Our body chemistry changes, moment by moment. We feel this indirectly as energy levels rise and fall, fullness gives way to hunger, and arousal alternates with sleepiness. Many of these internal shifts are due to hormones.
The pituitary gland, connected directly to the hypothalamus in the brain, drives many of the body’s other glands, and so plays a big part in this hormonal drama. It is a primary means by which the nervous system influences somatic states. At the same time, hormones flow back into the brain, allowing the body’s responses to affect our minds.
Thus, as hormonal profiles change, so does inner experience. As a striking example, remember how attitudes toward sexuality and relationships transform during adolescence. While young children are curious about sex, teenagers feel driven by it. While in grade school kids ignore or mock the opposite gender, in high school they have trouble thinking of anything else. So much depends on hormones!
Hormones function as a bidirectional communication system. Since they are carried by blood, which has some similarity to sea water, we can imagine an ocean that flows between the brain on one shore and the body on the other. In this ocean are suspended the hormones that enable the two continents to converse in a fluid, organic way. It’s as if each coast marinates in wines from the opposite shore.
Hormonal fluctuations are especially striking during sexual maturation, but they influence daily experience throughout life. The sleepiness we feel at end of day, the edginess that floods us while rushing to work, and the warmth that arises as we spend time with loved ones all emerge, to an extent, from the body’s chemical ocean.
Take a moment, here and now, to sense your own inner state. Detect the qualities swimming in your sea of life. Are you anticipating your next meal? Your stomach may be secreting grehlin, a hormone that influences the brain and leads to sensations of hunger. Are you feeling alert and energetic? Your thyroid gland may be at work. Do you feel as if tension has been mounting for hours? There’s a good chance your pituitary has been stimulating your adrenal glands to secrete stress hormones.
You might even try closing your eyes while resting in a comfortable position. Imagine your body suspended in warm tropical waters, where currents are washing you with all the chemicals that influence your inner state. As if you are a delicate sea creature, imagine how slight changes in the ocean’s composition affect you in subtle ways. Feel the momentary surges of energy, agitation, sleepiness, hunger, or lust, as they flow through you. Appreciate how your body reacts to hormonal eddies that are sometimes ripples and other times maelstroms. Feel some compassion for your responsive organism, alert to each shift in chemistry, whether it’s a major sea change or a simple ebb and flow. Before returning to your day, take a moment to honor your body’s sensitivity to the living ocean within.
This is the essence of MindfulBiology.org, a new project I’ve recently launched. It’s devoted to combining brief explanations of biology with guided meditations, with the aim of increasing our affection for this amazing human body. The website needs a lot of work, but I plan to gradually fill it with text and videos. I hope to encourage us all to remember how hard our bodies work, and how dearly they crave affection and care.