Jon Kabat-Zinn, the man most responsible for the flurry of published studies on mindfulness (over 3400 now), uses the phrase “wherever you go, there you are” to highlight the importance of being present to the moment. But as long as we make our way about in this physical realm, it is equally true that “wherever you go, there also is your body.” This Thanksgiving I want to reflect with gratitude on eight things about the body that are always as close at hand as our own hands.
The Buddha said 2500 years ago that mindfulness of the body is the one thing that is necessary if we are to obtain peace, happiness, awakening, and wisdom. So perhaps we are not too far off track if develop a habit of pausing for a moment frequently to bring awareness to the body with gratitude.
So here’s my list:
1. Physiological intelligence. This was Aldous Huxley’s term for the fact that everything in the body seems to know what to do in each moment. Our liver cells, kidney cells, intestines, heart, and countless other parts carry out complex functions and adjustments in each moment as if they are endowed with all the intelligence they need to run the intricate machine of the body. Pause and be amazed and grateful.
2. The mystery of consciousness. We experience ourselves as thinking, feeling, imagining beings, yet scientists really have no clear idea what consciousness is or how it is generated. And there is evidence that our consciousness may be diffuse in us (not all generated in the brain). A Scientific American article several years ago referred to the digestive system as the “second brain” because it appears to react directly to the world without requiring commands from the brain. Neuroscientist Candace Pert posited in her book Molecules of Emotion that individual cells also behave as if they are conscious.
For all it’s complexity, the body is not just an intricate machine. Evidence continues to build that patterns of our consciousness (what we think about, feel, how we experience relationships, losses etc.) are related to what happens in our body from moment to moment and over time. We all know that being embarrassed can lead to a reddened face. This is just the tip of the iceberg of how the mind affects the body from moment to moment. When physician and researcher Herbert Benson proposed in the 1950s that emotions affect blood pressure readings, he was met with skepticism until his research proved it. One recent (2015) study at UC Davis found that people who meditated for only three weeks had longer telomeres (tails at end of DNA strands) than those who did not, possibly because mediation promotes an enzyme called telomerase responsible for repairing the telomeres! Mindfulness of this moment-to-moment mind/body connection can lead us to profound gratitude for how just living with our own conscious body is an ongoing experience of mystery.
3. Your beating heart. At age 56, my heart has kept going now for over two billion beats without a break (except the pause between each beat). It’s a pretty amazing pump, but researchers at the Heartmath Institute have produced plentiful data for their contention that the heart also appears to have its own version of consciousness. Our sense that we feel things in our heart may actually reflect that the heart is a center of consciousness that communicates with the brain and regulates other functions in the body. Pause, feel your pulse, and be grateful.
4. Breathing. We live immersed in an ocean of air, and we are able to take in a bit of that ocean about 20,000 times per day to extract oxygen and send it to every one of trillions of cells. Breathing is a focus in many approaches to meditation, but we can also remember to pause and just be mindful of breathing itself with wonder and gratitude.
5. Walking. Recently when I hiked down a rocky mountainside, I was aware of how my brain was making decisions in each moment about where to step, and of how my ankle joints were constantly calling on their ball-and-socket design to deal with the uneven terrain. It has proven quite difficult for humans to invent a machine that can do this. Walking is an ability for which we feel great loss when it is lost, but one we often forget when we have it. So when you stand from your chair after a Thanksgiving meal and walk across the room, pause and be grateful.
6. Sensing. Just opening our eyes in the morning and having a window to the world, just tasting chocolate, just feeling the warmth of a shower, just smelling cinnamon rolls in the oven, just hearing a loved one’s voice—all of these can move us to gratitude if we practice mindfulness of the body.
7. Music. Sure, this involves our sense of hearing (already covered), but enjoying or playing music requires so much more. Eminent quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger wrote: “Science cannot tell us a word about why music delights us, of why and how an old song can move us to tears.” Schrodinger went on to say that science can explain sound waves and the brain’s perception of them, “but of the feelings of delight and sorrow that accompany the process science is completely ignorant--and therefore reticent.” We can reproduce melodies stored in the brain and turn them into music by playing an instrument or with our voice. Whenever we enjoy or make music, we can pause and be grateful, and remember Schrodinger’s idea that music is a gift beyond all rational understanding.
8. “Everyone is a winner.” A colleague once told me that his eight-year-old son declared to him one day that “everyone is a winner.” When he asked the boy why, he was told that everyone represents the winner of a swimming race with a few hundred million contestants. (How an eight-year-old understood this kind of detail about reproduction I have no idea!) Whenever we bring mindfulness to the rather mysterious way we received the gift of a unique body, we can be moved to awe and gratitude. And if we have our own children, we can try to be mindful of re-loading our awareness of the ridiculous gift it is that they are with us at all.
So, there are a few things to ponder and be grateful for when you’re lying on the floor after having eaten too much this Thanksgiving!