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.