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.