We live in a universe, and everything we see—including our own body—comes from it. In this sense, Life is universal. So is the vitality that powers our bodies.
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.
Which brings us to birth and death. At first glance, death seems like the opposite of Life. But 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!