The Body as Beast of Burden

Moderns tend to look at the body as a dumb beast or worse, as a machine. Although impressive in its own way, the biomedical industry has convinced us that the human organism is a mere mechanism. While it is true we can replace hips and other joints with metal contraptions, and that such technology is a boon to many, that doesn’t mean the body is no different from the artifacts with which we repair it. To view the body as a mechanism, in principle no different from an automobile, amounts to an intellectual assault on our organic nature.

Mindful Biology believes its important to buck this trend. We begin by recognizing that the body is alive in every one of its cells. Each is a life form in its own right, just as every honeybee is an individual even as the hive is the unit that reproduces. The body is a society, with its cells, tissues, and organs each playing important roles in the drama of human life. Although conventional biologists don’t usually present human biology in this way, there’s nothing in their science that contradicts this viewpoint.

More controversial would be the notion that even large molecular clusters, such as the ones that copy DNA, transport materials, and build proteins, are functionally alive and not simply mechanical. The factual content of science doesn’t rule this possibility out, either, but its operating assumptions do. Modern science is based on mechanistic metaphors that were formulated during the Industrial Revolution and then more recently updated to incorporate computing terminology. But the entire biological edifice, from molecular biology to ecology, would be factually unaltered if we believed that life has possesses a kind of inward drive, a sensate and responsive quality that extends all the way down to the atomic level. This is a controversial point that isn’t essential to the practice of Mindful Biology, though it is helpful to it. Future essays will explore it in more detail.

For today, let’s just consider how the trauma and hardship that are so rampant today disrupt our bodies by obstructing the smooth communication and subtle rhythms that characterize life. We need not take this to the molecular level, as the disruptions are obvious at the level of mental agitation, jerky and tense muscle actions, and surging stress hormones. Bombarded by inner uproar, we become disconnected and irregular, robbed of our birthright of intimacy and resonance.

The bodily reactions, although distressing, reflect the organism’s efforts to keep life moving. Vigilance and reactivity are meant to keep us alert to danger. Chronic muscle tension serves to prepare us for sudden action. Stress hormones tune us to the level of perceived threat. Yes, the perceptions of threat may be distorted by early memories and overwhelming experiences, so that we are on high alert without need. But despite such errors, the intelligence of the body is doing its best, moment-by-moment.

Recovery from trauma depends on reeducating the organism, so it can respond to our situation as it is now and not as it was then. Recovery from modern life demands a similar shift in locus of control, as we learn to respond to the body’s inner yearnings rather than the culture’s outer demands.

With Mindful Biology, along with whatever other practices we find helpful, we can grow more accepting of the ways our bodies respond to history and circumstance. We can become more vibrant: appropriately protective when necessary and beautifully permeable when appropriate.