Last year awakened me to my life’s purpose. A series of disappointments forced me to abandon paths that had seemed interesting but were not leading to my center. More clearly than ever, I saw how biology has always guided me. Every time life has grown supportive, meaningful, and healing, it’s been because I leaned deeper into my love of life science.
It isn’t a big leap from love of life science to love of life itself. As this realization hit home lat last year, I accepted biology as my wisdom path. Thus was a new project born, after gestating during all the previous decades of my life. I call it Mindful Biology.
Here’s the idea: if biology can guide me toward wisdom, then it can do the same for others. Note that I’m not talking about simple knowledge. By reading a textbook we gain concepts, but not insight. Wisdom and insight are used here in their more rarefied senses. They don’t refer only to the ability to make sensible choices and see situations clearly. In addition, they point to a deeply rooted knowing. Reality is embraced as an a evolving process that tumbles forward, one circumstance into the next, with humans and other beings spinning as transient swirls in an unbanked river that stretches from unremembered mountains toward an infinitely distant sea.
Really? Is that what biology offers as wisdom? How can something that abstract help any of us?
It’s hard not to draw on Buddhism for answers. The First Noble Truth tells us that life (as lived on conventional terms) is inherently unsatisfying, a conundrum due to the reality just described. In these ever-spinning currents without shore or bed, there is nothing to grab that offers stability or lasting satisfaction. Our companions and artefacts are too transient and our biology too reactive. The problem of transience seems obvious (lasting comfort can’t be found in what doesn’t last), but reactivity? What’s the difficulty there? Each pleasure stirs a frisson, a wave of excitement. But just as waves, by nature, rise and fall, so does sensual gratification lead to emotional pitch and roll. Yes, a new love affair feels electric, but as the sparks settle we find the lack of static somehow disappointing, as the reward circuits in the brain clamor for more. We can’t settle cravings by indulging them, no matter how lucky we are in romance or finance. Feed the system as much worldly gain as you can; it always demands more.
Living by indulging only roils the waters, and yet the system feels such hunger! How can we find our way to ease?
Biology can help. If we truly understand and–importantly–listen to our bodies, the turmoil lessens.
Think of the graying and wrinkling some of see when we look in the mirror. Our culture conditions us to feel embarrassed and deprived as youth recedes. But what of the larger biological picture? Living forms are born, develop, mature, involute, and die. This is the way of the world. Sure, a little nostalgia may be unavoidable. But embarrassment and deprivation? Doesn’t it seem unfair to confront our organic processes with such negative resistance when they’re only proceeding naturally? In other words, when impermanence is accepted as a necessary biological fact, it ceases to feel so personal.
Then think what happens when we see some object or person we desire. Dopamine circuits in the brain spark that thrill of anticipation. In an instant, we’re on alert, our attention riveted to this object of fascination. Yet the frisson falters soon if we win our prize, and generates rank frustration if we don’t. Well, break this down. How can our unceasing urges lead us toward lasting peace when they result from temporary squirts of brain chemicals? Understanding how cravings are generated, and how they lead to dissatisfaction whether consummated or not, can free us from feeling enslaved by them.
We pin our hopes on the material world, but impermanence and neural responses doom us to angst and turmoil. As an alternative, we can seek peace of mind by looking inward rather than outward. We can find ease, and even rapture, by investigating the inner self. Here’s a suggestion for how to proceed:
Feel the body from the inside. Feel its throbbing, its heat, its comforts and discomforts. Offer your organism compassion for all it has endured in this chaotic world: all the stress, disappointment, and trauma. With time and practice, subtle compassion will begin to echo back from soma toward psyche. The body, with its ailing parts burdened by history, offers us its concern. It knows better than anyone how much we suffer. And in the intimacy of this mutual regard, we can recognize that the body has always done its best to adapt to circumstances. Granted, it has operated by its own principles, which are often contrary to the mind’s preferences. We might bemoan how quickly we react, how edgy we often feel, but the soma is only trying to protect us. When it generates pain, the body is calling us inward, asking us to focus on our physicality. In falling ill, it offers us a break from our own intensity. Even as it dies our organism serves us, as it brings into focus the splendid miracle of mortal life, and the imperative of yielding to new growth on this earth. The mind initially rejects such logic, of course, but the body remains faithful to its own intelligence, and as we settle inward, its powers of adaptation begin to seem obvious.
The more we dwell in inner communion with the body, the more we understand its responses as oddly fitting, and the more we begin to trust our own physiology. As the mind makes peace with the body’s way of reacting, the body begins to align with the mind’s way of understanding. On the one hand, as pains and limitations are viewed as messages from body to mind, health problems cease feeling like lonely and dumb afflictions. On the other, pains gradually lessen and limitations decrease as soma and psyche heal one another. We feel more vital and grounded, more ready to pursue our callings, with body and mind unified in higher purpose.