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.
I was excited when my book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness was included in the Auction for A Mindful Society, the first annual hosted by the Shambhala Sun foundation. The products and services offered will help you to live a mindful life and proceeds will help to benefit Shambhala Sun Foundation’s Mindful Society initiative. For more information visit Bidding for Good.
11 May 2010 NPR presents an intriguing story of walking Japanese Zen monks. These monks aren’t going for a stroll. One monk completes the “Sennichi Kaihogyo, 1,000 days of walking meditation and prayer over a seven-year period around Mount Hiei. He walked 26 miles a day for periods of either 100 or 200 consecutive days.” That’s the equivalent of a trip around the earth. Japanese Zen is notorious for such feats, but the Sennichi Kaihogyo is a walk in the park compared with the “test” that occurs 700 days into the process. Here, he “prays nonstop for nine days, without eating, drinking, sleeping or even lying down. It’s a near-death experience, the monk says.” Such a test burns away all traces of story and resistance and provides the practitioner with an unencumbered look at existence. This is a existential experience of purity and one must be willing to relinquish everything to have it. The article notes, “Finally, his old self dies, at least figuratively, and he is reborn to help and lead all beings to enlightenment.” These extreme experience cuts away at the illusion of separation, helping the monk to pursue his Bodhisattva path — working for the betterment of all sentient beings. Such experiences are the equivalent of Buddhist Olympics and not the sort of thing that we might contemplate or practice on a daily basis. They are certainly not necessary for us to have a taste of that interconnectedness with everything and everyone around us. Certainly, the Buddha spent a lot of time walking around northern India with his retinue of followers and walking meditation is an important practice for mindfulness. So, we can embody this spirit each time we walk in a deliberate manner. As lay practitioners we may not have the time to spend 1000 days walking the equivalent of a marathon, but as Tich Nhat Hanh reminds us, peace can be in every step.
Mindfulness can bring our brains into an integrated state of harmony, balancing chaos on the one hand and rigidity on the other. This scientific wisdom is brought to us by neuroscientist, Dan Siegel, author of several important books, including the Developing Mind, The Mindful Brain, Mindsight, and his latest, The Mindful Therapist. The middle prefrontal cortex (a portion of the newest part of the brain evolution-wise, located behind your forehead) is critical to the following nine functions: 1. Bodily regulation. This is accomplished by regulating arousal and relaxation through the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system (think of the gas pedal and a brake in a car); 2. Attunement and being connected to others, or being “in tune.” Attunement sows the seeds of compassion; 3.Emotional balance refers to how we engage with experiences. It balances apathy on the one hand and feeling overwhelmed on the other. Like bodily regulation its a Goldliocks phenomenon, not too much and not too little. This is the optimal place where we find neural integration; 4. Response flexibility that refers to the pause that can develop between a stimulus and response. It really refers to the impulsive reactions that often occur in response to a stimulus. This pause comes from awareness and can help us to less impulsive and less destructive with what we say and do; 5. Downregulation of fear. This important feature is our ability to modulate the signals from the emotional brain that can often overwhelm us. This is accomplished through the development of inhibitory nerve fibers that go from the middle prefrontal cortex to structures like the amygdala in the emotional brain (limbic system); 6. Insight refers to what Siegel calls mental time travel or what we can call imagination. Mindfulness helps us to refine this capacity in the service living skillfully rather than being subjected the unregulated aspects of worry, regret, and self-criticism; 7. Empathy, or what Siegel calls “mindsight,” refers to our ability to take the perspective of the other; 8. Morality is also a function of the middle prefontal cortex and includes not just our ability to be moral in public settings but also in private; and finally 9. Intuition is the capacity to access the wisdom of the body by monitoring our bodily sensations. For example, a structure called the insula has map of the interior body and studies have found the insula gets thicker with meditation practice. Brain scientists such as Siegel and mindfulness researchers came up with this same list of functions independently. And it’s not just brain researchers, this list has been striven for in many spiritual traditions since ancient times. When we recognize the plasticity of the brain (that is, its capacity to change in response to experience) we can understand why we respond in certain situations the way that we do. Our previous conditioning will have us react in sometimes harmful ways. But it is the fault of conditioning. However, at the same time it is our responsibility (and potential) to change these conditionings through mindfulness and meditation.The middle prefrontal cortex develops optimally in an interpersonally attuned environment during infancy. Mindfulness provides the possibility of self-attunement to affect these same brain areas. So sit down and change your brain!
For more information visit: http://drdansiegel.com/