Somatic Faith

Our feelings about our bodies form a background for our lives. For many of us, this background is one of fearfulness. The young fear their bodies won’t win them love; the old fear illness and decrepitude. Although the worries change, a habit of fear remains.

Changing from a habit of fear to one of trust takes time. It also takes tools. For instance, we need mindfulness; as we become familiar with bodily sensations, with their ebbs and flows, we feel less frightened by them. We also need knowledge; by learning how the body works, how it defends itself, and how it heals, we build faith in it. With mindful knowledge, we begin to trust the body to take care of itself. If severe pain or some other major symptom arises, we seek medical attention, but the flow of feelings no longer alarms us. As age advances, we adapt to the changes it brings. We support the aging body with good nutrition, healthful exercise, and so on, but we also accept the inevitability of decline. When necessary we seek advice and support, but we know the body has its own intelligence; we know it can work most things out on its own.

MindfulBiology encourages readers to seek mindfulness instruction. These days, that can easily be done online, and you can find a few guided mindfulness practices on this site. But it’s nice to work in person with others, and in most communities these days we can find meditation centers and yoga studios. For those who feel uncomfortable starting with those options, many hospitals and clinics offer mindfulness and movement classes.

There are just as many ways to learn about biology. However, the subject is usually taught with an emphasis on factual detail; to see how those details point to a body that can be trusted, one must read between the lines. A lecture about the respiratory system will teach you how moves air in and out, where molecules pass between atmosphere and bloodstream, and how hemoglobin transports oxygen from lungs to tissues. But you probably won’t be reminded that by performing these respiratory tasks, your body is making it possible for you to learn about them. In academic settings, biology instructors are tasked with delivering huge amounts of biological information; they don’t have time for lyrical musings to connect life science with daily life. This is where MindfulBiology comes to the rescue. Because it isn’t about career advancement, it can devote equal time to factual explanation and poetic exploration.

Paradoxically, the successes of modern biology and medicine have increased rather than lessened our fears. First, they’ve made us hyper-aware of all the ways bodies can fail. Second, clinical treatments are often painful and harrowing, so that even when they work we suffer a lot of trauma. Third, because of biomedicine’s focus on illness, it seldom reminds us that our days our bodies usually do fine on their own. Medicine gives us the impression that bodies are unreliable, and that fixing them is expensive and unpleasant. It does not give us much reason for trust.

Again, this is where there’s a role for a program like MindfulBiology. Understanding how biology supports our human experience helps us begin trusting the body. Here are a few examples of the countless ways our bodies support us in Life:

  • Breathing: awake or asleep, our bodies breath. We don’t need to consciously inhale and exhale. When we want to, we can mentally direct the process, but when we our occupied in other ways, the autonomic functions of the body take over. Rarely, people suffer neurologic damage that impairs the body’s ability to breath automatically, and they need mechanical support to keep things going during the night. The fact that the vast majority of us don’t need such help is a testament to the body’s ongoing support.
  • Circulation: blood moves through the body every moment of our lives, except during times of major trauma, illness, or heart attack. In centuries past, loss of circulation meant certain death. These days, intensive medical care can get us through such crises, but most of the time we don’t need it. Instead, the heart pumps blood through our vessels without us thinking much about the absolute necessity of this constant flow. The fluids percolate beneath awareness, allowing us to live, love, and learn.
  • Digestion: In 2012 I suffered an internal hemorrhage. The medical crisis played a key role in MindfulBiology, in particular because the large mass of blood blocked the movement of food through my intestines, so for six weeks I couldn’t eat required hours of intravenous feeding every day. It felt odd to be excused from the task of eating; I noticed more clearly than ever before how much we focus on obtaining and eating food, and how much socialization occurs around meal tables. I also gained appreciation for how the body takes care of whatever we eat: digesting it, removing nutrients; and expelling waste. We think a lot about eating our meals, but very little about happens after we swallow them. We enjoy the eating, but leave everything else to our reliable bodies.
  • Immunity: In the fall of 1983, I began medical school in San Francisco, which meant I trained during the early years of the AIDS epidemic in one of the hardest hit cities. The virus hadn’t even been isolated when I enrolled, and the first effective treatment for it (AZT) didn’t become available until just before I graduated. During my years of clinical education, I met hundreds of young people (mostly gay men) who were sliding down a sickening slope from vigor, to malaise, to wasting, to death. For many years this terrified me. It seemed inconceivable that healthy, active young men could so quickly decline and die, suffering myriad awful infections along the way. Now, looking back, I realize there was a deeper message: most of the time our bodies protect us from all those microbes that destroyed the bodies of the early AIDS victims. We don’t realize it, but our immune systems keep countless organisms at bay, preventing them from over-running our systems and killing us. This is yet another bodily process that operates beyond awareness, but upon which our lives depend.

It would be easy to add more items to this list. In particular, we could explore all the ways our brains support human life as we know it. Effortlessly we see, hear, and move around our environments. We understand speech; we generate new ideas; we learn and gain wisdom. In ways that neuroscientists are just beginning to understand, billions of nerve cells work behind the scenes to give us this marvelous experience we call daily life.

With our bodies doing so many things to keep life going, don’t they deserve our trust rather than our fear? Whether we consciously acknowledge the fact or not, we depend on them every moment of every day. This is a kind of faith, and I believe we would feel happier and more secure if we made that faith more conscious.

Think of the comfort people derive from faith in an unseen God. I myself enjoy a faith along these lines, though I don’t believe in God as commonly understood. While I don’t think the world is under the control of a being who watches, manages, and judges us, I do feel supported by deep and mysterious forces I cannot name. Like more traditional religious belief, this faith helps me find meaning amidst the difficulties of life. Given that trust in unseen powers can feel sustaining, imagine how much we might benefit from trust in the very tangible and endlessly supportive body. Imagine how much better that would feel than the background of fear!