Deep inside our cells, there is a great deal of hollowness. This isn’t the emptiness that Buddhist meditators seek to apprehend directly, but simply a surprising lack of substance. For instance, if we enlarged the nucleus of a carbon atom up to the size of a basket ball, the nearest electron would orbit several miles away. So an accurate model of a DNA molecule, with its carbon, nitrogen, and other atoms spiraling in a helix, would look like myriad tiny dots very widely separated. The same with every other biomolecule that comprises our bodies.
Yet these specks are arranged with stunning precision in complex molecular machines that perform all the functions a lifeform requires. Proteins slide along DNA strands and copy them so our cells can regenerate, or so we can mate with the opposite gender and generate a new being. Proteins form enzymes that convert the sugars we eat into energy that allows us to perceive, move, and live. Proteins form receptors that detect hormones and neurotransmitters to sculpt the way we feel.
All these fabulous processes occur in cells, which in our bodies number trillions. Microscopic in size they are specialized as muscle cells, nerve cells, reproductive cells, skin cells, immune cells, and so on. All of this life orchestrated by ceaseless neural, hormonal, and sensory signals that we can’t begin to track consciously. At our best we might be aware of a tiny fraction of the activity that affects us from within and without.
And yet here we are: me writing, you reading, feeling very ordinary about it all. We hold notions about history. Perhaps we believe the universe to be random, and our presence here merely the result of happenstance. Perhaps we believe in a creative deity that formed us all. Perhaps we don’t know what to believe, or don’t care about origins, but we know our names and our families and our personal stories. So much information, so much interpretation, so much conjecture, our minds mulling things over but seldom stopping to look at the miracle this all represents.
For make no mistake: no matter how we came to be, we are miraculous. And so is the tiniest single-celled organism whirling about in a puddle outside. This is the beauty of biology, the stunning complexity and fecund activity of living.
My high school sweetheart’s mother was a research biologist. When she found out I shared her passion, she bought her daughter contraceptives. In her opinion, every life scientist starts out interested in sex, then moves on from there. Of course, that also describes the average teenaged boy, but I’ve never forgotten what she said, because yes, sex was one of the aspects of life that drew me in. But so did maple trees, dragonflies, ant colonies, turtle eggs, and mold.
Life is so miraculous, so utterly sublime, that it is worth remembering that we don’t just observe biology, we experience it. The next time you hear a meditation teacher guide you to follow your breathing, picture the inhalation bringing air into your lungs, and imagine the gases diffusing into your blood. The red cells extract oxygen while your heart pulses the soupy fluid through your body. Some of it races to your brain, powering acts of noticing, meditating, and loving.
Why did I choose to write about this tonight? Because of desire. In a recent series of posts (some here and some on my personal blog) I described how desire causes problems. I explored the Eastern approach of working to eliminate desire from mental life. Some commentators objected, and I’ve given their take on things due consideration. So tonight I feel a yearning to highlight the majesty of the biosphere and the forces that keep it alive. I feel like celebrating the flip side of the bodily stirrings that make us want to breathe, eat, copulate, and ponder. All these urges propel us through life, as we stumble to make sense of it all and not hurt anyone in the process.
How could something as ancient and natural as desire be a bad thing? Hunger, and the striving it stimulates, are the bases of survival.
But don’t forget that unmanaged desire does lead to problems. It seduces us into bad decisions. It leaves us panting with frustration. It angers us.
Imagine, for a moment, that everything in your life felt wanted, exactly as it is. Imagine not worrying about expenses, or feeling frustrated with unreliable people, or irritated on the job, or wishing that your partner would act just a little more understanding. Imagine if you had no desire for anything to be different from the way it is in this very moment. I submit that would be true freedom.
But would it be true life?
Some day I hope to find ultimate peace and permanent, penetrating insight. It would be nice to never lapse into wanting anything other than what I already have. Until I find lasting grace, however, I will muddle along. I will montor my urges and aversions, my regrets and hopes, and I will try to make sensible choices. There is hope for realization, but in the meantime, there is life.