feel tight and small or large and spacious. Some people get a sense of color or even musical tone that varies with emotional state. Tune into your emotional sensations gently and kindly. If you’re in touch with a lot of sorrow, they may feel painful. If tuning into them begins to feel too intense, shift your attention to a more neutral region of the body, like the hands or feet. After a time, as you feel ready, gently return to the emotional sensations. Move back and forth as often as necessary.
- Now see if you can bring compassion to bear. Imagine holding your emotional sensations in your arms, like you’d hold a beloved baby or small animal. Cultivate or imagine a feeling of affection. Use your mature understanding to see the body’s pain and struggle in the context of your life history, ancestry, and culture. Remember that most of what happens in our lives is beyond our control. The pain is not as personal as we often think. We can meet it with more compassion and less identification. As you offer compassion to your chest and lung area, you might like to place your hands over this tender region. You can hold your dear body just as you imagined holding the beloved little one.
- If it feels helpful, bring a specific pain to mind. You could work with a personal, professional, societal, or global problem that feels distressing. Using the steps above, bring compassion to the situation and the pain it triggers. Hold both with tenderness, knowing that difficulties arise from historical antecedents. Remember that our bodies are sensitive, so it’s natural to feel discomfort in the face of difficulty, whether near or far from us in time and space. Remember that even if a person’s behavior looks greedy or cruel, it makes sense in that person’s mind. This doesn’t mean we accept greed and cruelty as inevitable, but we can recruit the potency of compassion as we prevent and heal the harm they cause.
- See if you can move between the spacious sensations, emotional discomfort, and compassionate responses until each can be experienced with relative ease. You might begin to feel all three at once, which can be quite soothing. Yes we feel pain, but we always feel more than pain. In every moment, spaciousness is present and compassion can be invited.
- The above steps can be modified. It can help sometimes to focus on just one or two. But if you choose to attend to discomfort, be sure to alternate focus so you also spend time attending to more neutral region. This will help you stay regulated while revealing inner spaciousness. We gradually develop a sense of faith in our own experience, knowing that neutral and expansive feelings are always available, even in our most painful moments.
Upper Airway Discussion
We are drawn to those who interest us. It is the seed of true relationship. It is also the nourishment. Intimate partnerships may start with fascinated, even obsessive interest. But the key to their longevity lies not in the intrigue of early days, but the affectionate interest of later years. When two people no longer feel fascinated by one another or—worse—feel bored, the partnership may persist, but it will feel unsatisfying. It may even feel cruel, as being ignored is one of our sharpest pains.
This ‘Fidelity’ series frames mind and body as partners in an intimate, lifelong relationship. I believe the body remains faithful to the mind throughout Life. Our bodies do their best to sustain our capacity to breathe, move, eat, perceive, connect, etc. Of course, it may fall short due to innate limits, developmental issues, illness, injury, or age. But it tries, always.
The mind is different. It gets distracted. It pursues tasks and thoughts to the near-exclusion of all else, including bodily needs. We may spend years using the body without feeling interested in it. Trying to optimize its appearance or abilities doesn’t count. Imagine how children feel when a parent pressures them (e.g., to perform in school, sports, etc), but takes little interest in their values, desires, and needs.
In this sense, the body is like a child. If we don’t listen to its needs, or treat it poorly, we demonstrate a lack of interest that promotes stress. If we neglect the body by eating poorly, working or exercising too aggressively, and skimping on rest and sleep, we discover the body is also like a parent and lets us know when we’ve gone astray. It pumps out stress hormones while accumulating tension, discomfort, and fatigue. These symptoms are so common, they almost feels normal. But they don’t feel healthy. How much better to avoid them by offering the body our friendly, caring interest.
Biological necessities like food and rest are only the starting point. During thirteen arduous years of graduate, medical, and surgical training, deep intuitions often whispered: “this isn’t the right path.” These were subtle but unmistakable bodily discomforts, vague feelings of unease and dread. Yet I paid little attention until my my body broke down. Then, of course, I was forced to respond. Although neck issues seemed to be the problem (they made performing surgery feel excruciating), much more was involved. It’s obvious to me now I wasn’t equipped for indoor work and even less for the pressure and rigor of surgery. I’d managed to find a fairly low-stress specialty, but even that proved too much. That intuitions I’d ignored were signals from my body, which was trying to tell me something important. It knew me better than I knew myself, and if I’d taken more interest in it, I’d have chosen a more fitting career.
Beyond the benefits in health and wise choices, taking interest in the body matters for a deeper reason. As mentioned in the first essay, the body is our nearest companion. According to many scientists, the body is precisely what we are. And even if some aspects of consciousness don’t depend on the body for its existence, as long as we’re alive they depends on it for much else. If we don’t take genuine, affectionate interest in our sensitive bodies, we’re sending bleak messages to our entire being. Like the child unseen, we move through the world in a dispirited or agitated way, disconnected from Life.
The remedy is Interest. This Fidelity topic series is using the respiratory system as a focus, and its upper regions work well for fostering interest. By bringing affectionate curiosity to bear on the subtle sensations of breath in the nostrils and nasal passages, we can build up our ability to meet our sensitive body with caring attention. It can be surprising to feel the effect. Intimacy with the body is that healing.
So how does this work in practice? To answer, we first need to review some airway anatomy and function. Most of us see much of the airway beyond the nostrils. We’re used to seeing human faces with two nasal entrances, but few of us pay much attention to them. Perhaps we’re embarrassed or polite, not wanting to glimpse the interior of others’ bodies. Or perhaps we simply see them less, given how they point downward and aren’t in direct view. Whatever the explanation, we often describe the size and shape of noses but almost never mention the shape or size of nostrils. Yet—as the portals through which air flows—they are surely more important.
So bear with me as I take us on a tour through them. Very soon after we pass the entrance, we encounter two features that let us know we’ve entered new terrain: 1. a stand of stiff hairs that help block the free entrance of insects and other large, light debris; 2. a transition from dry skin to mucous membrane, which is more vascular and moist.
We have the capacity to breathe through our mouths, but it’s healthier to breathe through the nose. The reasons are hinted by the features above. The nasal passageways protect the body by filtering, warming, and moistening the incoming air.
Let’s take a brief look at these protective functions. Filtering begins with nasal hairs, but it’s mainly the job of nasal membranes. They secrete a sticky layer of mucus that traps particles of dust, pollen, and other contaminants. Such debris can harm the delicate lung tissue by physical irritation. Most of the larger particles stick to mucous membrane secretions: a gooey layer that is slowly nudged toward the mouth by motile microscopic hairs protruding from membrane’s cells. These ‘cilia’ set the layer moving, like a conveyer belt. Trapped debris is thus deposited in mouth and swallowed, passing harmlessly into the stomach.
This conveyance of debris from inhaled air to the stomach’s acid bath protects lungs from physical irritants, but it also protects from infection. Bacteria, fungi, and viruses abound and can be carried by particulate matter, such as droplets sneezed or exhaled by a person with an infection. By trapping debris, the nose lessens the risk of lung infection. On the other hand, it increases the chance of upper airway disease. While nasal infections are less dangerous than pneumonia, they can be debilitating or progress to systemic illness, as Covid made all-too-obvious. The body strives to minimize this risk with a copious blood supply. The vascularity of the mucous membranes brings immune cells close to potential invaders, so they can mount a defense and—in most cases—stave off infection. Their efficiency is highlighted by the travails of people with immune compromise, who suffer high rates of infection from organisms the rest of us fight off with ease.
Bony convolutions (conchi) along the nasal side walls protrude inward and create a complex interior space. The left and right nasal passages are thus like tall, narrow, sculpted caverns. This geometry ensures that incoming air gets plenty of contact with mucous membranes and so improves the filtering efficiency. But it has a second, equally important benefit. It enables the nose to condition incoming air. Because nasal membranes are vascular and moist, they surround incoming air with a warm, wet blanket that heats and humidifies it.
Thanks to the nasal passageways, our delicate lungs receive air that is clean, close to body temperature, and saturated with moisture.
We’re now in position to use all this information in mindful exploration. We can feel the air flowing through the intricate nasal passageways, we can feel the difference between incoming and outgoing air. The former feels cool and dry, while the latter feels warm and moist. We can notice an alternation: air feels cool and fresh on inhalation; warm and soft on exhalation.
Discerning these sensations can be done any time, but they are easiest to focus upon during meditation. Because mindfulness of the breath is a bedrock practice, it’s worth spending some time improving the ability to feel the breath in real time. The guidelines below can help us explore our mammalian bodies as they breathe. The first four suggestions will serve to deepen any upper airway meditation. The last two can be added to the first sequentially in one session, or individually as the sole focus for an entire meditation.
- Tune into the movement of breath at the tip of the nose. Feel it flow over the skin below and the membranes just within the nostrils. Settle into the sensations of air moving outward and inward with every breath
- Sense the subtle temperature difference between outgoing and inflowing air. Usually, exhaled air feels slightly warmer than the air we inhale. Feel the continual cycling of this temperature sensation, warm to cool, cool to warm, and so on.
- Even more subtle is the difference in moisture. Most of the time, outgoing air has a higher water content. This wetness can be felt, often like a softness, or fullness in exhaled air. Compare it to inhaled air, which tends to feel a bit sharp, or fresh, in comparison.
- Finally, the most subtle difference between exhaled and incoming air is its cleanliness. Exhaled air is free of the particulate matter present in the environment, which enters our noses with every breath. Feeling this difference may require some imagination, but see if you can get the sense that your nasal passageways have filtered the air that flows into and out of your lungs. Offer a note of gratitude to the millions of nasal mucosal cells that secrete mucus to trap debris and then scoot it to the mouth to be safely swallowed.
- Move your focus of attention further back in the nasal passages. See if you can sense their interior geometry. Feel them as bodily caverns, tall and narrow, one on each side of the nasal septum. Feel the left and right passages individually. Which feels more open at this moment? Notice the sensations of flow, temperature, moisture, and cleanliness along the floor, flowing backward just above the palate. Feel them at the cavern’s roof, where you direct flow when you inhale the scent of a flower. As you continue, see if the relative openness of the left and right passages changes. The body is dynamic and responsive, and it alters itself over time to maintain health.
- Move your attention further back, and feel the sensations of breath at the very back of the nasal passages, which connects with the oral cavity and upper throat. Feel the changes in flow, temperature, moisture, and cleanliness at the back wall of this combined cavity. See if you can follow the sensations down deeper with every in-breath, as the air flows down the throat into the lower airways. See if you can detect the complementary sensations as air ascends out of the lungs, flows up the throat, then follows the nasal passageways and exits the nostrils.
I CAN Discussion
Between 2000 and 2006, after major upheavals, I found it hard to meditate without support. But I could manage with the use of recordings. I particularly liked the guidance of Belleruth Naparstek. Her soothing voice and trauma-informed programs helped me develop my mediation practice during a difficult time.
She often said something like, “your body is your closest companion”. I loved that! Chronically lonely, I suddenly had the sense—however slight—of never being alone. My body never leaves me.
To know the body as a companion can be aided by mindfulness, which guides us to feel our bodies. But back then, in that time of turmoil, my inner landscape felt harsh, thick with tension and discomfort. Feeling so much uproar, I found it hard to feel comfortable in my body-companion. What’s more, its spinal issues had ended my career, and it fell short of societal ideals for manly ruggedness. My body seemed too vulnerable and blemished to be trusted.
So I had some work to do before my body would truly help me feel less lonely.
As Mindful Biology took shape between 2010 and 2017, I gradually began emphasizing how it encourages friendly mind-body relationships. This was my growing edge, and to teach from a place of authentic progress, I needed to meet my own body with more affection. I formulated an acronym, I CAN, which stands for Interest, Compassion, Acceptance, and Nurture. These four ‘roots’ promote healthy relationships, whether between people or between mind and body. Using the I CAN roots improved my own mind-body relationship, and people taking my class said it helped them, too.
The I CAN system is outlined in a separate essay, and the idea of a relationship between mind and body is critiqued. In this ‘Fidelity’ series, we will be employing the I CAN roots to explore the respiratory system and breathing. A core practice of mindfulness entails connecting with our breath, and in this series we’ll be doing so with an emphasis on cultivating affection for the body.
The title is ‘Fidelity’ because we’ll be fostering faith in the body and recognition of the body’s faithfulness to our wellbeing. Breath is a fine focus for both. We can choose the pace and depth of breathing. We can even choose to stop breathing, for a time. But when we get distracted from the breath, as we inevitably do and must, the body takes over. Asleep or awake, it ensures the movement of air. Whether or not we admit as much, we trust our body to breath.
Yet the body also trusts us at times. It lets us take temporary control of breathing. It doesn’t allow the same for other critical functions, like heart function or digestion. But it seems to believe we can be trusted with partial control of breath, which allows us to grow intimate with this vital process. It allows us to use the breath to cultivate fidelity in the mind-body relationship.
I feel more faith in my body when contemplating how it keeps breathing even when I’m busy with other stuff. And I am more in touch with its faithfulness when noticing how it permits some control but steps in when needed, like a parent teaching a child to ride a bike.
We’ll be moving through the respiratory system from top to bottom, starting in the head, then dropping to the chest, then settling in the abdomen and pelvis. In the final session we’ll remain centered on the pelvic region and especially the spinal base, but we’ll also feel how energy derived from breath spreads through the whole body. Below is a brief preview:
In the head, we’ll use the upper airways as a focus for the Interest limb of the I CAN system. It’s fairly easy to feel detailed sensations as air flows from nostrils, through nasal passages to throat. It’s fairly easy to feel the sensations of the upper airways. We can use them to steady ourselves in meditation and quiet the yammer of thought.
In the chest, we’ll center on the lungs, those intricate systems of gas exchange central to Life. The lungs are marvels of intricacy but are also vulnerable. Toxic gases and particulates can easily damage them. On the emotional level, within Chinese Medicine they are known as repositories of grief. Given their vulnerability and the way they hold sorrow, the lungs deserve Compassion. And because of how much we feel in the chest area, it seems healthy to meet them with it.
In the abdomen and pelvis, we’ll look at the some of the muscles that participate in breathing, and we’ll feel the steady, soothing movement of the body with breath. We will invite Appreciation to arise, feeling gratitude for the way our body brings us into its confidence and allows control of breathing, and how it remains watchful and takes over when we grow tired or distracted.
Finally, we’ll focus on the spinal base. This is the root chakra of the yoga tradition, the seat of ‘Kundalini’ energy that rises—like a serpent—from the spinal base and enlivens us. We can use basic biology to understand how biochemical energy fuels Life, and we can tap into this powerful root to Nurture our our body and cultivate potency, meaning, and purpose.
A journey through the respiratory system is a great way to try out the I CAN system. In future classes we’ll return to it as we learn to Embrace our Bodies with the aid of Mindful Biology.
A look at how we relate to the body, focused on its different experiential qualities.
In college, a friend gave me a 45 single of Elvis Presley’s Burning Love. I played it obsessively for a time, but I hadn’t thought of it since. It came to mind a few days ago as I watched the movie, Elvis. It seems a good starting point for this essay about the fire element, because it highlights the relationship between Fire and Love.
In the first essay of this series, I listed physical concepts that line up with the ancient 4 element system. The latter’s earth, water, and air parallel the former’s solid, liquid, and gas, which are different states of matter. Fire, our topic for today, is most similar to the physical concept of energy.
The formula tells us matter and energy are interchangeable, or—equivalently—that matter is condensed energy. Energy thus undergirds all states of matter. Similarly, in the ancient system, fire plays a foundational role.
In our bodies, we can feel sensations we call ‘energy’ (or ‘Qi’, ‘prana’, etc). How closely these sensations relate to physical energy is unclear. But with a little time and attention, most of us can feel energetic vibrations in our interior. In the meditations that accompany this essay, you will be guided to spend some time with this inward energy. You’ll feel its potency, a reflection of its centrality. In at least a metaphorical sense, this parallels the potency of physical energy, giving rise as it does to the stuff we call matter.
Because it parallels phenomena we feel in our bodies, it’s worth looking at the energy in the heart of matter. This means looking at atoms, each of which consists of a nucleus surrounded by electrons. If an atom were the size of a football stadium, the nucleus—which contains 99.9% of the matter—would be the size of blueberry. The tiny, lightweight electrons around it would fill the volume of the stadium in a diffuse cloud (reflecting quantum mechanical effects). The atom gets its size from this electron cloud, while its mass is packed in a minuscule region at the center. And since that mass is (in effect) condensed energy, a huge accumulation of energy sits right in the middle of the spacious, vibrating electron cloud.
The interior of an atom is thus open and vibratory, but also packed with energy. If we return to our body, we can feel something similar: an aliveness that is spacious and vibrant, but also brimming and potent. The spacious fullness of bodily potency is not a concept; it’s an experience (check out the meditations if you want help feeling it).
The parallel between physics and subjective experience may be coincidental, but it is striking and useful. Tuning into our interior connects us with our body’s spacious, abundant aliveness. It can feel reassuring to know this mirrors a larger truth about reality. Bodily energy offers inner support that helps us meet the challenges of the outer world.
When we tune into the energy that fills our experience, we meet the entirety of our being. Bodily energy underpins the earth, water, and air elements. It fills the organism from toes to crown. In our direct, somatic experience, it is pervasive and omnipresent.
The biological energy that we feel must connect in some way to the physical energy in the body. When defined relative to biology, ‘energy’ means ‘the capacity to create change’. With a little poetic license, we could say it is the capacity for growth. And not just growth of our material form, but also growth of our compassion, contentment, and wisdom. Energy impels us adapt to challenges. It drives us to learn from them. Energy keeps us trying—again and again—despite pain, loss, trauma, and fear. And, over time, it helps us mature.
We can engage this energy to be even more effective, to grow more quickly and intentionally. That was the point of the first session of this series: inviting us to evolve toward a more skillful relationship with Life. When we tune into bodily energy, we find it easier to meet reality with a spirit of curiosity, tenderness, and care. We feel better able embrace Life as it actually is rather than as we wish it could be. We soften our feelings of isolation and nurture our sense of connection.
By growing in these ways, we resonate with the natural world, which operates by interdependence. We connect with Nature in our near, dear bodies, finding harmony—and musicality—in our lives.
It’s widely known that the brain’s right hemisphere is more musical than the verbal left hemisphere. And whereas the latter is analytical and temporal, the former is intuitive and spatial. Perhaps, when we feel into our body, we’re bringing the right hemisphere to the fore, so it’s no longer overshadowed by the left, which dominates our techno-mercantile culture. Honoring our spacious, vibrating aliveness seems much more the purview of the musical right hemisphere than its calculating opposite.
Building a better relationship with Life means diminishing our reliance on left hemispheric modes reductionism and cultivating the holism characteristic of the right. Softening our grip on language and logic, we move toward music and dance. Before long, we notice our individual, personal songs and dances weave seamlessly into a much larger work: the ballet of Life. We begin to notice how playful and creative Life can be.
Which brings us back to Elvis. Something playful and creative drove him to move and sing. We can call it energy, or the fire element, but we can also call it Love. Perhaps they are the same thing.
The differences between brain hemispheres are complex. Read this article for a more nuanced discussion.
Settle yourself into a comfortable meditation posture. It’s fine to do this meditation lying down (though if you find yourself falling asleep, you should sit up).
Begin by noticing the movement of air in and out of the nostrils. Follow this airflow up into your nose, to the area below and between the eyes. You can gently sniff, like you’re savoring an appealing flower, meal, or wine. Feel the air fill the upper part of your nose. Feel the way the flow of air feels powered, drawn in by the strength of your respiratory muscles. This is one aspect of Fire/energy underpinning the Air element.
Notice how thoughts are swirling, much like the swirl of air in your upper nasal passages. They have an airy, dynamic quality. They can blow hard like a strong wind—very energetic. Yet they also are rather thin and insubstantial. Take in this aspect of the Air element, it’s potency and insubstantiality. Briefly hold in mind the way the oxygen in your breath powers the metabolism of your body, giving you strength of muscles, organs, and mind.
Feel the chest and belly move with your breath. Feel below the ribcage, into the upper and lower abdominal areas. See if you can get a sense of the liquid-filled intestines getting massaged by this movement of the belly wall. There is a tidal flow of the Water element here. Notice the surging quality of it. Or, if you can’t find it easily in your sensation, use a little imagination to get the sense of this wet region of your body, flowing within. Feel into the heart and upper belly, where emotions often move. See if you can identify the surging quality of these feelings. The surge of liquid and emotions in your body reveals the Fire element that underlies the quality of Water in bodily experience.
Feel the mass of the pelvic bowl: pelvic rim, sacrum, pubic bone, and sitting bones. Feel the massive muscles that support it, including the thigh muscles, gluteus, and lower abdominal muscles. Tune into your pelvic floor, which is supported by a diaphragm-like muscle. All this muscle and bone lends stability and power, plus an earthy feel, to this region of the body. It’s power is a reflection of the Fire/energy in this area.
Now feel into the pelvic interior. Feel the space behind the pubic bone, in front of the sacrum, and above the pelvic floor. See if you can feel some warmth or very subtle vibration in this area. Use a little imagination if necessary. Gradually let the warm, vibratory qualities expand up into the lower belly and down into the groin and inner thighs. Invite it to spread further, into the back and buttocks, filling the thighs, and rising toward the ribcage from the belly. Encourage it to spread, gently and slowly, into the chest, shoulders, upper arms, and neck. Allow it to flow into the lower arms and legs, the feet, the hands. Let it rise, like warm air, into the neck, face, jaws, and scalp. Feel into the space of your brain, and feel the extra energy that blood flow brings to it (though only 3% or so of the body’s weight, the brain gets 20% of its blood flow).
To the extent you are able right now, let go of all the ideas about different body regions, and simply feel a spacious presence, a vibrating potency filling your body. This is the innate aliveness that is the birthright of all living beings. Gently let it present itself to you. There’s no need to strain toward it; let it come to you. Savor the joyous energy within.
When you are ready, consciously form a memory of this feeling of energetic aliveness. Keep it handy as you move through the rest of the day, so it can remind you of what’s available in your dear, amazing body.
We live in an ocean of Air. It surrounds us from birth to death, and everything that happens to us happens within it. The atmosphere is one of the layers of the Earth, just like the crust (lithosphere), mantle (asthenosphere and mesosphere), and core. As David Abrams has pointed out, we don’t live on the Earth; we live within it.
The atmosphere connects us in a profound way. It is shared, intimate, and vulnerable, as this session of the Entirety series emphasizes.
We are as dependent on air as fish are on water. Breathing is a constant reminder of our dependence, but it’s easy to take for granted. To bring the truth into focus, take a moment to hold your breath. Wait a few beats and feel the mounting air hunger. Notice the moment you give in to the body’s demands, and take your next breath. Air is so needed!
The gaseous mixture we call ‘air’ is needed and used by almost all Life on Earth. Even organisms in the sea depend on gases exchanged with the atmosphere above.
Air is composed of freely moving molecules. The majority are nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%), but small amounts of argon, carbon dioxide, water, and other gases are also present. As they are all in the gaseous state of matter, they interact with one another only minimally. They don’t form the bonds that make solids hard, and they don’t jostle against one another as molecules in liquid do. They zip this way and that, colliding briefly with one another, then zipping off in new directions.
Air is a birthright shared by all Life. Because its molecules are so mobile, the atmosphere soon mixes and spreads whatever enters it. Oxygen from photosynthetic organisms and carbon dioxide from animals diffuse across the earth. As a technological culture, we know the same holds true for airborne pollutants. During the era of open-air nuclear tests, radioactive isotopes spread widely. For example, much of the continental US received significant exposure from the Nevada test site (which was just one location among several used by weapons developers in the US and elsewhere). Air weaves us together, our fates intertwined.
Our association with air is deep and intimate. Because molecules are so small, and because in gaseous form they travel alone, air penetrates small spaces with ease. When we inhale, we draw atmospheric air deep into our bodies, where it meets the mucous membrane surrounding the little air sacs called alveoli. In those tiny spaces, about the size of a grain of salt, oxygen molecules zip around, collide with the membrane, and are absorbed into the bloodstream. Carbon dioxide moves the opposite direction and is exhaled. This gas exchange keeps us alive.
Air reaches our inmost depths. And not just our depths, but the depths of innumerable organisms around the world. For instance, it penetrates the leaves of plants, entering through stomata, tiny openings controlled by cells that function like lips, separating and pursing closed according to moment-by-moment needs. Once inside the leaf, carbon dioxide is absorbed by plant cells and reaches their chloroplasts, tiny descendants of bacteria that use sunlight to combine it with water and make carbohydrates. During this living miracle we call photosynthesis, oxygen is released as a waste gas.
The intimacy of air grows even more clear when lovers savor each others’ aroma. Molecules from our bodies give us our characteristic scent. When we inhale the scent of those we adore, we are—in a material as well as emotional sense—breathing them in. What could be more intimate?
We could use the shared, intimate atmosphere to feel more connected with one another and Life on Earth. We could use it to soften our sense of isolation. But first, we need to address one additional atmospheric truth: vulnerability.
There’s a scene in the movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, where Al Gore highlights the thinness of the air layer that surrounds our planet. Holding up a billiard ball, he says if we shrunk the earth to that size, its atmosphere would be like a layer of varnish. This thinness looks obvious from low orbit photographs, the air a sliver above the vast, curving planet, soon giving way to the vacuum of space. Because of its thin, diaphanous character, the atmosphere is vulnerable.
Humans depend on the atmosphere for oxygen. Our entire population would die in minutes if it disappeared. We also depend on the atmosphere for protection from ultraviolet radiation. And we depend on it for a livable climate. Like the atmosphere we rely on, we are vulnerable.
In the four element system, air is the element that embodies vulnerability. This is true emotionally as well as materially. In Chinese Medicine, sorrow affects the lungs. Within that system, the organs with which we breathe are repositories for grief, disappointment, and loss. In day-to-day experience we know the airiness of feelings, as when gales of emotion blow. Our susceptibility to emotional pain is one of the main reasons we feel vulnerable.
Air’s association with emotional vulnerability goes beyond our individual lives and bodies. Just as we share the world’s atmosphere, we share its pain. We often ignore this pain, but it affects us. Closer to home—and harder to ignore—is the vulnerability we feel when intimate with others.
So how do we work with this vulnerability inherent in the Air Element? We can’t help but let air connect us materially, but we have a choice emotionally. We can open our hearts or close them. It is vulnerability that tempts us to close. After all, there are people out there who don’t believe in fairness, truth, or kindness. There are those who abuse, torture, and murder others. Isn’t vulnerability a mistake?
That’s one perspective. It’s similar to believing the best answer to school shootings is ‘hardening’ campuses with fences, metal detectors, locked doors, police patrols, and armed teachers. Those who advocate fortification and aggression as a primary or sole response see vulnerability as a problem. Although I’m disturbed by this mindset, it makes a certain kind of sense.
When a society gets ill enough, fear of vulnerability is a common symptom. But there’s a long tradition of spiritual leaders countering society’s ills with peaceful vulnerability rather than fortification and aggression. Christ knowingly risked torture and execution. Ghandi confronted the British Empire and inspired his followers to peacefully endure a police attack, even while he was imprisoned. (A reporter wrote at the time, “Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows.”) Martin Luther King, Jr., led peaceful activists on dangerous marches. The courage of vulnerable leaders inspires us long after brutal actors have been repudiated.
There’s a mental parallel to nonviolent responses. Our lives confront us with challenges that range from minor frustrations to staggering setbacks, from vague discomforts to searing agonies. These sufferings trigger feelings of sorrow, fear, and anger, which spur the mind toward unpleasant memories, anxious terrors, and harsh judgments, which whip up more emotional chaos, and so on. The good news is, we don’t have to whirl in this vicious spiral. With mindfulness, we step back from storms of feeling and thought. We find ease in the midst of chaos.
We could say mindfulness helps us meet outer challenges and inner storms non-violently. Rather than battling with reality, we observe outward difficulties and inner turmoil with a measure of compassion and detachment. Less lost in the storm, we remain clear enough to respond wisely. This takes practice, but it’s doable. Looking at our internal uproar as weather helps. Just as we don’t take hurricanes personally, we can view distressing circumstances, thoughts, and feelings as if they’re simply happening, rather than happening to ‘me’. We can watch them come and go while—sometimes—learning from them.
As I see things, the air element is most like thought, with its rapid shifts and frequently disturbing cycles. We can find compass in the midst of thought’s winds by contacting the slower moving water and earth elements. The body’s powerful flow can remind us we have resources in the midst of challenge. And while our watery feelings can be difficult in their own right, they carry us toward what really matters. Meanwhile, in a complementary way, thought can clarify emotional chaos so deeper values come to light. And through it all, the earthy body—rooted and solid—maintains a center in the midst of storms.
To be mammalian and human is to live with the air element, in its intimacy, collectivity, and vulnerability. It is to share sorrow with the world, feeling the raw tenderness that entails. With mindfulness, we can meet the challenges of airiness, especially when we tap into other elements and deeper capacities. By welcoming the air element in our lives, we embrace rather than shrink from our predicament. When we do, we claim our connection with our fellow organisms on earth. We immerse ourselves in Life, including our own dear bodies. We become wholly alive—windswept, vibrant, and awed.
Take a moment to settle yourself. Find a comfortable position, and maintain a balance between effort and ease. This is your time to settle deeply into life, into breath.
Notice your breath, ceaseless and autonomous. Honor the necessary drawing of air in and release of air out. Feel the breath moving the body to stay alive, to thrive. Direct attention to airflow near the nostrils. Air flowing over the the skin between the upper lip and nose. Air flowing over the mucous membranes inside the nose. Be a curious, affectionate observer of this body's breath. See if you can track temperature differences. The outgoing air is generally warmer than that coming in. See if you notice changes in texture. The incoming air is often cooler and fresher than the outgoing, which is warm and soft.
Follow the breath moment by moment, connecting you with the air so necessary for life. The air that spreads over the earth, connecting all that lives.
The air coming in is rich in oxygen, which was once released from green plants on land, or photosynthetic plankton in the ocean. The leaves of plants open their substance to the flow of air, which penetrates deep within their tissues. It penetrates the bodies of plants just as it penetrates your body. Honor how air is shared, how the carbon dioxide in your exhalations is necessary for plants, how the oxygen from plants is necessary for you.
This atmosphere is shared in this intimate exchange with many life forms, bringing in one gas, releasing another, around and around. How many organisms have used the oxygen in this breath right now? For millions of years, this very oxygen has sustained animal Life.
In intimacy we share this atmosphere. In intimacy we share the vulnerability of living. We, as animals, dependent on the movement of lungs. If it feels safe, pause on your breathing briefly. Feel the hunger for air rising in your body. Then lovingly, gratefully resume the cycle of breath. Feel its necessity.
There is unity in this atmosphere that ties all Life together. Feel the beauty of it, the whole planet breathing, your whole body breathing. Air shared, intimate, vulnerable, lovely, and alive.
Take a moment to savor the breathing of air as an ongoing gift. Remember you are a living mammal that—like all mammals—breathes, feels, and cares. Take a moment to claim your place in the atmosphere, your birthright.
Now, as you prepare to resume your ordinary life in the world, gradually quicken the breath, wiggle the body, and sharpen the mind. Set an intention to get up and move forward, feeling grateful your body, your breath, and the atmosphere that sustains.
Water Contemplation Essay
Water is the juice of Life. We drink volumes of it and release equal amounts in urine, breath, perspiration, and feces. Watery blood circulates through our bodies moment-by-moment, crucial to Life. And we’ve all heard the fact that water comprises 50-60% of our bodies.
Mammalian fetuses float in a warm bath of salt water, courtesy of the mother’s reproductive system. Earlier, conception depended on genital fluids that provided lubrication for intromission and helped sperm cells swim toward the egg. We are born of water.
Although biologists don’t know exactly how living organisms got started, there is no doubt they began somewhere wet. And for a very long time, they remained there. The evolution of terrestrial creatures like ourselves required billions of years of adaptation in marine environments. Watery environments were the workshops where evolution began creating complex and varied organisms.
Though we live on land, internally we are just as water-bound as the first creatures. Think of the water that moves through you. Each day you ingest liters in drinks and foods. Each day liters leave you via urethra, airways, sweat glands, and rectum. Pumped by your heart and carried by your vasculature, your liquid blood is the river on which your Life flows. Water unites our bodies with clouds, rain, streams, springs, lakes, and oceans. It connects us to all that lives and the planet on which all grows.
As we honor these facts, it helps to consider why water plays such a central role. As is well known, its chemical formula is HO, meaning two hydrogen atoms attach to a single oxygen atom. The key feature is asymmetry. The hydrogens don’t attach at opposite poles of the much larger oxygen, but are angled toward one another. This gives the molecule electrical polarity, with the oxygen side negatively charged and the hydrogen side positive.
Polarity makes water an excellent solvent for salts. We’re familiar with NaCl, or table salt, but there are many others, and Life depends on them. Salts consist of positive and negative ions which, when dry, are held together by the powerful attraction between opposite electric charges. In dry table salt, positive sodium (Na) ions cling tightly to negative chloride (Cl) ions, which is why salt remains hard and crystalline. But when it gets wet? Water’s polarity coaxes the ions apart, until they go their separate ways in solution.
Let’s look at the sodium ion. It is one of two major players in nerve conduction (the other is potassium). Every time a nerve cell generates a propagating signal, a pulse of sodium enters the cell’s interior. If not for water’s ability to dissolve salt, nerve signaling would be impossible.
A similar story could be told for countless other vital processes, but consider this: water’s special properties are—right now—enabling your nervous system to understand this text. As we think about water, in a real sense it is water that does the thinking. At 75%, the brain’s water content is higher than the rest of the body’s. It’s only a bit of a stretch to say water is typing these lines, and water is reading them.
As a former ophthalmologist, I should point out another relevant fact. The eyeballs are filled with water. The light patterns we call ‘text’ pass through an ocular sea on their way to the retina, where interpretation begins—in water—prior to transmission to the brain.
So what do we feel when we attend to the water element in the body? We should each investigate this question for ourselves, but often we feel flow, we feel softness, and we feel power.
As a liquid, water flows. This is obvious. We see it flowing in creeks and from faucets. We can feel it flow as we swallow and pee. We can feel the pulse of flow in our arteries and heart. These fluid dynamics are tangible and physical.
In a less obvious but still palpable way, the water element is felt in the flow of Life energy (’Qi’ in Chinese Medicine and ‘prana’ in Ayurveda). Life energy is felt in the body as subtle vibration and aliveness. Skeptics insist it can’t be real because it hasn’t been detected with physical instruments. But neither has love been so detected, and even the most dogmatic skeptic would pause before claiming it’s unreal. Life energy is—at a minimum—a felt, subjective phenomenon. It’s as real as love and just as important to well being. When it flows smoothly, we feel vital and whole.
Its flow connects with the flow of emotions. According to Chinese Medicine, when we obstruct emotion, we obstruct the flow of Qi. If obstruction becomes habitual, illness follows. But if we choose, we can open ourselves to emotion and mindfully ride its waves. We can feel its potency and—simultaneously—find space around it. We can allow emotions to shake us and yet remain still, benefiting from their potency without getting lost in their passion.
Yesterday my sixteen-year-old dog trotted up while I was meditating. I looked down and saw her loving face but also her frailty and unsteadiness. In a rush, I felt the sting of knowing she won’t be with me much longer. I could have blocked those feelings and continued meditating quietly. But I let them flow. Tears streamed from my eyes and sobs shook my body. I felt wracking pain, yes, but also sweetness, gratitude, and a strange, soft peacefulness. It felt healthy to admit my dependence on this ten pound mammal, with her sweet disposition and mismatched ears. Better, I believe, to embrace grief than to suppress it, to let love’s currents move me rather than force myself to ‘be a rock’.
Yet there is a rock to cling to: the earthy body. It holds steady while the water flows. By feeling into our skeleton’s solidity and the heaviness of our form, we can remain rooted in Life no matter the surges, no matter ebbs and flows of living. By feeling into my own gravity, the grief I felt yesterday grew manageable. I could allow it without being swept away by it.
The more we open to the water element, the more we feel its softness. As it says in the Tao Te Ching, “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water.” As moist creatures, we embody the softness of water. We are easily bruised. Or think of the soft, loving intimacy of mother nursing infant, her breast providing a watery secretion of nutrients. To be soft can feel frightening but much of Life’s beauty depends on it.
And the important paradox is this: though water is soft, it is powerful. The Tao Te Ching continues, “Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.” We feel this power when we work creatively or take a stand. We feel it when we comfort others or cook a meal. The power of water sculpted miles of ancient rock into the Grand Canyon. Water is art—and love—in motion.
To be watery is to feel playful and determined, sensitive and potent. As we open to the water within, we embrace our authentic selves, honor our softness, and reclaim our power.
Mindful Biology is about experience. Thinking about biology can stimulate awe, but to heal from the confusion of modern civilization, we must immerse ourselves in it the way our ancestors lived immersed in nature. To that end, the meditations on this site aim to help us feel into our direct, immediate experience of biological Life.
The following meditation is inspired by water. It will be helpful though not essential to read the companion essay or watch the accompanying video, both of which provide a conceptual framing.
Begin in a comfortable, attentive posture. It’s ok to lie down if you can stay awake. But you can sit, stand, walk, or (one of my favorites) swim while meditating. You can do anything that doesn’t require so much mental focus that feeling into your body would be too distracting.
Invite the body to maintain a balance between alertness and ease. eel the moving, the flowing of the body, as it breathes. Feel the thrum of liquids, of the water element within. The body is breathing, with movements in chest, belly, shoulders. The body is vibrating, subtly, as blood flows and the processes of Life move, ceaselessly. Alternative attending to the flow of breath and the vibrations within. Notice the liquid quality in both these sensations. The liquid movement of the muscles moving the chest wall and diaphragm as we breathe. Creating the tidal flow of the breath, ebbing with each exhalation, rising with each inhalation. Notice the liquid feel of your body’s interior. How there is a watery shifting in the belly with breath, how there is a pulsing with the warmth of blood flow.
Alternate attention from the breath: flowing, soft, and powerful; to the interior: flowing, soft, powerful. Flowing in all regions and all scales.
Feel moisture in the mouth, this cavern lined by tongue, teeth, gums, palate, cheek, and throat. (If your mouth is dry, consider pausing to get a sip of water to help you experience wetness.) Investigate the sensations that tell you there is liquid here. You might notice the liquid has volume, it lubricates, it moves. Tune into the surface of the tongue, then its tip. Use the tongue to feel the gums and the teeth. Feel the wetness in this dark cavern, the expanse of the inner space, this ancient portal of eating and vocalizing.
Feel the liquid saliva the mouth secretes. Then swallow a bit of it. Notice the muscles coordinating: tongue moving up and back; throat muscles, constricting and rolling down. Sense or imagine the roll of muscles continuing downward through the esophagus, from throat to the stomach. With sensitive attention, you can feel a muscular response in your chest as esophageal muscles take over the swallowing action. This is peristalsis, a coordinated muscle movement that conveys the liquid to its destination in your stomach. Pause to consider the way the body performs this sophisticated action with no need for conscious control. True, you initiated this particular swallow, but your body handled its execution. Plus, saliva is swallowed unconsciously many times a day.
The esophagus passes through the chest behind the heart and lungs. So around it is all the blood that flows from your limbs, head, and torso into the heart, and from the heart through the lungs and back to the heart, to be pumped back out to the rest of the body. That’s a lot of flow, right there, right now, in your chest. Feel the warmth and fullness of your ribcage’s interior. Notice how alive the interior feels.
The esophagus empties into the stomach, inside the belly along with the intestines and colon. Together, they continue the channel that began in the mouth and ends at the anus, flowing through this warm living body. Feel the bulk of the liquid-filled organs in the abdomen. Feel the fullness between belly wall and back. Can you sense any gurgling?
Feel or imagine the pouch of the stomach, filled with its juicing, squeezing and stirring its contents. Feel or imagine your intestines, coils upon coils, secreting digestive juices, extracting nutrients, and conveying its river of Life onward, toward the colon. Feel or imagine your colon and its warm, wet bath of little life forms, the bacteria that help us. They ferment, and protect. Toward its rectal end, the colon draws water out from the waste. Feel all this life in the belly, between front and back, between left and right. Feel your interior, liquid and alive, warm and full, vibrating and flowing.
Now feel into the rectal area. Assess the relative distention or emptiness. Has fecal matter accumulated to where it’s obvious? Or is the sensation more of readiness, of slow accumulation? The water content of feces varies, but is typically around 75%. Here is water about to return from your body and return to the body of the Earth. Recall that feces is rich in bacteria, billions of minute cells, each with its own living processes and histories. Life and water are always interwoven, but the weave is palpable and intimate when we feel into the rectum with its water and cells.
Now sense a little forward, into the bladder. It stores water and salts and waste chemicals filtered from the blood. Feel its presence in this area near the genitals. Is there a sense of distention, of liquid inside? Or is the feeling one of quiescence, of receptive collection as urine drips in from the kidneys above. When the bladder empties, the water returns to the environment, flows into waterways, reaches the ocean. Your water rises into the atmosphere and falls again as rain. Some of it enters the bodies of your fellow beings here on Earth, just as it came to you after flowing through others. Feel.
Finally, hold in mind the way nerve signaling depends on water’s special properties (see the Relating to Water essay). Your conscious experience arises in a watery brain. Water is enabling you to experience these watery sensations, of mouth, interior, rectum, bladder.
Water is enabling your thoughts and emotions, those phenomena that seem so central to your identity. Notice the flowing quality of thoughts as one arises, then surges into the next. Notice thoughts coming and going in a ‘stream’ of consciousness.
Now let go and just feel the flow, softness, and power of the water element as the moments pass. Notice that you don’t determine the shape of the currents, but you can follow them. And as you do, notice the effect. Do you feel more potent, sensitive, and alive?
Honor all this wetness, this water element, in the body. Honor your participation in this cycling of water on earth. Savor your connection to water, without and within.
As you prepare to stop meditating, begin to quicken the flow of breath. Breathe a little faster and deeper. Wiggle your fingers and toes. Turn to whatever is next feeling preparing to return to whatever's next feeling refreshed, moistened, and alive. Fully alert.
Reality meets us most obviously in its earthiness. We live in a subjective sea of sensation, emotion, and cognition, but the solidity of things seems more real than that. The earth under my feet. The substance of my thighs. Your hand holding mine. All these feel tangible and—at least temporarily—dependable.
The ‘earth’ element refers to this feature of reality, the way it feels solid and reliable. The material stuff of the world seems more ‘real’ than our interior, subjective flow. Although the latter is the only part of reality we contact directly, the former seems more stable and—unlike subjective experience—can be shared and agreed upon with others. The reliability of solid stuff has served civilization well, enabling us to develop science and technology.
In our bodies, solidity is most evident in the skeleton, and to explore the earth element we’ll focus on our bones. Made as they are of calcium crystals, they are kin to limestone and the hard shells of sea creatures, from which—over eons—limestone forms.
But the skeleton isn’t simply a crystal, it’s also alive, which means it grows over short time frames and evolves over long ones. In the course of a human life, our bones begin as soft, rapidly growing forms, flexible like new shoots. Throughout life, different cell types work together, with some cells creating bone structure, others breaking it down, and yet others ensuring ongoing skeletal health. Bone matures and hardens in adolescence, and after that it remains durable and resilient for much of adult life. But as living mammalian tissue, it accumulates marks of age over time. Late in life, bones lose density and may grow brittle. Arthritic conditions grow more common. Much of the frailty of advanced age comes from skeletal changes which, although limiting, are natural consequences of living.
Bones are long-lasting things, and skeletons record evolutionary changes over geological time. In a thousand years, only my teeth and bones will remain, if any part of this body is left at all. Yet those hard bits will say a lot about me. In them will be evidence of neck arthritis that reflect injuries and occupational stresses, foot distortions due to ill-fitting footwear, and two healed fractures in my right arm. If a future anthropologist examines my bony remains, she’ll learn something of my lifestyle. A skeleton is a history.
Humanity learned about evolution by examining the fossil record, which—first and foremost—is a record of skeletons. We can trace our evolutionary path from fishlike skeletons, through the frames of low-slung amphibious creatures, through faster moving quadrupeds, and thence to early primates with their forward-facing eyes and dextrous forepaws. Skeletal evolution continued with the dawn of the ape family and the emergence of its hominid members, who share large cranial vaults.
The skeleton reveals our long kinship with Life on earth and the planet itself. By feeling its solid and rooted aliveness, we know we belong here, in our earthly biosphere.
To feel the earthiness of the body is to feel substantial, formidable, and consequential. It’s a necessary counterweight to the surge of emotions and the winds of thought. It’s reassuring to feel strength in our legs, fullness in belly and pelvis, shelter in ribcage and skull. The earth element, abundant in the body, roots us on the planet and in our lives.
Is it just me, or do others also need reminders of their substantiality? Much of the time I feel flighty, turbulent, and untethered, yet I am stabilized by the heft of my muscles, organs, and bones. The stuff of my body proves I’m not just a swirl of feelings and imaginings. I am a tangible piece of the cosmos.
The mind is a flighty thing, and the body beckons it to earth. It’s salutary to heed that call. It’s healthy to remember we are material and biological, even if we may be more than that. The mind seems mysterious and ‘spiritual’, more free and magical than matter, and perhaps in some ways it is. But it depends on the fleshy brain to exist in its current form, so in that sense—at least—it’s a material phenomenon.
Some spiritual traditions view material embodiment as a gross, unfortunate condition. But as moderns, we needn’t see it that way. Thanks to scientific technologies, we understand biological matter in ways the ancients never could. We know much more about the body’s complexity and subtlety. We see beyond its large-scale features, beyond its meat, mucus, and decay. Cells communicate through vast and intricate webs of chemical, electrical, and mechanical signals. In the depths of bio-matter, the thrum of quantum mechanical activity defies comprehension. And across all scales there is resilience and generativity.
To be biological is to bring a planet to Life, wield the power of stars, and weave reality into being. It is creative and necessary, like love.
This meditation will highlight the solidity, rootedness, and aliveness of bodily substance, in particular of flesh and bone.
Begin in a comfortable posture that strikes a balance between rigidity and slouching. Aim for noble, attentive ease. Tune into the breath as you experience it in the middle upper chest, a hands width or so below the notch in the breastbone below the throat.
Feel the gentle rise and fall of the breastbone with every inhalation and exhalation. Depending on the breathing pattern, this movement might be obvious or very subtle. Either way, tune into it, attend to it, and investigate. Feel any emotion active in the area. Is there a sense of tenderness, vulnerability, fear, or sorrow? If so, meet it kindly, as you would a child or animal who needed support.
Bring a hand to this region, and press your fingers gently into the breastbone. Feel its solidity. You may notice areas tender to the touch, but also notice the firmness of the bone. There is protection here. This region of the breastbone is broad and protective. The body, in its biological wisdom, has evolved to shield the vulnerable interior. For people who are strongly sensitive or empathic, it can be helpful to get in touch with this protective aspect of the body. As it is vulnerable, so too it is tough. Feel the courage of this solidity that holds its position regardless of fear, sorrow, and pain. You are this courage as much as you are the tenderness that feels the world.
The ribcage, like the entire skeleton, evolved over hundreds of millions of years. The earliest complex animals arose 500 million years ago. Those old ones were wormlike sea creatures with digestive tubes running down the middle and a simple linear nervous system. Early fish evolved from them, elaborating skeletons moved by powerful muscle groups, which allowed swifter, more precise movement. Millions of years later, our ancestors found themselves in environments where spending time on land improved species survival, which led to limb development. The ribcage was recruited to help draw air into newly evolved lungs. From there, the animals grew increasingly adept at moving through terrestrial environments. In our lineage, dextrous hands developed that enabled arboreal lifestyles, which set the stage for bipedal locomotion. Once upright, our apelike ancestors began using tools, which—along with complex social groups—gave advantages to those with larger skulls that held larger brains. The human lineage was thus born.
All of this history is in our skeleton: the bones moved by muscle, the ribcage holding lungs, the dextrous hands, the large skull. Feel this ancient record of life that is your bony structure. Your powerful legs, your upright spine, your protective ribcage, the clever hands, the spacious skull. Eons of evolution are recorded right here in this body that is home to mind and all experience. Feel that remarkable fact. Is it too much to call it a miracle?
And notice this: within all this bone and flesh, there is a pervasive feeling of Life. Without making any effort to describe what you feel, notice every sensation in the bone, joints, muscle, and organs that informs you of your own aliveness. Common ones are warmth, fullness, tingling, vibration, movement, pleasure, pain, and presence. Feel the Life within this earthy and earthly body, this organism that’s made from the earth, depends on the earth, and is part of the earth.
As you conclude this exploration of the body’s earth element, take in—all at once—the solidity, rootedness, and aliveness of your frame. Since you were born it has been giving you shape, movement, and breath. Offer it a note of admiration and gratitude.
Then increase the pace of your breathing for a moment and prepare to tune into whatever comes next.
The ‘Entirety’ series is ‘entire’ in two senses.
First, it summarizes key facets of the entire Mindful Biology program. For those who’ve been exploring with me the past few years, this will be a review. For those just starting, it’s a preview of the upcoming 3-year cycle. I’ll offer a brief snapshot of that cycle toward then end of this essay.
Second, it refers to the entirety of our lived experience, to our reality as a whole. Not that a single essay or class could cover everything, or even much of anything, but we can investigate reality and improve our relationship with it.
Humans are relational creatures. Although our individual cognitive capacities exceed those of other animals, it’s our ability to communicate and cooperate with one another—to relate—that makes us such a successful species. We are as accustomed to relationship as flying animals are to air. In other words, we live and breathe it.
We relate constantly, even with inanimate objects and—in many cases—unilaterally. We develop a sense of relationship so promiscuously, it’s not an exaggeration to say we relate with everything. So while it’s obvious we build relationships with people and animals, we also build them with plants, neighborhoods, organizations, tools, and so on.
Look around you. Choose a feature of your environment. Notice its location, which you can say is in relationship to yours. Notice how you feel about it, whether you find it attractive, distasteful, or uninteresting. Even if the object scarcely deserves attention, you’ll notice some sort of reaction, which means you relate to it emotionally. If you’re at home, you likely can tell a story about this feature you’ve chosen, which adds richness to the relationship.
In these ways and many others, we build a sense of relationship with everything, though seldom consciously. As a consequence, we meet reality-as-whole relationally. Depending on the quality of our relationship with reality, we may feel supported and valuable or endangered and insignificant.
Since early childhood, I’ve been relating to Life in a way that anticipated Mindful Biology but did little to blunt my lifelong sense of danger and insignificance. Then, in 2000, visionary experiences temporarily changed all that. Prior to the visions my world had been falling apart, but afterward it appeared beautiful and special despite no improvement in my circumstances. I went from believing myself alone in an uncaring cosmos to feeling supported and loved as part of a vast intelligence that was the universe itself. The radiant sense of meaning lasted for months but then gradually waned. I’ve been working to rediscover it ever since, and in recent years that effort has begun to bear fruit.
Oddly, the beliefs that took hold after the visions no longer seem important. Although I suspect there really is a vast intelligence that pervades the cosmos, my scientific bent makes me circumspect. I’m no longer convinced my visions count as reliable information about the ultimate nature of the universe. But there’s one fact of which I’m absolutely sure: while they were active and for a long time afterward, I felt a loving, beautiful relationship with…something.
Lately, I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to identify or describe that something, and it might simply be Life itself. All that matters is I’ve found ways to feel safe and valued in the world, independent of what others think about me, the state of my body, my material circumstances, or anything else.
Because we are so innately and fundamentally relational, our quality of life depends not on cognitive beliefs, but on felt relationships. A loving relationship with Life makes an enormous difference, but how it’s conceptualized matters little. Maybe the cosmos is conscious from quark to quasar. Maybe it’s as insensitive as sand. Maybe there’s a loving deity who watches over us. Maybe belief in God derives from infantile memories of parental care. But whatever the ‘truth’, if I’m in loving relationship with reality as I experience it, I’m happy. If not, I risk loneliness and existential despair.
Atheists often argue that notions of a loving intelligence larger than the self are mere memories. The little baby was utterly dependent on a huge, loving being, and now the adult imagines a huge, loving being in the sky. By this view, belief in a higher power is nothing more than refusal to face the hard facts of grownup life.
I used to find this argument compelling, and early on I could only point to the power of my experiences in defense: surely they were more than an infant’s memory. Later I understood what those more familiar with religious thought and mystical states have known all along: the argument disassembles a straw man, and nothing more. Few dedicated seekers believe in a simplistic, daddy-figure God.
But I now see a bigger problem with the argument. To assert that mature people give up imagined relationships is to overlook how we imagine relationships with every aspect of our environment, including the universe as a whole. We can’t give these relationships up; all we can do is become more intentional about them.
Atheists often pride themselves on seeing life clearly, free of primitive sentimentality. In the words of Nobel laureate Jacques Monod, “man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity”. There’s no higher intelligence in Monod’s view, but there is this vast, unfeeling cosmos that holds us in its grip. It should be obvious that Monod is relating to the cosmos in ways parallel to religious faith, responding emotionally, if rather bleakly.
His words sound similar to the unconvincing retort of a child who—neglected—shouts, “leave me alone!” If religious believers are influenced by preverbal memories of a loving parent, then believers in in an empty, uncaring cosmos might be influenced by memories of a neglectful one.
Not all atheists emphasize meaninglessness. Many seem to feel genuine love toward nature and humanity, only objecting to the idea of intelligences that exist but can’t be proven (a reasonable objection, surely). Nor, obviously, do all religious believers emphasize love and support. Many fundamentalists believe in a harsh, punitive God.
There’s a parallel between these relationships with reality and so-called attachment theory. Thanks to popular books and articles, it’s now widely known that people develop different relationship styles, different ways of forming attachments. Some enjoy so-called secure attachment, but others don’t.
The securely attached among us form comfortable, stable bonds. By and large, they were raised by stable parents capable of emotional resonance, who responded according to the baby’s moment-by-moment needs.
In contrast, there are two main styles of insecure attachment. The avoidant style leads to a reactive sense of not needing others. It results from neglectful parenting, where the infant learns a precocious but highly stressed independence, bordering on indifference. The anxious style is clingy and insecure. It reflects unreliable or intrusive parenting that triggers fearfulness and desperate efforts to please.
Because these attachment styles affect interpersonal relationships, it seems likely they affect other sorts of relationship too. If so, then secure styles explain the healthy forms of both religion and atheism, while insecure forms explain the rigidity and combativeness displayed by the more toxic elements in both camps.
In fact, our so-called attachment style is a generalization. Each of us is capable of both secure and insecure relational behavior. The lucky among us spend more time using the secure style but resort to anxious or avoidant behavior when circumstances overwhelm them. Meanwhile, those of us whose dominant style is insecure can transcend that deficit and attach more securely, at least on occasion.
So here’s my proposal, in brief: whether we realize it or not, we develop a sense of relationship with everything that enters awareness, including the world-at-large. We may believe in a more fundamental thing, like God, or we may believe material reality is fundamental in itself. Either way, what matters is how we relate to it. As we move through our lives, do we feel relatively safe and valuable, or do we feel threatened, abandoned, or unimportant? How comfortable we feel in Life depends on the attachment style we bring to bear on it.
This is good news, because we can work on our style once we know its importance. Just as every intimate partnership takes work, our relationship with the cosmos does too. If we don’t attend to it, we gradually grow alienated from our bodies, minds, and—in the worst case—most everything in the cosmos. But with a little effort, we can cultivate a relationship that feels more nurturing and affectionate. We can practice healthy attachment behaviors while letting go of toxic ones. Bit by bit, we can foster a sense of support and significance.
But how do we improve our relationship with something as vast and all-inclusive as ‘reality’? It sounds daunting, but it’s easier than improving relationships with people. The cosmos is just itself. It doesn’t display immature habits, deep-seated insecurities, or poor impulse control. It doesn’t hold grudges (though our actions propagate forward in chains of consequences). Nor does it have agendas (at least, none we can identify with certainty). The more we settle our somatic and mental systems, the safer and more supportive reality feels. To work on our relationship with it, we need only work on ourselves.
We have a range of options if we seek to mature and settle. I suspect most readers have worked with some (or many) already. What I’m offering is biological and body-based. We look closely at what it means to be a mammalian organism, with an eye toward meeting Life with more compassion, affection, and nurturance. Working this way increases our sense of clarity and ease in the midst of reality, no matter how troubled it sometimes seems, and our relationship with it feels more supportive.
With that in mind, in this term we’ll adopt the venerable tradition of looking at reality’s main components, or elements, typically listed as Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. These four elements (or minor variations on them) occur with surprising regularity, for instance in Buddhism, Chinese Medicine, Jewish Kaballah, Greek philosophy, some Native American traditions, and Ayurveda.
This elemental approach is often denigrated as simplistic and ‘pre-scientific’, but I don’t see it that way. To me it reflects a nascent form of science, when humans were just beginning to describe reality according to what they observed. In fact, science still divides matter into four categories, namely the four phases into which it can settle: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. (The term ‘element’ is reserved for species of atoms, as organized into the Periodic Table.)
We can use these four elements (or phases) to get a handle on reality and thus improve our relationship with it, as the remainder of this term’s series will (I hope) demonstrate.
If you’ve been following my work for awhile, you’re familiar with the program and have watched it cycle through several emphases. Early on, basic biological information deepens our capacity to meet bodily processes with curious attention. Later, deeper implications of biological existence help us dissolve feelings of separation between ‘us’ and ‘the world’. After settling into the body and softening our sense of isolation, we bring compassion and affection to bear on the most challenging aspects of bodily life: pain, aging, infirmity, and mortality.
In the Entirety series we’ll look at these three approaches in turn, each linked with one of the elements. The endpoint, hopefully, will be facility with the various tools of Mindful Biology along with an ability to apply them flexibly.
Our goal will be more affectionate and resilient relationships with reality. As is true in every intimate partnership, we will hit rough spots. But if we are committed to loving reality-as-it-is, we will find our way to ever-deepening harmony with Life, our bodies, and one another.
This meditation will explore the relationship each of us builds with reality, often without much forethought. It will help us become more intentional, so we can create the relationship that serves us best.
Settle into your meditation posture. Maintain a sense of alertness, but also ease. Seek a middle ground between too much and too little effort.
Draw attention inward, first to the sensation of breath at the nostrils. Follow it there for a minute or so, maintaining curious, careful attention. See if you can track changes in temperature and humidity, noticing the cooler, fresher feel of inhaled air, and the warmer, softer feel of what’s exhaled.
Gradually follow the breath deeper into the body, tracking it back through the nostrils and down the throat. Invite attention to settle into the chest, especially in the area behind the upper part of the breast bone, that sensitive spot where many emotions tend to be felt.
Assess your emotional tone, right now, in this place and time. Do you notice signs of agitation, such as shallow, jerky breathing? Or do you find evidence of ease, as in deep, smooth breathing?
Now focus on the ‘you’ that observes the breath. Pay attention as this ‘you’ watches, evaluates, and responds to your experience. Identify features consistent with a relationship, such as observer versus observed, friendliness versus dislike, inviting versus pushing away. Build out the sense of being in relationship with the reality of your experience. Maybe picture the ‘you’ standing face-to-face with reality. You might even imagine reaching out and shaking reality’s hand.
For this practice, the goal is to notice and investigate the relationship. Acknowledging that you are relating with Life is a big step toward doing so with more intention.
It can help to conclude by offering an imagined gesture of friendship. Perhaps place your hands together in a sign of reverence, honoring the reality you’ve been observing. Relating to reality in a more healthful way can be as simple as making friends, not so much with a person, but with a wise, nonverbal animal. You need only offer the gift of attention, and you will receive many gifts in return.
Before resuming your activities, take a moment to feel the effect of this practice. Gradually increase the pace of your breath to energize the system as you reenter daily life.
A series to cultivate greater connection with zest and aliveness.
Universal Vitality Discussion
We live in a universe, and everything we see—including our own body—comes from it. In this sense, all vitality is universal.
Just looking at the universe can feel vitalizing. Imagine spending hours beneath a moonless sky, far from urban glare, and watching the milky way shimmer overhead. Or imagine traversing your favorite natural environment, whether beach, mountain, forest, meadow, or desert. The wonder of nature uplifts us, fills us with energy, and renews our zest for life.
The universe vitalizes by creating us and inspiring awe, but in search of universal vitality, let’s look further. Let’s ask: why is the universe so energizing? Why does it generate galaxies and landscapes? Why humans?
First, a caveat. I’ll be veering into scientific fields I understand poorly. Some of what I say may sound simplistic or wrong to people who know more. Yet I believe the main point will remain valid, because it’s fairly obvious and doesn’t depend on science for its validity. Sometimes the obvious truth is the most profound, once we quit taking it for granted.
Where did the universe come from? Science tells us it arose from a Big Bang, which burst forth nearly fourteen billion years ago. According to the available evidence, the universe began extremely dense and localized, such that everything we see was contained in a volume smaller than an atom. Important details remain to be worked out, but for what follows all we need is the established fact of a highly localized initial state. The final state toward which the universe heads appears to be a vast, ever-accelerating expansion with everything growing very cool and dim. If this projection proves true, in a thousand billion years the galaxies will be moving apart too quickly for light to travel between them, and the stars will have burnt out anyway. All will be dark. This is a forecast, not a foretelling, and something could shift to cause the universe to cease expanding and begin to collapse. But even if that happens in some distant future, expansion will surely continue for a long time.
So the universe began as an extremely hot and compact seed, and it is fated to expand and cool for a very long time, possibly forever. This brings in the concept of entropy. Technically, we can describe the universe’s life history as a flow from very low to very high entropy.
It’s popular knowledge that entropy increases. Colloquially, we blame entropy for messy households, rusting machinery, and old age. In this view, entropy is the evil that ruins everything. But there’s another side to entropy. It’s not only ruinous; it’s also creative. The flow from low to high entropy generates the universe we see, with all its beautiful structures, such galaxies, nebulae, star systems, ocean currents, ecosystems, life forms, and macromolecules.
If you read the essay on Flow and Vitality, you’ll recall that flow depends on both containment and openness. The universe began as the epitome of containment, and it is heading toward ever-increasing openness. Entropy enforces this trajectory.
Why is this important? Because we have been produced by this flow, this movement of the universe from density to dispersion. We are products of entropy.
Complex structures facilitate the increase of entropy, the flow from containment to openness. They make it more efficient. This is why startling amounts of order are seen despite the unbreakable rule that entropy must always increase.
Water draining from a bathtub offers an analogy. It flows in a funnel-shape, which speeds the emptying. Hurricanes adopt a similar form as they speed the transfer of warm air to cooler regions. In technical terms, they are ‘dissipative structures’; they help dissipate entropy.
Lifeforms—including humans—likewise facilitate flow from low to high entropy. We too are dissipative structures. Entropy doesn’t just destroy; it also creates. It creates us.
As someone with diagnosed ADHD, I’ve struggled to stay organized. Entropy is a palpable fact of life for me and sometimes seems like a character trait. So I’m pleased to announce it’s not all bad. Miracles happen when entropy takes a system from containment to openness. At least, they do if you—like me—find the universe so wondrous that ‘miraculous’ seems an appropriate term (regardless of whether or not we someday find sober explanations for every bit of it).
But what does this have to do with vitality? It seems to me we find entropy—and the impermanence it causes—so frightening, so unfair, that we waste a lot of energy resisting and bemoaning it. We drain our own vitality in a fruitless battle against a fundament of reality. But if entropy and impermanence create us as much as they destroy us, we could adopt a less panicked relationship with them. Rather than bemoaning how the universe is continually falling apart, we could celebrate how it is continually forming, and falling apart, and forming. Or, more precisely, we could admit that it is flowing all the time, creating and destroying as it flows.
We saw this in the Mortality series, this interplay between complements. Death and life seem at odds until we remember how death makes new life possible. A tree dies and falls to the forest floor, where it feeds microorganisms to form compost for the next generation of trees. Also, by falling, it opens the canopy so light reaches the young ones who’ve been waiting in the shadows. If we believe the tree is an all-important individual, its destruction offends us. But if we expand our frame to include the waiting young ones, the whole forest, and the evolution of life on earth, the tree’s death is inseparable from the biosphere’s creation.
Is a human different from a tree? Only if we believe humans possess some special something that sets us apart. Many secular and religious traditions insist we are more important than other life forms. But no matter how well-constructed our arguments for special status, or how sincere our pleas to be excepted, biology insists we are just another life form, just another species among the millions evolved on earth. Granted, at the moment we’re a species with the power to disrupt the biosphere, but this isn’t unprecedented. Long ago, cyanobacteria disrupted life on earth by releasing vast amounts of oxygen, which was toxic to most of the then-existing life forms. Whether we admit it or not, from a biological perspective we’re just not special.
Then is nothing sacred? That depends on our definition. If we view the universe as miraculous, then it—the whole of it—just might be. In which case, what matters is the beauty of the whole, not the persistence of some part, whether a single person, family unit, or the human species. This can be tough to accept, given how we yearn to feel safe and special. The only remedy I know is to abandon individualism and throw my lot in with the whole. That is, to grow from a sense of self-reliant isolation to a more collective sense of being.
Wouldn’t this undo our individualist, profit-based civilization? Well, yes.
How could we ever reconstruct our worldview and society to such a degree? That’s a fair question. It reminds me of a quip I read, regarding the difficulty of preventing climate catastrophe: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Let’s hope not.
Buddhism says suffering arises from greed, hatred, and delusion, which are individualist traits. It’s the individual who always wants more, hates others who thwart or threaten that desire, and claims independent, special, and permanent status—claims a delusion as fact. Such toxic immaturity is understandable, but biology refuses to endorse it.
Once we identify with the flow of the universe—of Life—rather than its individual ripples, we are freed from much of our suffering. Freed from insistence on our own preeminence, we can surf the currents of vitality that rush the universe from containment to openness. Doesn’t becoming one with universal vitality sound better than clinging to individualism?
The universe is big, so a natural means for contacting Universal Vitality is to open our awareness to the whole of it. Of course, that’s impossible, because our limited human minds have neither access to nor the bandwidth for the entire cosmos. But what we can do is practice what’s called ‘open awareness’ meditation, in which we allow consciousness free rein and notice what shows up. This is an important Buddhist practice (called ‘Vipassana’) but it’s also employed in yogic traditions and others.
Open Awareness is a complement to Concentration practice, which is often taught in beginning mindfulness classes. With concentration, we focus attention on a particular ‘object’ of meditation. Mindful Biology has borrowed Buddhism’s frequent use of the body as an object, but other possibilities include mantras and visualizations.
It’s helpful to be familiar with both, and it can also be instructive to alternate between them, which is what we’ll do in this Universal Vitality practice.
Beginning in your comfortable, easeful, but attentive meditation posture, begin by concentrating your attention on your chest wall in the area of the heart. Notice the movement of breath in this area, the movement forward and up with inhalation, and the movement backward and down with exhalation. These excursions may be subtle, and it’s ok to begin by altering your breathing pattern to increase the movement of the chest wall. But once you’ve got your attention concentrated in that area, allow the breath to move more naturally.
As is always the case, sooner or later your attention will drift, perhaps to a thought, an external stimulus like sound, or some other bodily sensation, like discomfort. When that happens, simply bring your attention back to the object, the chest wall and its movement during breath.
After practicing in this mode for a few minutes, gently release your control of attention. Allow it to drift and—this time—don’t bring it back to your chest wall. Instead, using open awareness, simply watch what happens. Thoughts will show up. Notice them, but don’t get lost in them (and if you find that you’ve gotten lost at any point, just release the sticky and return to open awareness).
Here’s a metaphor you might find useful. Imagine you’re watching an aquarium with many colorful fish plus some aquatic plants and lots of bubbles. You could watch a single fish swim back and forth, notice the movements of its fins, and monitor its eating habits. This would be concentration. Alternatively, you could simply rest your eyes on the aquarium and take in the scene as a whole. You’d notice changes, for instance if an eel slid out from under a rock, but you wouldn’t get stuck to any one process (you wouldn’t keep your eyes on the eel for a long time).
As you meditate now, spend some time allowing consciousness to do whatever it wants, but see if you can remain detached from all its content. Watch your experience from the perspective of the awareness in which it all occurs, without identifying with any of the events. This can be challenging, so just do your best and don’t worry about ‘succeeding’. Here’s an intriguing question to ask as awareness opens: where are ‘you’ in all this? Can you locate a ‘self’ in the field?
After a few minutes, revert back to the concentration mode and bring your attention to bear on your chest wall and the motions of breath. Go slowly back and forth spending 3-4 minutes in each mode before switching. Practice this alternation for as long as you like. It’s a fascinating way to spend time with your body and your awareness.
Concentration practice helps strengthen our capacity to manage our minds, to steer them in ways that serve us. In neuropsychological terms, it strengthens executive function.
Some ability to concentrate is necessary before we can go very far with open awareness, because it’s what helps us remain detached from mental content. In Buddhism, concentration is important because of the way it enables open awareness, which moves us toward the main goal: insight. Open awareness reveals the impermanent and non-personal nature of our experience.
Insight into the true nature of existence sets us free by liberating us from our habitual focus on ourselves as enduring entities struggling for security. We realize security is always provisional, and our ‘selves’ are not what we thought they were. Less bound to concerns about both, we discover our connection to the heart and breadth of the cosmos. And with that, we find true vitality!
Communal Vitality Discussion
Social anxiety and awkwardness. Introversion and shyness. Trouble recognizing faces. Because I struggle with these obstacles, read this essay skeptically. Drawing vitality from community is not my forte.
Even so, I observe people carefully, and while the insight gained seldom helps me connect with them, it’s often proven accurate. Furthermore, grappling with trauma, addiction, and mood issues has forced me to learn about communal energies.
What we call ‘individual’ is almost never so. Human behavior arises from social contexts and is shaped by past relationships. It involves many people we know and many we don’t.
List activities you enjoy with zest. Here are a few of my own favorite things: teach this class, jog on the beach, pet my dogs, walk in nature, meet one-on-one with friends.
Each is in some way social. Teaching, petting animals, and meeting friends are obviously so, but what about jogging on beaches or walking in nature?
For me to get to the beach, I need to drive twenty miles. Driving can seem solitary, but it’s communal. Humans manufactured the automobiles, built highways, elucidated road rules, and agreed to follow them. People supply gas or electricity, maintain and patrol the roads, manage accidents, help injured drivers, report traffic conditions, sell and repair vehicles, operate junkyards, and so on. My trip to the beach is supported by innumerable humans, most of whom I’ve never met and seldom think about.
To walk in nature, I merely need to stroll across the street, where a gate opens to miles of wetlands trails. So perhaps that’s solitary? Not really. The area had been diked, drained, and farmed in the nineteenth century, then converted to an airbase in the twentieth. The soil lost volume and settled six feet below sea level, and the military littered it with debris, toxic waste, unexploded munitions, etc. The current wetlands grew out of a major restoration project. During one years-long phase, mud dredged from Oakland Harbor was hauled by barge across the Bay, anchored five miles offshore, then pumped onsite. Imagine how many humans worked this project! My strolls in nature are far from solitary.
Some natural areas are doing well, without need of intervention. Still, our enjoyment of them usually involves others. We wear clothing and may use maps or specialized gear, all made by people. Even if we walked naked, we’d spend time thinking, which employs language, a collective product of humanity.
If our activities are communal, then the vitality that keeps us doing them must also be. The question becomes, how do we draw vitality from community?
My extroverted friends don’t need to strategize. Time with others simply energizes them. They’re fun to be around and inspire zest in the rest of us. They’d find it easy to talk about tapping into social vitality. But me? Spending time with others drains me, even one-on-one. Who am I to give advice about using sociality to fuel vitality?
Well, because society drains me, I’ve needed to find ways to conserve vitality in social contexts, including distressing ones. I’ve also learned to energize myself by sharing the joy of others, and I’ve found ways to feel connected even when alone. These approaches will suit introverts better than those more outgoing, but here’s the list for those who find it helpful:
We hear so much bad news, we often feel overwhelmed. Our screens serve steady streams of tragedy from around the world, ever reminding us of ecological, geopolitical, and cultural disasters. Closer to home, we see poverty-stricken folks in tents on sidewalks, and whether we say so or not, we know deep down that if we hit hard times, we could end up with them. Our loved ones face all manner of troubles, including medical, financial, familial, and existential crises.
As empathic beings, we feel this pain as our own. While it’s healthy to share the hurts of the world, it’s also vital to conserve our resources. When drained by negativity, we feel too depleted to help our hurting world.
So it’s important to guard the heart. We don’t shut compassion down, but we maintain healthful boundaries. We absorb enough bad news to sustain compassion, but we repel enough to remain effective.
For me, this requires a strict limit on the amount of news I consume. I no longer watch video feeds, and I seldom read more than fifteen minutes of news a day. This is enough to keep me abreast of major stories but not enough to suck me into despair. When I see people struggling on the street, I offer a smile and sometimes cash. I try to connect with them in a warmhearted way, which often makes the experience feel less distressing. When loved ones share their difficulties, I feel pain but maintain strength, confident that the latter will feel at least as supportive as the former.
Guarding the heart is important, but so is opening it. We don’t need defenses that keep everything out; we only need shielding against too much bad news. For good news, we gain vitality by dissolve the barriers that isolate us.
I look for uplifting stories. Positive News is a great resource. I’ve also found apps that serve optimistic news feeds.
Even simpler is savoring uplifting stories close to home. When acquaintances tell me of joyous events, fun outings. or worthy projects, I try to resonate with their happiness. In Buddhism, this is called sympathetic joy, and it’s a fine way to celebrate others’ good fortune while recharging our own vitality.
Work that eases suffering also empowers the heart. I look at Mindful Biology as a vitalizing activity. It connects me with others, has healing intentions, and forces me to view Life clearly and positively. For nearly a decade my wife has volunteered with a group that propagates native plants and removes invaders in our local wetlands. Another friend helps parents whose children struggle with substance abuse. Another cooks large meals for the destitute. There are so many ways to open the heart while providing antidotes to civilization’s toxicity.
Finally, I’ve found it helpful to soften my grip on resentments. Flowing through Life is a process of continual letting go, and forgiveness is an important step in doing so. It’s also one of the most difficult. Check out the Forgiveness Project for tips on benefits and strategies. I’m not well-versed in the literature, but one thing seems clear: resentment does little to right past wrongs but does a lot to drain vitality. It still surprises me how energized I feel when I free myself from a resentment.
It helps to remember that because everything is communal, bad deeds are too. Every act of intentional wrong follows antecedent causes, including—quite often—childhood trauma. And because the prior harm was also caused, the bad actor isn’t just one person; it’s our entire civilization, plus the momentum of history. Furthermore, each of us has hurt others, and whenever people are hurt, they grow more likely to harm in turn. So we none of us is innocent. All harm is collective in both cause and effect. To paraphrase a famous saying: ‘we have met the enemy, and it is us’. But we have also met the savior, and it is forgiveness.
If everything we do depends on others, countless people deserve our thanks.
Here’s a practice: take a moment to consider how many people made a pleasant experience possible, as modeled above. Offer a mental note of gratitude to all your helpers, seen and unseen. Like so much else, gratitude has been studied experimentally and demonstrated to improve mental and even bodily health. In other words, it’s vitalizing. Visit UC Berkeley’s Expanding Gratitude project to learn more.
In Asian Buddhism, it’s common to meditate on mothers, who do so much to give us Life. This can be a profound gratitude practice, but here in the West, such meditation often stirs anger and resentment. After all, many of us were harmed by our families, including our mothers. For instance, my mother’s depression, psychiatric hospitalizations, and ultimate death by suicide have shadowed me since infancy. The stepmother who (reluctantly) took her place showered me with contempt, violence, and sexual humiliation, all against a background of neglect. So I quite understand how meditating on mothers isn’t an automatic heart-warmer.
But over the years I’ve learned to look more deeply. Sure, my mother’s illness harmed me, but she did her best to love me. Her affection was inconsistent and occasionally overwrought, but I didn’t doubt it, and for that I am grateful. Even my stepmother deserves gratitude. She taught me manners and kept the house clean, while her behavior forced me to grapple with painful realities in ways that still serve me. Sure, she didn’t care about making me a wiser person. but she did it anyway.
These days, I see myself as a post-modern shaman. Not that I wield healing power or commune with the unseen, but I do view reality—including its mysteries—with bracing clarity. Harrowing experiences often form the soil from which shamans grow, and in my case, many were provided by my own family. Because I consider shamanic clarity a gift, it’s natural to feel grateful to those who enabled it, even though they were acting out their own hammering pain with little ability or desire to shield me from it.
Gratitude can feel incredibly vitalizing, especially when it reframes experiences that look horrible and unacceptable. When something like shamanic gratitude releases the stagnant, self-defeating energy bound up in resentment, a gush of aliveness flows forth. So before you insist you could never look at your own horrors in a positive light, take a moment to imagine how much freer you’d feel if you did.
After our mother died, older sister and I moved in with my dad and stepmother. From then on, I wasn’t allowed to return home after school. I had to wait until my father drove in, which left me several hours to kill. As shy as I was, this time usually was spent alone. The first year was the hardest, because we spent the winter in frigid Minnesota. My seven-year-old self tried to befriend neighborhood kids and shelter in their homes, which sometimes worked but often didn’t. The library was more reliable but required a long walk on icy roads. Somehow, I got through that first year, and from then on we lived in California. My lonely afternoons grew less frightening but no more comforting.
For many years I felt badly damaged by this experience. It heightened feelings of rejection first bequeathed by my mother’s illness and death. Recently, however, I realized all that time alone taught me useful skills. As a lonesome child, I occupied myself with daydreams, which created an alternate reality that kept me from going mad. To this day, I remember my fantasies as vividly as my actual experiences.
I learned the mind can soothe us in harsh circumstances. Of course, I’m not saying we should retreat into fantasy worlds. Instead, I’m suggesting we look at how social support works and be creative in our mental lives.
I’ve noticed that people with large, loving families feel confident and supported even when their loved ones aren’t near. No doubt the proximity of family feels even more powerful, but it’s obviously useful to remember the love of supporters when they’re far away. It generates vitality.
Whether or not our families are large or loving, each of us can remember love. Someone must have held us as kids and cared for us to some degree, or we wouldn’t have made it to functional adulthood. The tragic plight of Romanian orphans proves that.
Even if—like me—you remember few occasions of being loved as a child, such memories are in you somewhere. We can have faith in that fact and use it to build memories from scratch. The meditation that accompanies this essay will demonstrate how it’s done, but in brief, you can simply imagine being embraced and adored as an infant, young child, or adult. You can draw from what must have been true (you were held), what you consciously remember (someone who treated you well when you were little), or times you’ve felt loved as an adult (by a lover, good friend, or non-human animal). As you do so, you will feel powerful companionship, even in solitude.
Neuroscience has shown that imagining an activity recruits the same brain regions as actually performing it. So when we remember love, circuits that respond to affection come online. Using memory to relive loving times creates genuine feelings of companionship.
Without doubt, the richness of proximity to people who love us requires their actual presence. By ourselves, that palpable sense of connection doesn’t arise. But memory is still potent, and I’ve found it surprisingly helpful
In my childhood and preteen daydreams, I imagined living in villages where people adored me, playing sports as a valued team member, and walking hand-in-hand with a girl who loved me. I still feel warmed by the sweetness of those fantasies. Of course, I feel warmed by memories of actual experiences, such as joyous visits to my grandparents, goofy times with my sister, and peaceful walks with the family dog. I remember the thrill of moving in with my beloved high school sweetheart and bicycling together to Berkeley High. Right now, I can savor the way my little dog sleeps near my heart each night. I can bring up a smile by recollecting some recent lovemaking with my wife, which lasted hours because—as a gift of aging—it took that long to get everything going. When relishing such memories I feel the vitality of companionship, right here in solitude.
In the early days of Mindful Biology, I wrote about the body’s loving support. I supplied a link to the main article at the end of the Personal Vitality essay, as further reading. The topic’s not directly related to communal vitality, but it does provide a feeling of communion in solitude, so I’ll repost the link here: My Body, My Lover.
Freud dismissed religious experiences as unrecognized memories of infantile dependence. Personally, though I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God, my own religious experiences seem more significant than that. But let’s suppose Freud was right. If so, then when we feel supported by Life in a deep, mystical way, we’re doing what I suggested above: using the memory of love to summon the feeling of it.
What’s wrong with that? As long as we don’t attack those who work differently, it could be very healthy.
Freud's take on religion, the banner of many atheists, sounds sensible until we ask a devastating question. Couldn’t materialism’s philosophy of isolation also be a memory? By parallel reasoning, we can suspect it recalls the loneliness of the crib, of crying for comfort that didn’t come. Beyond cultural assumptions, why should we believe Freud when he says feeling loved is delusional, while feeling abandoned is perfectly sane?
I’m not sure how much consciousness the cosmos possesses. Over the years, I’ve come to suspect it’s a lot more than most scientists believe. But this isn’t crucial to Mindful Biology, which aims to build better relationships with life and doesn’t worry about answers to philosophical questions. Even if mystical feelings are nothing but infantile memory, they can be valuable. If they help us feel more supported, and thus more vitalized, I’d say: go for them!
That’s a good motto for this whole essay: let’s go for what helps us feel embraced and adored.
Begin in a comfortable posture. Tune into your breath as you experience it in your chest. Notice how the front of the chest rises and falls as you inhale and exhale. Follow this movement for a few cycles.
Now let your attention broaden, so that you feel the breath expanding the sides of the chest. This can be subtle, so you have an opportunity to refine your capacity to tune into less obvious changes in the body. Notice the little bit of expansion and contraction with the inhalations and exhalations.
Feel into your back. Notice how the distribution of pressure changes as the breath moves in and out. Feel any friction in the clothing.
Now tune into the front of the chest again, but feel beneath the chest wall into the interior, feeling the heart area. Notice any warmth, fullness, aching, or hollowness. Whatever is present, greet it with openness. Not judging, not rejecting, just greeting.
Call to mind a time when you felt supported by others. It could be a time when an adult loved you in childhood. It could be when you were falling in love. It could be when you were working on a project with coworkers who like you. It could be when you played a team sport, or were part of a band. Whatever it is, imagine it fully. If your memories are visual, build out the space that surrounded you. If acoustic, imagine how things sounded. Are there any scents? Can you feel the touch of others. How do their faces look, their voices sound? How do you feel in that heart area? Feel into it now, feeling the support take hold in your heart area simply as a result of this memory.
Notice how even though you aren’t in that situation now, some of the warm support can still be felt. Imagine.
Every supportive experience you’ve ever had remains with you, if not as a conscious memory, then as an unconscious one. See if you can trust that fact. See if you can invite in support from many times and places. Imagine all the people who’ve ever helped you. Even if some of the relationships have ended, they were important in their time, and they remain important in memory.
Imagine all the people who you could befriend, given the opportunity. Imagine all the places that help you feel safe and joyful. You can even imagine some you’ve never visited, but that you know would help you feel happy and whole.
Keep returning to the heart area, feeling the effect of all this remembering and imagining. The mind is a powerful instrument, ever weaving our moment-by-moment reality. The more we remember and imagine support, the more we feel it.
Sit with this practice as long as you wish. Imagine that you are installing a feeling of safety and love that will remain accessible to you wherever you go.
When you are ready to return to your ordinary activities, you might want to say a silent thank you to all those people who have helped you in the past, are helping you today, and will help you in the future.
Personal Vitality Discussion
Like many of us, I was raised amidst trauma. Domestic violence, divorce, mental illness, neglect, suicide, alcoholism, abuse, and chaos dogged my childhood. Luckily, from early on I felt curiosity and affection for this world of Life, which saved me from despair. And after reaching maturity, I secured a foothold by committing myself to academic study of Life science.
Decades later, after health problems ended my biomedical career, love of living things again rescued me. It led to this project, which weaves together my knowledge of biology, efforts to resolve trauma, years of spiritual practice, and contemplative temperament. Love of Life as understood by science helped me grow to love Life as it unfolds in daily experience. My gratitude flavors the content on this site.
It’s important to note how I found my way: whenever I was in nature, or viewing some wiggly organism under a microscope, or studying biological diagrams, I felt a sparkle of vitality. Fatigue and discouragement melted away, replaced by enthusiasm and zest. My body guided me, and its beacon was vitality. When I responded to the call of authentic values deep in my tissues, I breathed more easily, ate more healthfully, exercised more mindfully, and slept more peacefully. I felt so much more alive! In contrast, when I strayed in directions that didn’t suit, my body felt weary and stressed.
Bodily sensations act as guidance systems. We feel enlivened when our actions align with our values and temperament, deadened when they don’t. Of course, ignoring bodily feedback sometimes makes sense. We may accept a draining job to support loved ones. We may risk injury to stand against injustice. In these cases we’re responding to values beyond the body’s ken. The organism knows what feels healthy, and it can’t set that aside for practical or political reasons. But while mental evaluation remains important, it shouldn’t blithely ignore bodily advice. A decision to sacrifice wellbeing in service of higher values should be made consciously, with awareness of the somatic cost.
It’s challenging to make good choices. We are like eddies in a bottomless river that stretches from unremembered mountains toward an unseen sea. We try to gain a foothold, but we’re swept along from one circumstance to the next. We struggle with the truth the Buddha emphasized long ago: suffering is part of living.
In Life’s ever-whirling currents, nothing we grasp provides lasting stability or satisfaction. Our companions and possessions are too transient, our biology too hungry.
The problem of transience seems obvious: lasting comfort can’t be found in what doesn’t last. But what’s wrong with hunger? Isn’t it what motivates us to meet our needs?
Hunger is healthy. It urges us to meet biological needs and stay alive. In that sense, there’s nothing wrong with it. The problem is, it never ends. When gratified, we get a jolt of pleasure and momentary relief, but soon enough hunger comes again. Like waves and troughs in white water, hunger and gratification rise and fall, causing emotional pitch and roll. Indulging doesn’t set us free, yet we feel such yearning! How can we find ease?
Biology can help. If we truly understand and–importantly–listen to our bodies, we can calm the waters.
Think what happens when we see something or someone we desire. Dopamine circuits in the brain put us on alert and rivet our attention. If we succeed at winning the prize, our neurochemistry serves up a ripple of pleasure. Yet it soon fades away. And if we fail, the circuits judder, causing feelings of frustration. Knowing this, we can take short-lived brain states less personally and feel less enslaved by them. Rather than letting our systems get yanked about, we can maintain mental clarity and bodily stability. Sometimes this is difficult, but it’s doable.
We’ve been trained to seek satisfaction in the material world, but impermanence dooms us to find only temporary relief followed by more angst and turmoil. Thankfully, we can find ease amidst the hunger-gratification cycle by growing familiar with how Life works, feeling inside our sensitive human bodies, and remaining open to new responses. Though our biology often confuses us, if we dive in deeply, it guides us.
Physiology has a wisdom that mentality can’t match. The more we dwell in mindful communion with the body, the more we begin to trust its enduring messages and take less seriously its transient wants. The relationship between cognitive and somatic experience shifts. Rather than using bodily pleasure to distract us from mental angst, we let bodily intuition guide us away from it. Of course, we use mental clarity in deciding whether to follow an intuitive leading, but we understand that if we rely on thinking alone, we’ll never find our way.
We tend to view of mind and body as two separate things, one inhabiting the other like a driver in a car. But in my opinion, they are neither separate, nor things. Instead, they are different but overlapping domains of experience in a complex biological system. They each possess intelligence, and it’s wise to employ them as complementary ways of knowing. When we allow them to work together, our path grows clear.
You might object. Pain and limitation don’t seem so intelligent. But it’s worth questioning that assessment. Could they instead be part of the guidance system? A lot hinges on how we respond to bodily challenges. If we struggle and fuss, they seem like dumb afflictions. But if we settle and listen, we can learn from them. They can tell us what’s needed, or what isn’t working.
As the mind meets bodily difficulties more calmly, they often lessen. Even if they don’t, we feel more vital and grounded. Listening to the body while consulting the mind helps us discover what Life is asking of us. If we follow its guidance, the whole system unifies in an authentic sense of purpose.
Such was my experience after medical and psychiatric afflictions ended my surgical career. Though at first they seemed to have pushed me into ruin, in due time bodily limits and deeply felt values guided me to Mindful Biology. It wasn’t thinking that found my Life’s work; my body led the way.
Following Life’s guidance isn’t hard, because the body is always speaking. The trick is to learn to listen. While we can’t help but hear sudden cravings and strong aversions, enduring yearnings and subtle misgivings are easy to ignore, especially when mental chatter claims to know what’s best.
Bring to mind some choice that turned out badly. Be honest: do you remember uneasy feelings as you made the ill-fated decision?
When I was in college learning ecology, I felt excited and enthused. But a few years later I decided to study neuroscience in the Biophysics Department at UC Berkeley. This plan pleased my physicist father and impressed my friends, but it left me feeling hollow and stressed. I tuned out those bodily sensations because they were telling me something I didn’t want to hear, so focused was I on gaining some sort of status.
The habit of ignoring my body’s advice continued. At every step on the path through graduate work, medical school, and surgical training, I felt reluctance but kept trudging forward. Only years later—when I could no longer ignore my pain and limitations—did I begin to pay attention. Neck pain made it impossible for me to continue operating, and then emotional instability prevented me from retraining in a different medical field.
At first, the pain and psychiatric vulnerability seemed like affronts. But I gradually learned to view them as wise counselors. They helped me find activities that felt healthy in body and meaningful in mind. As my choices grew more aligned with my values, the pain and emotional turmoil lessened. I felt more energized and connected to Life. Before long, I began plunging into Mindful Biology with real zest, body and mind unified in higher purpose.
After such a positive experience, I endeavored to savor each melody in the body’s repertoire, every variety of sensation, emotion, intuition, mood, etc. But even after becoming a dedicated listener, I found it hard to follow the guidance consistently. Too often I’d ignore the signals and—for instance—keep sitting at the computer despite escalating discomfort. Actually, that’s happening right now, so please excuse me as I take a break...
So here’s the sequence: first we begin listening, then we quit resisting, then we start responding. As we watch our quality of life improve, we realize how bodily sensations reveal things cognition can’t. We enjoy the body’s rich symphony and feel less obsessed by thought’s repetitive jingles.
When we don’t listen, we pay for our inattention. Consider my surgical career: if I’d cut back my caseload, improved my posture, and learned to relax, I could have kept operating longer. Instead, I didn’t take any of those steps and ended up on disability. Surgery wasn’t a good choice for me, but if I’d tuned into my body, I could have found my way to more appropriate work with a lot less stress and shame.
To quit resisting seems painful because it asks us to release cherished plans. We’d never tell a young person to abandon her dreams, right? But some dreams are mere fantasies, or falsities, of the conceptual mind, that small domain that believes itself superior to the rest of the organism. The dictatorial mind doesn’t like admitting it’s confused about what truly matters, but admit it must.
Only when it does will we discover the depths of ease, joy, and wisdom that Life promises.
Note: for further reading: take a look at an old essay of mine: My Body, My Lover.
Sitting comfortably, breathing quietly, Feel your body from the inside. Don’t make the journey complicated, just visit your interior.
Feel the body’s substance. From front to back and side to side, there is mass and movement. Notice the liquid, solid, soft, airy, warm, full, and spacious richness of it.
Just feel inward. then feel inward more. Notice areas of relative warmth versus coolness, heaviness versus lightness, discomfort versus pleasure, and so on. Notice obvious sensations first, then seek subtle ones. The more affectionate and curious your attention, the more Yvonne’s forward to meet it.
At some times and in some areas, you might discover surprising complexity. At times and elsewhere, you’ll enter simple, quiet, spaciousness.
Often, neglected areas of stress and discomfort call for attention. Meet them with compassion. Your body has been through a lot in this chaotic world: so much stress, disappointment, and pain. The way it keeps track of all that’s happened shows how much it cares about Life and wants to thrive. Better than anyone else, your body knows your stories, sufferings, and yearnings. You can hold and comfort one another, safe companions in the midst of difficulty and uncertainty. The Life of your body supports you, and this will become more obvious as you offer it support in return.
Amidst the interplay between mental and somatic currents, we can know our body does its best. Life operates by its own principles, and though these sometimes undermine mental preferences, they aim for wellbeing. Even so, sometimes the body gets lost, and needless pain arises. But it’s always seejibg well-being, and we can help it find its way, just as it helps us navigate in return. The acute pain that follows injury pulls our thoughts inward, where they are tasked with attending to physicality. More chronic pain provides an opportunity to learn less punishing ways to live, and less reactive ways to experience the body. In times of frank illness, the body delivers a break from our own intensity. See if you can feel the inward calls—sometimes intense and sometimes subtle—that encourage you to connect with physicality, live less reactively, and rest in stillness. Rather than responding as if symptoms are problems, treat them as information offered in loving generosity.
As you tune in, don’t worry about making decisions, just feel what the body says. Use your caring awareness to listen attentively, like a respectful student. After all, Life is speaking, in all its ancient wisdom.
Glide slowly and organically through your entire biological system, through your intimate landscape of somatic Life. Let sensations guide your attention here and there, but also seek the shy parts. Sometimes subtle messages are the most informative.
Beneath the superficial chaos of a stressed body, there remain sweet reminders of what gives us purpose and joy. The body is a garden of Life. Marvel in it!
Sexual Vitality Discussion
Life flows. Biological research has tracked the flow of molecules, energy, and information through organisms. Flow undergirds living, which is why this ‘vitality’ series began with it.
Among complex organisms, sex is another form of flow. Sexual reproduction ensures the flow of genetic information through evolutionary time. Because mating must occur for sexual species to persist, natural selection enforces avid sexuality. The vitality of a species depends on sexual flow, and the vitality of in individuals is—in part—fueled by it.
Humans remain just as sexually driven as less cerebral animals. We differ in the ways we detach sex from reproduction. Throughout history people have mated with same sex and post-menopausal partners, satisfied sexual urges with oral and anal rather than genital contact, and found means to prevent or terminate pregnancies. We’ve partially thwarted sex’s reproductive goals, but we remain in the thrall of its demands.
Of course, sex can and should be seen as a natural, lovely expression of Life. Denying or repressing sexual urges does not free us from them and can cause almost as much harm as sexual misconduct. Still, as a man in his sixties, I can attest that the waning of sexual desire comes as a relief. I feel more balanced, less yanked about by every hint of sexual opportunity. Yet I also feel grief, watching my days of youthful virility recede.
That’s the vantage from which I contemplate sexuality’s connection to vitality, and it highlights a few truths:
- Sexual desire can energize us through pleasure, love, and joy.
- It can also stir distress whether expressed or denied, and at its peak or in decline.
- Sexual vitality remains available in later life but is less bound to sexual desire.
So how do we harness the power of sex and limit distress while adapting to Life’s changes? Each of us must find our own answers, but we can start by reviewing the basics.
The obvious option is to enlist intimate partners for healthy sex play, either in enduring relationships or casual liaisons. Provided we communicate well, hold our insecurities in check, and don’t violate trust or boundaries, this is a fine solution that works for many of us, if sometimes imperfectly. Without doubt, healthy sexual relationships fuel vitality.
But what if we don’t have a partner? Or what if bodily issues make sex play challenging? We can find solitary sensual pleasure in the first case, and we can work around our challenges in the second.
Another option—available to all and perfect for singles or those with bodily issues—is sublimation. We can use sexual energy for creativity rather than overt sexual behavior. It seems reasonable, psychologically, to imagine our biological urge to procreate serving our human urge to create. We might hesitate to ascribe humanity’s entire outpouring to sublimation, but creativity can feel almost as primal and vitalizing as sexual coupling.
Even so, I want to focus on yet another option, which is to let sexual energy recharge our vitality directly, without sublimation or sex play. To see how that can happen, let’s back up and note what biology says about sexuality.
At cellular levels, it reveals vigorous sperm, richly endowed eggs, and the lush uterine landscapes that establish connection between a mother’s body and her future child’s.
At larger scales, biology clarifies the effects of complementary anatomies. We don’t need science to tell us that genitals of male mammals deposit semen in those of females, but it does provide insight. It reminds us that production of semen requires scant resources, whereas pregnancy entails an immense prenatal investment of energy and nutriments, plus substantial postnatal nurturing.
Because of this asymmetric investment, in nature the usual pattern is for males to attempt mating with multiple females while competing with other males, and for females to selectively choose a mate from the available pool. In humans these basic male and female strategies scale up into two suites of behavioral traits. On the masculine side we see pursuit, territoriality, acquisition, dominance, etc.; on the feminine we see selectivity, nurturing, sharing, cooperation, and so on.
Though the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ work to categorize specific traits, human beings are more complex. As Carl Jung emphasized nearly a century ago, every psyche contains masculine and feminine qualities. For example, some men feel comfortable displaying feminine traits, while other men’s vehement rejection of them shows the effort required to keep them suppressed. Where society permits honesty, it becomes obvious that masculinity, femininity, and gender identity interact in complex ways.
I’m no expert in gender behavior, so I’ll say little more about it and focus on vitality instead. In the last essay we saw that vitality depends on flow, which arises from the interplay between two complements: containment and openness. Something similar happens with the complement pairs of male/female, masculine/feminine, and man/woman. But in place of those loaded terms, we’ll borrow from Chinese medicine. Just as Qi helped us get a handle on vitality’s relationship to flow, the concept of yin and yang can help us explore its connection to sexuality.
As I understand it, ‘yin’ refers to classic feminine traits but also coolness, darkness, softness, dampness, descent, etc. In contrast, ‘yang’ encompasses masculine traits and also heat, hardness, brightness, dryness, ascent, etc. One could say yin is like water and fertile soil, while yang is like fire and granite peaks.
With these broad meanings, we see yin and yang in conversation everywhere. Winter alternates with summer. Rainy days give way to dry ones, and vice versa. Night becomes day, and day becomes night. The moon rises, then sets, then rises, all while waxing and waning. We wake from sleep at daybreak, then sleep again at day’s end.
Unsurprisingly, we’ve returned to flow. Life emerges from a flowing interplay between yin and yang, which is inherent to the cosmos. It’s just as visible in human society, making allowances for our usual complexity,variability, and subtlety. Generally speaking, in early life our sexual energies emphasize romantic intimacy, with lots of heat and passion. Later, they cool a bit while serving family and work obligations. Then, as we grow older, we sublimate more and more of our sexuality, often in service of deeper values, such as beauty, inspiration, and wisdom. There is so much flowing, the sexuality of one stage blossoming, then yielding to the next.
Would that things always flowed so well. Too often, they don’t, and sexual currents become obstructed. Many young people struggle with confusion around sexuality. Rather than finding romance and joy, they feel pressured by the unrealistic and contradictory expectations of a dysfunctional culture. Meanwhile, as we age, many of us react to similar expectations, resist sublimation, and cling to youth long after our bodies have moved on. And even when it occurs, sublimation can be so unconscious and disconnected that it creates weapons rather than art.
What is to be done? I’ve found I can remove obstructions and release vitality by bringing sexual issues into consciousness, looking at how they entangle me, then inviting flow to gradually wash away the anxiety and craving that make sexuality so fraught. If you feel at ease with sex and gender topics, this approach may not be needed. But if you feel tense or conflicted when they come up, you might try working with flow.
To illustrate I’ll use a personal example for discussion, which can be adapted to your needs by substituting your own issues, discomforts, and insights for mine. After this essay, I’ll describe a meditation to increase flow—and thus sexual vitality—in our bodies.
At the risk of revealing too much, I’ll explain how flow works for me as I grapple with waning virility, as mentioned above. In addition to diminished sexual interest, I’m also noticing a decline in sexual capacity, as in softer erections and longer latency between times of readiness. Meanwhile, baldness, wrinkles, shrunken muscles, and other marks of age dim my sex appeal. These feel like painful losses, even though they’ve liberated me from wearying obsessions. The angst was made worse by the way I came of age in a sexually abusive home and a masculine culture that wasn’t much healthier. It was also worsened by medication reactions that affected my genitals. I mention these issues with trepidation, but I want to make clear how much is in play.
At baseline, my viewpoints chatter in an ongoing debate: “Losing sexual potency is liberating… No, it’s horrible!!! Really, it’s a good thing… No! It’s bad!!!” Flow moves me beyond this stalemate. By allowing relief, grief, insight, and dismay to coexist and intermingle, it helps me feel at ease and even energized by this very human, very sexual predicament. It emboldens me to embrace the whole of my being, including the wounded and feminine bits that used to frighten me.
When younger, I never felt safe acknowledging my femininity. So I left untapped the vitality generated by healthy interplay between masculine and feminine forces, between yin and yang. And why is a broader range of experience now available? Because—whether I like it or not—my sexuality is feminizing, becoming more receptive and less insistent. Feminine energies are flowing free, no longer obstructed.
Flow happens, sooner or later, chosen or not. Maybe you can relate on some level, even if your issues differ?
I must admit, writing this feels a little shameful, like I’m revealing something shadowy, something yin. Yet even as the shame takes hold, so does its opposite: a sense of worthiness, of claiming more of myself. A sense, in other words, of vitality. As the yin is acknowledged and flows into yang, Life shines.
Perhaps I’ve revealed too much, but that’s better than silence. Sexual vitality is blocked by refusal to confront sex openly, admit how it unsettles us, and share our secrets. For a long time I was barely aware of my discomfort around sex and seldom talked about it. I was too hemmed in by expectations I couldn’t meet, yearnings I couldn’t satisfy, and trauma I couldn’t integrate to be honest with myself or others. Happily, opening up and engaging flow has eased my angst, connected me with my true self, and released blocked currents of vitality.
But what if sexual angst isn’t part of your experience? Flow remains useful, because it’s the precursor to vitality. It enlivens us, no matter our level of ease around sexuality, and no matter our age or circumstances.
[Note: the following meditation uses clear language to bring us in contact with intimate and sensitive body parts. It’s meant to be approached compassionately, honoring our wounds and fears without activating them. Especially if you have a history of sexual trauma, go slowly, in short sessions over as much time as you need to feel safe. If you start to feel more discomfort than seems easily manageable, shift your attention to your hands or feet, or take a short walk. If you continue to experience difficulty, consider consulting a trauma-informed therapist before proceeding.]
Pain. Aging. Mortality. In the online class we’ve spent the last three terms on those three topics. Feeling worn out, anyone?
Hopefully, focusing on the benefits of these challenges led to encouragement rather than its opposite. Still, it’s time to restore balance and explore a topic that’s more uplifting: Vitality.
Something prompts us to climb out of bed. Isn’t that surprising, given how difficult life can be? During my times of deep depression, that ‘something’ often waned, leaving me stuck under the covers. But when enough vitality returned, I again engaged the world.
Motivation is a form of vitality, and we live by it. Sometimes powerful, as when we take on a big project, it can also seem weak, as when we plod along, doing the minimum.
Yet vitality goes deeper. We eat and breathe because of it. The body needs and yearns, and we live by its imperatives. Vitality pushes us to survive, thrive, and reproduce. What is this force that moves Life forward?
Once upon a time, I briefly practiced acupuncture. Looking at the body from new perspectives inspired me, and after ten years on disability, it felt exciting to resume helping patients. But the practice struggled to break even, and then a serious illness forced me to close it.
Even so, my acupuncture foray bore fruit. It taught me about ‘Qi’ (aka ‘Chi’). This familiar idea from Chinese Medicine is akin to my use of the word vitality. So are similar concepts from other traditions (e.g., ‘prana’, ‘orgone’, ‘bodily energy’).
Many of my patients felt better after I used acupuncture to influence Qi. What’s more, I often feel a flowing sensation in my body that I ascribe to it. This makes Qi ‘real’ to me, in the sense that I’ve seen and felt its effects. Yet it hasn’t been pinned down by scientific methods, and skeptics dismiss it as nonexistent.
Mindful Biology offers a bridge between scientific, factual understanding and intuitive, heart-centered knowing. It tries to honor both sides and avoid controversy when possible. In that spirit, here are facts that seem non-controversial:
- Qi-based treatments sometimes improve wellbeing.
- People feel energetic sensations in their bodies.
- We lack incontrovertible proof of Qi’s existence.
Although acupuncture helps many patients, most biomedical physicians believe it’s a placebo. And while many published papers seem consistent with Qi’s existence, mainstream medical opinion remains unswayed. Rather than wade into these controversies, I’ll sidestep them by treating Qi as a subjective experience rather than insisting on it as an objective fact.
Objective proof is not needed for our purposes, because the flow of Qi yields benefits based on feelings, not facts. And in case you’re wondering, it’s totally possible to feel it. Right now, turn attention toward your body. Whether you focus on your head, limbs, chest, belly, or pelvis, you’ll notice sensations that reveal the presence of life. What’s obvious right now? Warmth? Pleasure? Discomfort? Vibration? A sense of fullness or spaciousness? Do you notice a flowing or shifting quality? These are sensations of aliveness, which we can call Qi. Now think of the urges the body serves up, such as the urge to eat, drink, eliminate, rest, find shelter, pursue sexual union, etc. These are powerful, energized feelings that are also akin to Qi.
No one living can doubt the body feels alive. By my use of the words, ‘Qi’ is the felt experience of aliveness, and ‘vitality’ is what calls us to further the interests of life, whether in our own bodies or the world-at-large. We know both as a constant presence, even if we seldom think about them.
With the words defined, let’s look at implications. In Chinese Medicine, smoothly flowing Qi supports healthy, vibrant life. That is, it generates vitality. But if the flow of Qi stops, discomfort and disease result, and we feel devitalized. Qi must keep flowing to fuel our vitality.
But why does Qi stop moving? Speaking simply, it stops for the same reasons water stops flowing. Think of a reservoir and a system of pipes connecting it to households. Despite the existence of the system, nothing will flow if the reservoir contains no water, or if the pipes are clogged. The flow of water in this system requires ‘containment’ and ‘openness’. The flow of Qi in our bodies needs the same.
Now imagine the reservoir is also a hydroelectric facility. Clearly, power will be generated only if the water flows. To take the metaphor one step further, we can say vitality depends on the flow of Qi, which means it depends on containment and openness.
It’s well-known that cells are the basic unit of life. And if you’ve taken an introductory biology class, you learned they’re surrounded by ‘semi-permeable’ membranes. The cell’s membrane keeps vital structures and chemicals contained, but because it’s semi-permeable, it’s open to the entry and exit of certain substances. For instance, nutrients are drawn in and wastes are forced out. Just like reservoir system, the vitality of our cells depends on containment and openness.
I’ve rowed this metaphor pretty far, and I admit it’s a bit leaky, but the conclusion seems valid: both containment and openness are necessary for Life. Take the circulatory system. It works optimally only when it contains blood and its arteries are open rather than clogged by atherosclerosis.
Or consider our emotional lives. Those of us who remain too self-contained feel disconnected from others. Meanwhile, those who are too open to other peoples’ demands and emotions suffer from poor boundaries. While we naturally fluctuate, flow is most vigorous when we maintain balance between the two extremes, and so—in turn—is vitality.
During meditation, we can explore containment and openness, and we can notice how their healthful interplay generates feelings of flow and increases vitality.
Vitality eases the difficulty of pain, aging, and mortality. Speaking personally, when I feel how it encourages me to take care of my health, connect with others, and grow more capable of enjoying Life, I am reminded it does the same for all organisms. When I feel this body continuing to live despite the daily death of many cells, I remember Life as a whole goes on, even though individuals suffer trauma, grow old, and die. When I appreciate how vitality brings new Life into the world while releasing that which has run its course, I know all is as it should be, as it must be.
When met mindfully, Vitality unites us with Life’s beauty, wisdom, and love, right here in this challenging world, in these vulnerable bodies. What could be more uplifting?
Here’s a brief meditation to help us ride vitality’s upwell. It begins with a venerable practice, commonly taught to beginning meditators: paying mindful attention to breath as it flows in and out of the nose. We feel the slight breeze just within the nostrils and on the skin below the nose. The incoming air is noticeably cooler and fresher, while the outgoing air is warm and soft. After we’re settled into this careful observation for awhile, we move it to the hands. We spend time feeling the hands in careful detail: the warmth of the palms, the webs between the fingers, the sensitive finger pads, the nail beds. The hands often start feeling heavy, full, and warm. They may even start to tingle. After attention is well- established in the hands, we begin to alternate: from hands to nostrils and back, over and over. We go slowly at first, spending several breaths focused on the nasal breath, then on the hands, in turns. The pace gently quickens, little by little, until we draw attention up to the nostrils on each in-breath and let it flow down to the hands on the out-breaths. Soon, we start to feel the vitality itself, a subtle vibrating quality of presence, or aliveness, flowing down, ebbing up, over and over? Though it may take some practice, it’s not difficult, and it’s a lovely way to tap into vitality.
A biological view of death and how it serves Life.
After Death Discussion
This essay covers a lot of ground in a speculative manner. Unlike most of the content on this site, it touches on controversial topics. Please consider it a lighthearted jaunt through a landscape of ideas, not a weighty statement of belief.
I don’t know what happens after we die. But if we start with the premise that most spiritual and philosophical traditions possess part of the truth, then this model offers a fair synthesis. It incorporates common themes, and it echoes the way nature recycles everything.
How could this comfort us? Imagine a mother who dies, leaving behind young children. At first, her maternal love will keep most of her soul-stuff nearby. Later, when the kids appear to be doing well, part of her might move away to enter a new family. Another part might go further, flowing into a sea of pure consciousness, dispersed and unperturbed. Eventually, when her loved ones reach the ends of their lives, part of her might re-aggregate to greet them. Then, as ages pass, all remainders dissolve. The mother’s patterns, and her children’s, gradually mix with those of countless others, until distinct traces vanish. To me, such creative flow sounds comforting.
While inevitable dissipation would dash hope of eternal preservation, it offers solace. We give up notions of both immortality and mortality, for something—or many things—in between. Perhaps death isn’t an absence of possibilities; perhaps it’s an abundance of them.
This isn’t purely an intellectual exercise for me. During meditative and spontaneous experiences of transcendence, these ideas have seemed like realizationsrather than speculations. So this view of death is meaningful to me, personally. I’m not sure how much my altered state experiences should influence what I believe, and they should influence others even less. Still, they flavor what I’m writing, so they warrant mention.
Obviously, I could be wrong. What I’m envisioning matches the natural world and aligns with my direct experience, but it’s still just envisioning.
The goal here isn’t to answer the big questions about life after death. Mainly, it’s to bring people together. Given the anger—and sometimes hatred—between groups that disagree about the afterlife, it’s important to reconcile views to the extent possible. I’m suggesting a way to begin. Beyond that, I’m trying to make sense of traditions that have helped me, which range from the extravagantly spiritual to the strictly scientific.
In my opinion, it’s pointless to talk about an afterlife without asking how it might occur. Admittedly, my opinion has been shaped by a scientific education, but that doesn’t invalidate it. I respect that religions operate on faith, and I believe faith has a lot of value. But if we are to come together around a shared understanding of the world, we need more. It would be nice to have solid proof, but we don’t. The next best thing would be a plausible mechanism.
Religious and skeptical dogmatists dismiss evidence that doesn’t fit their world view, even if it looks pretty reliable. Speculative mechanisms won’t convince anyone committed to an opposing belief. But it might be useful to those with open minds.
First, let me explain why a ‘mechanism’ could make a difference. Human experience is a dynamic pattern of sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and so on. It is situated in the much larger pattern of change we call reality. Patterns occur all around us. Common ones are ocean waves, music, and galaxies. They require some sort of structure or medium, such as ocean surfaces, musical instruments, or the fabric of spacetime. Prior conditions set up the patterns, and the structure sustains them. In the case of ocean waves, local movements of water molecules sustain waves as they travel hundreds of miles. In this case, small-scale movements of water comprise the structural mechanism of long-range propagation of waves.
Some patterns are simple, like the regularity of sunrise and sunset. Structural mechanisms may also be simple: the sun and earth are separated by space, and the earth spins at a uniform rate, so the sun rises and sets, day after day after day. Other patterns are fantastically complex: our thoughts draw from a lifetime of influences, and they change moment-by-moment in idiosyncratic ways. Such dynamic complexity can only be sustained by a structure that’s at least that complex. Thought arises from the coordinated, fluctuating activity of millions of brain cells within a vast neural web. Because thinking is just one part of human consciousness, the entirety of a person’s experience is even more complex. If we are to continue after death in any form we’d recognize as a continuation, there must be something sustaining these fantastic patterns.
Religious believers don’t worry about this issue; their faith is enough, and if pressed, I imagine they’d say pure spirit is capable. But I was trained to want details. What might soul-stuff consist of, and how could it sustain patterns?
One possibility was articulated by Irvin László: quantal processes throughout space might hold vast amounts of information in an organized way. By sustaining flow and change in the information, this ‘akashic field’ might enable our consciousness to persist even after the storage system we call a brain dies.
Another possibility has been proposed in various forms. Perhaps the brain acts like a receiver rather than a generator of consciousness. We know TV shows aren’t generated within television sets; perhaps our individual soul pattern isn’t generated within our individual brain. Instead, the brain receives soul-signals broadcast from elsewhere, which we experience as personal consciousness.
So what is doing the broadcasting? Maybe it’s the akashic field proposed by László, but maybe it relies more on biology than physics. Personal consciousness might arise in a distributed way, from multiple brains rather than one. Just as large websites run on multiple servers, perhaps individual consciousness runs on multiple brains. Most of the activity would be in the individual’s own brain, but some would run on the brains of acquaintances, and possibly even strangers or animals. If so, then aspects of individual consciousness could persist after the individual’s death. (There are psychological parallels to this idea, as summarized in the book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone).
Notice that soul-stuff grows less mysterious with these proposals. We now envision a flow of patterned and conscious information, either in an akashic field or a collection of brains. We’re used to information flow, which happens all the time in our devices. What’s more, some scientists model brain activity using equations developed for flow in bodies of water, and with a bit of a leap, we can envision this extended across multiple brains.
Of course, we’d still need to explain how the patterned flow propagates between brains, which is a tall order. I’ll explore that question in a moment.
First let’s look at the tableau so far. We’ve sketched hypothetical mechanisms for an afterlife that might, someday, be scientifically tested. How plausible they are is debatable, but if proven they’d go a long way toward reconciling spirituality and science. Mindful Biology has hoped to contribute to that project its inception.
But what if atheists and skeptics (and most neuroscientists) are right and our consciousness ends when our brain does? Does that rule out life beyond death?
Not really. For one thing, when individuals die their impact on the world continues. Here’s an example: my mother died in 1965, but one of her effects (me) is still here. To the extent she influenced people around her, and to the extent I’ve influenced those around me, her lasting ‘footprint’ is larger still.
Life, as a communal and biospheric process, does not die when we do. This explains why people try to leave legacies. It partly explains why the rich fund buildings stamped with their names. And lest those of us without legacies or fortunes feel insignificant, we can remember the the butterfly effect from chaos theory. It shows how tiny actions may have big consequences. If we invite a destitute couple home for a meal, and this restores their faith in humanity so they bring a child into the world, and that child grows up to solve a major planetary problem, then our kindness has improved the future for millions of people. Sure, we’d neither know nor (gasp!) get credit, but we’d have had a major impact on collective wellbeing. Any one of our actions could shape the future in a big way, and every one of them shapes it in small ones. Surely we live on in this important sense.
The way our actions propagate through time establishes a sort of afterlife, but it’s not the sort religious folk envision. They picture humans surviving beyond death, not just the effects of human action.
So consider how Albert Einstein once consoled a bereaved friend by assuring him that his wife remained as alive as ever in spacetime. In Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, time is merely one dimension on equal footing with three spatial ones. Just as trees don’t disappear after we pass them, moments of our life don’t disappear after we live them. They persist ‘forever’ in four dimensional spacetime. We are eternal in a very real sense, if this part of the theory is correct.
It might not be correct. Physicists continue to debate the nature of time. Even so, this manner of life beyond death can’t be dismissed as non-scientific fantasy.
According to anecdotal and experimental reports, people have accurately described events distant in space and time. Some accounts can be written off as coincidence, delusion, or fraud, but others seem credible. Some striking anecdotal reports have been vetted, and some experiments have been replicated by careful researchers. On a personal level, a few events in my life seem difficult to explain any other way. Granted, skeptics dismiss all these reports. Yet they often base their dismissals on little more than the insistence: “that’s impossible”, which is hardly convincing.
If brains can gather information beyond ordinary limits of space and time, then they might also (though unconsciously) share information with one another via the same channels. A flow of information between brains could be the basis of distributed individual consciousness, as proposed above. This doesn’t answer the basic question of how information broadcasts between brains, but if the reports of ‘impossible’ knowing are accurate, then a mechanism exists even if we’ve yet to explain it scientifically.
When added to Einstein’s notion of persons remaining ‘alive’ in prior regions of spacetime, the proposal can be extended: perhaps personal consciousness can run today on brains that existed yesterday. This would mean that after we die it could run—in part—on our own brain, resonating through spacetime with neural activity back when we were alive.
So what are we envisioning now? Our individual consciousness runs on numerous brains that exist currently and historically. And when one brain dies, personal consciousness persists (in modified form) using all those other brains. Hence, an afterlife.
In addition to distributed brains (or instead of them), personal consciousness still might arise from Laszlo’s akashic field or mechanisms I haven’t heard about or imagined. The game here is playing with possibilities, and I’d welcome new ones.
And if you find all this too untethered to take seriously, I don’t blame you. But if you’ll bear with me, I promise this post will sound more grounded before it ends.
One could ask: why insist on mechanism? Isn’t that using the reductionist strategy? Well, yes. Reductionism’s faults don’t come from the method; they come from acting like reduction is all we need. While I’m convinced complex experience can only arise from complex structures, I don’t believe structures—by themselves—will ever explain all our experiences.
So what has this line of thinking accomplished using the reductionist approach? It has sketched a hypothesis linking the afterlife to consciousness and brains. If we were to continue, the next steps would be empirical. We’d want to: 1) firmly establish that brains can access information distant in time and space, 2) find the mechanism that allows such access, 3) show the same mechanism linking brains across time and space, and 4) demonstrate activity in living brains consistent with the sustenance of ongoing experience for people whose bodies have died.
I don’t know if this proposal deserves that much effort, and I’ll probably die without knowing if there’s any validity in it. But in the spirit of this post, I wonder: could my interest in the question prompt an afterlife that shows me the answer?
Is the organic afterlife dualistic?’ I don’t think so. Structure doesn’t hold consciousness the way a cup holds water. Soul-stuff consists of both structure andconsciousness. The two are simply different views of the single mystery we call Life. Their relationship could be summarized like this: a conscious mind is what brain structure looks like from the inside, and brain structure is what a conscious mind looks like from the outside. Similarly, no one says the ocean containswaves; waves are simply part of its nature.
We don’t need to explore the vast conceptual territory around structure and consciousness. Yet there is one question we should ask with regard to the afterlife. If structured activity gives rise to patterned experience, what happens to experience when structured activity ceases?
About 14 billion years ago, at the time of the Big Bang, the cosmos was fiercely dynamic but not very structured. And according to some scientific accounts, thousands of billions of years in the future it will contain plenty of structure, but very little dynamism. The patterns we know as human experience cannot exist at either extreme. But does any experience?
Skeptics, atheists, and most neuroscientists don’t equivocate. For them, the answer is NO. But they’ve yet to prove their hypothesis, and many people doubt it.
I’m going to state my opinion without much explanation. It’s based on a combination of direct experience and my understanding of several spiritual traditions, scientific disciplines, and philosophical outlooks. It’s also based on my esthetic preference, plus something that could be called faith.
I like the Hindu notion of satcitananda, or being-consciousness-bliss. I’m no expert, but as I understand it, the term describes the qualities of ultimate reality, which is the source and substance of everything else. Applying it to a cosmos without dynamic structure, it suggests an experience that remains: one of pure being, pure knowing, and pure love.
In this undifferentiated state, knowing and love are not directed toward an object, and being isn’t observed by something separate. There simply is being, knowing and loving, silent and contained. Many people have touched mystical states that feel like this.
I bring this up because it may be relevant to the ultimate fate of personal soul-accumulations: dissolution into an undifferentiated sea of soul-stuff. Presumably, this sea existed prior to complex dynamic structure, and will remain after the cosmos runs down. When our personal accumulation—or the entire cosmos—relaxes into that sea, tumultuous patterns cease. In their place settles a spacious, timeless experience of being, knowing, and love. Though this isn’t a heaven inhabited by everlasting souls and angels, it sounds pretty nice to me.
Many people would reject a placid sea in favor of rapids, cascades, and surf. For them, there’s the option of cycling back to the dynamic structures of reality, and taking new form. And the cosmos? Does it have the option of resuming structure-building after it reaches its end? Many traditions speak of cycles of creation, and we hear cosmologists say we exist in a so-called multiverse, in which new universes are born all the time. So perhaps our cosmos has options if it ‘wants’ to resume. Yet if we look at its full expanse, from beginning to end, a nearly infinite variety of patterns is seen. Maybe the cosmos doesn’t needan after-life, because its present-life is so full. And maybe, maybe, humanity could find a lesson in that.
Whether or not the current hypothesis has truth in it, our lives are shaped by countless historical events. They also reach far into the future, through the cascading effects of our actions. These facts are down-to-earth, yet they point to something that sounds mystical: we are not separate but deeply connected. Our experience of Life interweaves with the lives of those around us, those who have died, and those yet to be born.
That this post zeroes in on a mystical perspective was preordained. Much of what I write does exactly that (eg, What Is Life?). The difference this time is how the ‘science’ is so speculative. Still, the message remains consistent with lessons from established fields. In ecological, psychological, and quantum mechanical terms, we aren’t separate individuals. Like the mystics say: we’re all one.
Before closing, let’s look more deeply at justice. As usually described, karma and reincarnation balance out unfairness. But as noted, they seem suspect when the ruling elite uses them to justify its status. Also uncertain is the notion that cruel individuals feel the pain of their cruelty in an afterlife. It’s a nice idea, but it’s hard to be sure.
So is there no evidence of justice? Only if we deny the mystical view.
If we are all one, karma takes on new meaning. During life it looks like some people oppress and torment others, but beyond our narrow view as living persons, there is a larger web of connection. Within that web, harm to one is harm to all. This may seem speculative, but there are tangible correlates.
Consider the karmic legacy of slavery, genocide, and theft of indigenous land during US history. We see a price being paid today for the crimes of past centuries. The heaviest burden falls on descendants of enslaved and displaced populations, but the entire nation is beset by distrust, violence, insecurity, and pessimism. So the karmic effect is widespread, affecting everyone in this country and many beyond its borders.
Today in the US we no longer allow slavery, and Native Americans enjoy some control over their remaining lands. The worst crimes are in the past. How is karma just if it affects people who are marginally culpable? Even more concerning, where is justice if the descendants of the wronged are the ones who suffer most? I can’t provide answers, but I believe this: from a mystical perspective, the ‘organism of Life’ (as I call reality) feels all pains from all causes, and each of us is part of that organism.
But let’s look at what we know for sure. One way or another, we all suffer pain in a culture rife with oppression. Though the wealthiest are insulated from the worst of it, they know their situation is precarious. Frightened of humanity, they hire bodyguards and politicians to defend their position. And they never seem satisfied. Maybe that’s small consolation when we watch billionaires fund private spaceships while so many are destitute. Still, their lives look desolate to me, no matter how many mansions and admirers they enjoy.
It’s hard to be sure about individual justice. Some cruel people may never suffer major consequences, either in life or death. Yet cruelty blocks them from the true source of joy in Life: our intimate connection with All. Until the selfish renounce selfishness, they are doomed to miserly isolation. Which is a bit of justice, I think.
If selfishness only harmed the selfish, we could let it be its own reward. But, of course, it causes harm to the global populace, non-human life, and the entire biosphere. With its focus on individual comfort and desire, selfishness may doom the planet to ecological and societal pain for generations to come. In this sense, our ‘afterlife’ isn’t speculative at all, and the organism of Life will reap the karma of it.
We’ve played with several visions of the afterlife. Though they interrelate, the picture probably looks muddled. To close with a bit of clarity, it’s worth looking at the skeptical position one last time. What if death really is the end? Would that that be so awful?
Depression has dogged me almost continuously since age twenty. For years it seemed to demand suicide. During those times, the idea of death-as-end-of-me seemed almost irresistibly attractive. With that plus an atheist upbringing in my past, I’m comfortable with the skeptical view. I remain unconvinced by it, but if it’s correct, that’s fine by me.
I see benefits in the idea of consciousness ending when bodies do: If this life is all we get, then it’s all the more important to cherish it as much and as often as we can.
Building up our ability to cherish Life is the whole point of Mindful Biology. Disagreements about religious views blunt this ability by spurring hatred, oppression, and violence. We’d be wise to reconcile different perspectives, if we can. We would also be wise to discourage selfish behavior that propagates harm into the future, via the only form of afterlife that’s beyond dispute.
And no matter what happens after death, our lives pass quickly. So the wisest choice of all is to cherish Life right now, as much as we are able.
Death’s Presence Discussion
When I first launched this project, its focus was the mind-body relationship. I looked at my work as offering something like marriage counseling, to help mind and body coexist harmoniously. I challenged how our minds criticize, punish, command, and resist our biological bodies, and I hoped to inspire kinder attitudes and behaviors.
After a time, I began feeling uneasy about dividing selves in two, and I now speak less about mind and body as separate entities. Even so, it remains useful to examine our attitude toward the body and, especially, our fear of it. And it seems clear one of our deepest fears arises from our mortality. In this essay, we look at the pervasive fear that alienates us from our bodies.
It seems to me that criticism of the body is driven by our fear that others won’t find us attractive, or that illness will limit our activities, and that death must uproot us from this world. We punish and command the body in fearful hope of optimizing its ability to get us what we want. We resist the body because we fear the way it feels, or the changes in lifestyle it requests or demands.
Some religious thought takes these fears to the extreme and rejects the body altogether. In its place, we are offered dreams of life as pure spirit, free of bodily earthiness, pain, and vulnerability. Perhaps an untroubled, disembodied existence awaits us, but for now we dwell as biological forms. To fear them is not helpful, and it’s probably unhealthy. Fear is stressful, and prolonged stress depresses both immunity and mood.
Where does all this fear come from? Part of it is cultural. We compete in a society where the comely, strong, and capable get the best jobs, the sexiest lovers, and the highest acclaim. Since looks and strength are bodily attributes, and the capacity to master skills comes from a bodily brain, we can’t help but fear our bodies aren’t good enough. Too much depends on them.
Another part is personal. We see ourselves as singularly important beings. Because we reside at the apparent center of the activity surrounding us, it’s nearly automatic to see our ‘self’ as the axis around which all revolves. Even in less individualistic cultures that value families and communities more than single persons, one’s own family or community matters most. When our personal identities and local tribes are valued more than the rest, we fret about the bodies we know and love, which are vital to our standing.
Meanwhile, ease is discouraged by news feeds that show families, villages, and regions hammered by disease, conflict, and natural disaster. No wonder we fear these soft, warm bodies, so easily are they damaged.
Beyond all the facts of life is the fact of death. It hovers in the background of awareness, sometimes lunging forward and confronting us with the body’s inevitable decline, demise, and decay.
What’s missing from competitive obsessions, personal and tribal fixations, journalistic reports, and personal mortality is the bigger picture: our planet spins and life—one way or another—keeps growing and evolving. Living things are neither isolated nor independent; they are sustained by regional ecologies that are embedded in the biosphere, which relies on the sun, and so on. If the body is viewed in isolation, we face a frightening prospect: life within a wet, squishy, mortal thing that ages over time. But if it is viewed in context, we know we live in a vast unfolding process, awash with startling forms.
From whence arose all this creativity? We know about a Big Bang, and we know about natural selection, but to date we don’t know how or why things started. We live in a beautiful mystery that’s been blossoming for ages, without visible endpoint in time or space. Even if this universe, after untold billions of years, cools to the point that life can’t exist, it’s likely that countless other universes will continue.
You could say our predicament is awesome. Consider this definition of the word (from dictionary.com): inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear. The trick is to see how fear can be lessened by reverence and admiration. We will feel frightened as long as we look at vulnerability and mortality as mistakes, as problems that pit us against other people, other communities, and the natural world. But if we look beyond this narrow perspective and see life’s ongoing glory, we can release fear and embrace the pageantry.
One time I was hiking a local mountain with a friend who suffers mild agoraphobia. After we reached the top, with the ocean glittering far below, he said he felt ‘panicked.’ I asked him to describe his sensations, and he reported feeling warm, flushed, and lightheaded, with a fluttering in his chest. I asked: “how is that different from falling in love?” At that moment, his experience shifted from panic to awe. He saw beauty where before he had seen terror.
Fear is debilitating. Wonder is energizing. We think a thick wall separates the two, but they’re like the the two surfaces of a single leaf. Before us glows a single reality that looks terrible or sublime, depending on how we look at it.
As long as we see ourselves as isolated, uniquely special entities that must battle competitors, we will fear our vulnerable bodies. But as we expand our sense of self to include all other people, the whole world, and the unending cosmos, anxiety will fade. A self as vast as all creation does not age, does not die, and cannot be harmed.
Each day, cells within our bodies die and are replaced by new ones. Each day, humans die and are replaced by new ones. On much longer timeframes, solar systems die and are replaced. This is not wrong; it is the way of things. Abolishing fear means opening our eyes to this truth and accepting its wisdom. Once we see our lives in context, our bodies no longer look badly made: they serve their purpose for the time allotted. That is all evolution designed them to do, and it’s all they need do. The universe touches us in these bodies; indeed, it is these bodies. We need not be afraid.