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The Anatomy of Vitality

What makes life tick? A poetic romp through the substance of vitality

updated (first published 1999)ARCHIVEDArchived pages are rarely or never updated. Most featured articles on PainScience.com are updated regularly over the years, but not archived pages.
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about PainScience.com
This “article” is unlike any other on PainScience.com. It is an epic nonfiction prose poem … a format which I think I can safely say is rarely used. Anywhere. As it is published here, the prose is emphasized and the poetry is de-emphasized. Nevertheless, readers are advised to print this one out, pour a glass of red wine, and read it in a big chair. Also, note that I do not believe in a “life force” or “qi” as a literal thing, though it might seem like it here (and I was more youthfully naive when I wrote this, many years ago). These days I firmly believe in qi-as-poetry, not as a supernatural substance: see Do You Believe in Qi? How to embrace a central concept of Eastern mysticism without being a flake. I’m keeping this article online for purely nostalgic reasons. It has almost zero relevance to what PainScience.com has become since 2010.

You are a biological entity. A living thing. An animal. An organism. You are a great galaxy of cells, the smallest units of life, a community of ten trillion. They all breathe together. You are ten trillion life forms, the sum of which is entirely different from the parts.

Do the stars added together have a mind? Is the cosmos awake?

Your community is alive with communication. Your cells talk to each other, intricately, intimately. You are filled with the whispering of microscopic lives.

What language do I speak to myself? The language of nerves and glands, at least, but probably even more subtle dialects exist. We do not know the secrets of tumours yet, nor the detailed gossip of undifferentiated cells. No one on planet earth can say with the slightest certainty how consciousness arises from the ruckus of ionic currents in our skulls, or even if it does; the brain may be but an instrument, a lens through which we study ourselves.

You would likely die without the quiet energies that must lie just beneath the surface of Twentieth Century biology. You are sustained by much more than bread and water.

For instance, recent research strongly suggests that magnetic fields — present wherever there is electrical current, in our hearts and brains, for example — constitute a deep and entirely unexplored medium of cellular communication. We are energetic beings, whether we know it or not. Whether we understand it or not.

“Energy” — the great buzzword of the New Age. The irritating English translation of the Chinese qi (pronounced “chee”). A thorn in the side of every clear thinker.

It is poetry, however. It should never be used literally. We are poetic beings, whether we know it or not. Understand it or not.

Healers and mystics from a hundred traditions have danced around the same fire in different masks. They can barely acknowledge each other’s existence, and yet most of them hold a piece of the truth about life. Many of them speak of “energy.” Some never speak at all.

“Energy” is a poetical term, a descriptive image for things like the miracle of touch or the power of love, things felt by many but understood by none. It is well chosen. It strongly suggests the literal truth that probably shines just beyond moden scientific inquiry.

The Chinese speak of energy, and we Westerners constantly misinterpret it. We try to think of energy as a literal substance or force, a thing, a noun. But energy is a verb, and an abstract one at that. Qi is something that happens between our molecules and our cells. It is the relationship between them. You are a pattern. A walking habit. Highly organized matter, coalesced out of the universe. “Star stuff” as Carl Sagan called it. The interactivity of all that stuff is what the Chinese call energy or qi.

So energy as concept remains poetical. In fact, the whole vocabulary of mysticism is mythological in character: the imagery of mystery. Minds groping around the edge of miracles, looking for the uncommon sense locked tightly inside. Bear in mind that poetry and myth are useless for some things, but still turn the world as certainly as gravity, still carry the weight of all literature.

Breathing moves energy.

Touch moves energy.

Movement moves energy.

Poetry moves energy.

Energy moves energy.

Music and other vibrations move energy. Waves and oscillations and hummings, all of these move energy.

Meditation moves energy.

Love moves energy.

Thought and intention focus energy. They aim and direct it. Visualization is not a mental exercise, but an energetic one. Every martial arts master speaks of this. Qi follows mind, they tell their students. Such masters can demonstrate what they know by knocking you on your ass. The results, if not the mechanisms, are quite tangible. Do they understand what they have mastered? No — they can only speak of it poetically. Many believe it cannot be spoken of any other way.

So it is for healers, and those who have experienced healing. To understand healing, one must have an appreciation for the energetic nature not just of humans, but of all things. One must know that the atoms are empty. If one of them filled a football stadium, imagine a nucleus the size of a tennis ball in the middle of the field, its electrons whizzing around the stands like individual peanuts. You could run around for hours inside this atom and not hit anything.

Matter is not solid. Why does it seem to be? If someone drops a penny from a tall building onto your head, its atoms do not simply fall through and between the atoms of your hair and your scalp and your skull and your brain. Why not?

Energy!

Like two strong magnets that you cannot push together pole to pole, the empty space filling atoms is so alive with forces, familiar only to physicists, that you cannot push the empty space of one through the empty space of another. Their spaces repel each other fiercely. How much weight would it take to squish one atom into the territory of another atom?

Lots. Many tons. Many, many. Atoms are very strong structures. But their strength is energy. Matter is energy, as we know from the Bomb. There is in fact nothing else but accumulations of forces and the useful illusions of physicality and solidity that emerge from them.

We are immersed in energy, washed by light.

We live in a pool of cool gravity.

We swim in constant thunderstorms of cosmic radiation.

Magnetic fields penetrate our hearts and minds like music.

Electricity licks our toes and fingers and crackles through and around every cell.

The Earth’s atmosphere hums with the electromagnetic echoes of all its perpetual lightning strikes — the Schumann resonance. There are striking correlations between the frequencies of the Schumann resonance and properties of the human nervous system. Our ability to react quickly to stimuli is affected by their fluctuations. Coincidence?

Of course not. We have an energetic habitat. There is probably no aspect of it to which we have not evolved some sensitivity. We likely interact with it more thoroughly than a fish interacts with water. We are the most complex structures known to exist in this universe, and we have doubtless adapted biological mechanisms for using virtually all its natural laws and energies to our advantage, to achieve such mysterious results as a love of ice cream and a need to make music.

We will prove to have roots that reach into every crack of being, I suspect.

Miraculous as we are, we do not always work well. Organisms may even fail and die.

It should surprise and inform us that we don’t fail more often, given our complexity. Human engineering always sacrifices robustness for complexity. Human engineers themselves are, by contrast, almost infinitely more complex and more reliable than anything they’ve ever built. Just imagine if our brains crashed as often as a computer operating system!

Organisms are self-healing. They (we) know how to be alive, how to stay alive. All the information about being alive we need is within us, or we wouldn’t be here in the first place. Being alive is a cooperative effort of all your cells. It is a dazzlingly well-coordinated system. The communication required for this vast balancing act is the real story of biology. As long as the cells can keep talking to each other, health can be maintained, and the great experiment of each life can be continued.

The truth of this is so overwhelming that we do not actually understand why we die. Life seems to be so good at being alive that it is not clear at all why it should ever stop. Why die at all? Why not just carry on with the experiment? Is their some evolutionary benefit to aging and death? No one knows this, and not for lack of trying.

But while we are still young, and our cells still talk and listen to each other, exchanging information in a thousand different ways, we are practically indestructible. Vast or critical tissue damage will end us, or the failures in intercellular communication that are at the heart of most pathologies. No less. We are incredibly tough, as anyone knows who has shepherded a loved one through dying.

We hang on and on, if we have a reason. For love, usually.

For small beings such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.

Carl Sagan, Contact

But we are healthy when we are free, when our pattern pulses happily away, wide awake in the universe, the interaction of all our trillion parts relatively undisturbed. Sickness or frailty is not so much a malfunction as a failure of expressiveness, an uncomfortable and idiosyncratic stagnancy. Sickness of all kinds emerges inevitably from every case of emotional constipation.

There are no exclusively mental states. When you love, your whole body loves. When you are sad, your toes are sad with you. When you are pissed off, all of your liver cells are pissed off also. Hepatocytes, and every other type of cell, literally respond to every emotion you feel with characteristic changes in cellular behaviour. They do mad, sad, and glad cell things.

Nothing is “all in your head.” It’s impossible.

Along with the glamour of the energies that sweep through our tissues like aurora borealis, humble neuropeptides are an important mechanism for the union of mind and body. Biologist Candace Pert has given the world this gift of knowledge:

Neuropeptides were previously believed to be members of a small family of molecules indigenous to the central nervous system. Turns out they exist in vast and diverse populations throughout the entire body. Probably hundreds of different types are produced by and received by virtually all cells, everywhere. These little molecules are the molecules of emotion. Pump yourself full of the right neuropeptide — or more likely the right combination of neuropeptides — and you will immediately fly off the handle or develop an unbearable crush on the lab technician who injected you, a modern love potion. But the point is, it won’t just be your brain that is responding to the neuropeptide — the whole system feels.

Medical researchers have experimented with the clinical significance of this, guessing that perhaps cells that are in love do not care to die as much as unhappy cells. Quite so: people who practice meditation are happier, and they resist the onslaughts of disease with greater success.

Why we die, no one knows. But we begin to see why some people resist death so well, especially when we love them, when love flows around and through and between us.

Moving away from the drastic example of dying, consider the case of the average person. The average organism.

Unless you are uncommonly healthy, you — you the organism — don’t work as well as you would like. You suffer chronically from problems of uncertain nature and origin. Perhaps you are fatigued. Your digestion does not seem right. Allergies plague you. Even if your symptoms are severe, you may never have thought of yourself as sick. Nevertheless, you don’t exactly feel like a walking miracle, either. Who does? You can’t hear the whisperings of your ten trillion cells or see your kaleidoscope of energies when you look in the mirror. In fact, for most people, on most days, the body feels like a bit of a burden, a reluctant draft animal.

Perhaps these symptoms have even escalated, over the years, into something very much like an illness. You have no disease the doctors can name, and your troubles seem unlikely to kill you — but you sometimes wish you were dead.

Oh, the infinite trivial sufferings of humanity!

For relief of these irritations, people flock to their doctors. In droves. Study after study has shown that the huge majority of doctor visits are for complaints of this nature. The irritating, the chronic, the vague — the things that do not threaten life itself, just the quality of it. And doctors, by and large, simply have no idea what to do about this sort of thing.

It’s not their fault. It’s not incompetence. They cannot hear your cells whispering any more than you can. If the bodymind were simple enough for us to understand, we would be too stupid to understand it. But knowledge will come in time. We will all know more — maybe all of it — some day. Not yet. Meanwhile, life goes on, and scraps of science are not our salvation (though they are a lovely start, and we did have to start somewhere). This is one great curse of this century — a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, just enough to paralyze us, just enough to abandon ourselves to experts, to wisdom outside our own bodies.

We would all be surprised by the vigour of our ancestors, I think. Like wise animals, stoic and pragmatic, people sick and injured followed their hearts and did as nature bid them to do, often healing well with astounding speed. Their healers had a thousand tricks — an astounding mixture of prescientific superstition and wisdom — for stimulating this process without ever knowing or needing to know what cells know. But don’t romanticize it! The wise healers died young with everyone else.

So do not seek to know yourself, but rather to feel yourself. Experience yourself. Knowing is a dry leaf; being and doing is a green one. Act alive. Act as though you already know yourself. In fact, you do — we all know ourselves infinitely well.

Remember, our cells are an exquisitely organized self-regulating community. The body is wise, wiser than you or your doctor. Malfunction is miscommunication between cells, when the left hand — so to speak — does not know what the right hand is doing. There is scarcely a bodily disaster that could not be fully healed or at least greatly helped by clear and continuous cellular interconnection, if only we could make it happen. Total health corresponds to total interconnection, the harmony of the community of cells. To stimulate this, to fan it like a fire, is the simplest thing: one must simply move energy. Feel. Emotions — e-motions — are energies in motion.

To do what doctors do is a most complicated thing, and much of it impossible without the will of the people they serve. Most healing is self-healing. No one is well without will. To heal, feel! To feel, move energy: breathe, laugh, touch and play, make love, music and beauty.

And remember that even though the ancients were better at all this vitality stuff than we are, they still got their asses kicked like clockwork by vicious little microbes. So dance like a happy fool in the forest for the sheer hippy joy of it — but also wash your hands, vaccinate your kids, and stop rolling your eyes at “mainstream medicine.” Science and your brain is where half the miracles are; the rest are in your heart. Light ‘em both up!


About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.