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. Savor it!