First, mapping the human genome, now creating synthetic life. These are some of the accomplishments of Craig Venter, founder and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute a nonprofit genomics research institute. He was interviewed on the NPR program, On Point. His team was able to create sequences of DNA from four bottles of chemicals according to instructions provided by a computer. This chromosome was then injected into a microplasma micoides cell and was integrated into its replicating process such that after millions of generations it fully integreated the new genetic instructions. Venters calls it a “self-replicating cell that’s parent is a computer.” This is not artificial life or life from scratch, but life modified by changes in DNA. Venter says strikingly in a statement that might have been uttered by the Buddha if he had a Ph.D. in biology, “We change second to second in our cells and we are software driven machines, and the software is DNA.”
This is a good definition of impermanence — we are always changing at the cellular level and as Venter’s research demonstrates, quite changeable. We know that most of the cells of our body die and are replaced every seven years and we also know that the atoms in our bodies change over about once a year — EVERY atom! Now, too we know, moment-by-moment our cells are changing. We are not snapshots, still life’s capturing something fixed in place. We are motion and change, fluid and malleable. We are more video than snap shot, more action painting than still life.
What are the implications of this? In any given moment, I can ask myself the question, “What am I trying to protect here, and why?” Instead of protection, can we move with the changing nature of things. After all, our cells are changing moment-by-moment and so is everything else. We can celebrate this change, or at least take a keen interest in its undulations and vicissitudes. Or we can try to keep these changing tides fixed. I’m in a good mood right now, my energy bright, my body relaxed. The part of my mind that doesn’t want to understand impermanence thinks this is the way it should be, what I’m entitled too. But, of course, reality doesn’t really care about what I think things should be like or what I think I should be entitled to, it just does its thing of change. So a few moments later I feel a twinge of tension in my neck shooting down to my hip. The frame of this moment looks and feels different from the last. I can complain about this. I can bemoan my fate and put energy into trying to recapture that previous moment. This winds up getting rather tedious after a while. So, rather than putting energy into trying to keep things the same, I’ll reflect on the dynamic, changing nature of my cells, imagine them dancing their dance of life.