'make sure you're living life at it's most spherical; in all directions at once.' Federico Fellini
I’ve been filming down in Herefordshire and Dorset for ‘Escape’ which means I’ve also been out in the cold a lot in this chilly North wind. Nice though, I seem to have developed a permanent wind tan in my cheeks.
On the train journies up and down England I’ve been reading Candace Pert’s odd book ‘Molecules of Emotion’ – part treatise on the physical substrate of our emotions and part settling of old political scores within the scientific community. It’s a thought provoking book though – I knew nothing about these molecules (peptides) that carry information around the body and seem to be the bodily underpinning of emotions. The bridge between mind and body.
What really struck me as interesting was the idea that the brain does not rule the body. The human being is not a heirachy where the brain is in charge and the muscles and organs obey. Rather it’s like a non-centralized system with various ‘nodal’ points which gather and monitor the information flowing around. This means that there is information in the gastrointestinal system, in the endocrine system, in the immunological system as well as the the nervous system.
The peptides and their receptors (like the molecular “mail” and “letterbox” between cells) work in an information-sharing and monitoring system from cell-to-cell all over the body. So that the info in the gut regulates itself intelligently (ie. with feedback) and so does the hormone system, the immune system and the nervous system. Peptides are the common language across these different systems since they’re found in all four. For example serotonin (a peptide that famous creates a sense of wellbeing in the brain) also has functions in the immune system and the gut.
This leads to the odd notion that the mind is not just the brain but the whole body. So that phrases like ‘I’ve got a gut feeling about this’ turn out to be literally correct. The body knows things independently of the brain. In fact, Pert postulates, the cells of the body are probably the place where the ‘unconscious’ memories that come up in psychotherapy reside, not in the brain.
To the Western scientific mind this sounds a bit like poppycock. How can the stomach know things? How can the spleen remember? It’s just gut and red stuff. The brain is where it’s at in terms of ‘knowing’ things. But actually, when you think about it, the brain’s just cells and grey stuff too. It’s only habit and metaphor that leads us to think that one set of cells can hold important information while others just do drudge work. In fact, they’re all phenomenally complicated and webbed into this bogglingly complex pattern of information exchange.
Our emotions ride on top of the patterns these chemical messengers follow. They are the physical substance of how we ‘feel’. In this way emotions and their chemical underpinnings are the bridge between the physical body and our mental world. The dazzlingly complex dance of all these information molecules create the ‘feeling’ of existence through time.
The peptides are constantly adjusting themselves in response to other changes elsewhere and form an incredibly rapid-response weather system. They never stay still. Indeed trying to hinder that constant change would be fatal – like stopping the Gulf Stream. It is the clear flowing and unobstracted self-regulation that causes a sense of wellbeing. Free flowing weather the sign of an optimally functioning human being.
And in line with my recent pondering on upekkha (equanimity) this molecular dance doesn’t care if things are going well or badly. The body has a perfectly stocked arsenal of peptides and ligands to cope with illness and anger as well as health and happiness. The darker emotions and feeling are as natural and necessary as thunderstorms and rain.
In a strange way, none of this is so surprising to a meditator. The Buddhist notion of the five-fold mind – consciousness, thought, emotion, perception, body – already creates a framework which dissolves the mind-body divide. But Pert’s book (and doubtless countless other psychoneuroimmunolgical textbooks) seems to give it all a concrete biological slant.
In her interesting biography, Pert moves from being a hardheaded scientific machine to a full-blown favorite of the West Coast Body-Mind-Spirit circuit. She enthusiastically endorses meditation as the way to introduce conscious adjustments into this largely non-conscious system. We become mindful of our emotions as they swirl and change. The speed at which our information network works and adjusts is the sign of a healthy organism. We want instant and subtle feeback. This means we have to LISTEN to what our bodies are telling us and what our emotions and thoughts are doing.
She also draws the same conclusions that Buddhist and Yogic practitioners drew many thousands of years ago: this miraculous synergy of mind, emotion and the body needs to be cared for. Basic yogic morality: look after your body and your emotions. Rely more on internal chemicals (endogenous endorphins produced by excercise or serotonin produced by meditation) rather than alien external ones like coffee or alcohol which work on one network (the nervous) but cause side-effects and unwanted turbulence in others (immune, gastrointestinal, hormonal). Our bodies contain all the chemistry we need to be happy and healthy. Anything you add from outside is not as finely tuned and balanced as our natural pharmacopia.
One other interesting thing jumped out at me from the Pert book. The idea that information rather than energy or matter is the motive force of the universe or – more particularly – of our bodies. These molecules all transfer information from one place to another. Again, I suspect this sense of information as the lingua franca is at the heart of meditation. This is how Pert, rather rhapsodically sees it:
Information! It is the missing piece that allows us to transcend the body-mind split of the Cartesian view, because by definition, information belongs to neither mind nor body, though it touches both. We must accept that it it occupies a whole new realm, one we can perhaps call the ‘inforealm’ which science has yet to explore. Although these basic [Cartesian] assumptions have been ingrained in our consciousness since the 16th and 17th centuries, information theory consititutes such a new language – a rich language of relatedness, cooperation, interdependence and synergy rather than simple force and response – that it helps us break out of our old patterns of thought. Now we can begin to conceptualize a different model of the universe and our place in it.