In college, a friend gave me a 45 single of Elvis Presley’s Burning Love. I played it obsessively for a time, but then I put it away and forget about it. It came to mind sometime ago as I watched the movie, Elvis. Coincidentally, at the time I was looking at Mindful Biology through the lens of the four elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire.
Fire and Love are natural companions. Think of phrases like ‘fiery romance’, ‘hot sex’, and…’burning love’. But what do we mean by fire in this context? We don’t burst into flames, no matter how heated our passion. Maybe we mean something like energy.
The formula tells us matter and energy are interchangeable, or—equivalently—that matter is condensed energy. Energy thus undergirds all states of matter. So energy is pervasive in the body: in its substance as much as its feelings and movements.
By eating and breathing we supply the body with energy. Body heat, muscular action, and all other bodily processes require metabolic energy. The chemistry is a lot like the chemistry of a campfire. Oxygen plus organic matter yields energy plus carbon dioxide. The body parallel between energy and fire is clear.
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—however subtle—flowing through our bodies.
It’s worth looking at the energy in the heart of matter, as physicists understand it. At some point, this will mean 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. The atom gets its size from this electron cloud, while its mass is packed in the tiny 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 open, vibratory, and packed with energy. If we return to our body, we can feel something similar: an aliveness that is spacious and vibrant, but also brimming with potency. This spacious fullness is not a concept; it’s an experience (check out the meditation below 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, we discover 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 connect with the energy that fills our experience, we meet the entirety of our being. Bodily energy underpins the whole organism, filling it 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 perhaps not just growth of material form, but growth of compassion, contentment, and wisdom. Energy keeps us adapting to challenges. It drives us to learn from them. It keeps us trying—again and again—despite pain, loss, trauma, and fear. Over time, it helps us mature.
We can engage this energy to be even more effective, to grow more swiftly and intentionally. 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, as the energy we feel in our bodies responds to the energy we see in the world.
We burn with an inner fire of energy that shines into the natural world as much as it comes from it. Our energies resonate with those of the world, including the human parts of it. To me, this resonance feels musical.
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 lets musical right hemisphere reclaim—for a moment—its share of the music of life.
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 Energy of Life.
Which brings us back to Elvis. Something powerful drove him to move and sing. We can call it energy or fire, 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.