Our mortal destiny is out there; out among the distant stars. We will travel there and thrive there. I can know this because I know something about the biology of man. And thus we will need to talk about the soul, about spiritual things. About health.
The phrase ‘seat of the soul’ is historically most ascribed to Rene Descartes. His most developed idea of this ‘seat’ was in his work “The Passions of the Soul.” This was a serious work of neuropsychology. Remember this was circa the middle of the seventeenth century. The notion that the soul had a material home within the body is ancient; hundreds or thousands of years B.C such a notion could be found in many cultures.
If you are already nodding off, let me ask you to stay with me; I have a very ‘modern’ point to make that can change and improve your life.
Over 40 years ago I worked in the sleep lab of the grandfather, not just the father, of sleep medicine: Dr. Allan Rechtschaffen. Hello, Dr. Rechtschaffen, if you are out there. Many in his lab were busy trying to discover where in the rich diversity of the animal phyla sleep emerged. Fish, turtles, cats, monkeys? At what level of phylogenetic development did sleep emerge? We were busy putting electrodes in the hippocampus of various animals; looking for the hippocampal spike as the hallmark of sleep onset. So circa 1970 science was looking for the ‘seat of sleep.’
Well, if Vladimir Nabokov is right and”cells don’t dream” -why shouldn’t artists have opinions afterall?- perhaps Descartes and Dr. Rechtschaffen and thousands of others are wrong and there is no physical seat for the soul, of the self, of the will, of the sacred night of dreams. And don’t bore me with your reductionist material maunderings. Perhaps there is no physical seat of the soul.
But! If there were a ‘seat of the soul’ then Descartes and Rechtschaffen were close, very close. The seat of the soul would be the hypothalamus! This ancient brain does many mysterious things; alarmingly, frighteningly, deeply it controls the rhythms of life: the light driven, temperature driven, hunger driven, rage and love driven hormones and states of mind are all regulated from this catbird seat deep within the toad, dog and human brain.
Without more ado let’s talk about the hypothalamus for it surely tries to talk to us through the neocortex and other means. It tries, notice I said tries, to tell us when to sleep, to breed, to fight, to laugh. Yes, it does this through various surrogates like the pituitary, the liver, inflammatory and growth markers, hypopharyngeal tone to prevent or cause sleep apnea; yes, it does this through minions and slaves but try it still does.
Remember that we are hunter gatherers and more deeply wise in our animal self than in our human self. Our biology is that of ceaseless, restless wildness. Remember wildness. Wildness and movement. This ceaseless, restless wildness is the fuel of the will that kept our ancestors around long enough to evolve into the rich, beautiful, complicated, violent and tender beings that we are. This ceaseless, restless wildness is one of the gifts from the seat of our soul, the hypothalamus.
Now, with the further evolution and development of the neocotex and cortex we have transmuted this ceaseless, restless wildness into a very unfortunate thing; it has become, under the dead hand of evolutionary necessity, insatiable striving and greed.
Ceaseless, restless wildness. Good! We survive, we thrive, we hunt, we gather, we bond with our kinsmen, we cherish our children, we look for new horizons, new fields of splendor.
Insatiable striving and greed. Bad! Under the informed lash of education, of pride we seek more and more of what satisfies us less and less. We sit spellbound and chairbound for hours, no sometimes days. We eat whatever sustains us long enough, we don’t listen to our hypothalamus enough to know better, we eat whatever ‘fuels’ us enough to last another day, another deal, another sleepless night.
Do you see the connection?
Because we have reached escape velocity from the necessity of hunting and gathering we have become unmoored from our true selves, our healthy selves, our deep biologically rhythmic selves. Rhythm. All of our biological functions can be expressed in wave functions, in rhythms: we make cholesterol at night, we repair our brains during sleep, we release insulin under the guidance of the liver and pancreas and, yes, hypothalamus. So, for now, remember rhythm.
How do we reconnect our ancient self, our interior awareness of the true needs of the body and self to the modern self? How do we return to the freedom of the ceaseless, restless wildness that is fun and vigorous and full of enduring hope? How do we escape the dead hand of our evolutionary past which in this modern setting has taken our freedom from us and given us insatiable striving and greed as the transmuted form of the old survival imperative?
We reconnect to our ancient healthy self by listening. One cannot hear if one does not listen and listening to the voice of the soul, the hypothalamus, requires silence. Interior silence.
Central to all life is air, oxygen. Breathing. Breathing has variability just as the heart has variability. Respiratory variability should be subtly, supplely, variable and adaptable: faster and deeper when we exercise, slower and more shallow in some stages of sleep and faster and deeper in others. When free, respiratory variability is tied to our inner life, our moods, our sense of wellbeing. It is tied to the hypothalamus and the rhythms of life.
I sell 3 things in my medical practice and only 3 things because there are only 3 honest things to sell:
- Diet, nutrition, food, eating
- Exercise, activity
- Spiritual Discipline
Diet, Exercise, Spiritual Discipline.
The first two are the easiest to sell. Almost everyone gets the idea of their value whether or not they make the changes in behavior that the ideas entail is another matter. But selling spiritual discipline is tough. “I’m an atheist,” “you would have better luck if you called it something else like tranquility, or relaxation,” “I can’t stand meditation; I tried it in the 70’s and it was weird and boring.” I could list over a hundred variants of reasons told me about why I shouldn’t talk about ‘spiritual discipline.’ There is only one reason I do: it is necessary for health. Necessary in ways almost beyond the telling; at least beyond my ability to tell.
Well, I’ve set the table; before us now lie ‘rhythm, movement, breathing and interior silence.’ These are the hallmarks of any spiritual discipline. The Rosary of Catholics, the Prayer of the Breath of the Orthodox, Quigong, Tai Chi, Yoga, the emptying meditation of the Buddhists. On and on. All world historical religions have spiritual disciplines that foster ‘rhythm, movement, breathing and interior silence.’ Why? Because they are superstitious pre-modern attempts to control imaginary fates? No, because they are what make us healthy, what make us able to survive famine, grief, and loss; because they create the health that allows us to be euphoric, ecstatic, aroused, happy and satisfied.
This is just a sketch; I can imagine someone writing a book on almost every sentence in this blog; not me, I am incapable of writing a book, but someone. So this is just a sketch, but, I hope, enough of one to make clear that I value spiritual discipline as I value exercise and sound nutrition. Like those two, the consequences and markers of which I urge everyone to measure, I urge you to measure the consequences and markers of your spiritual discipline as well.
I’ve talked about sleep; if my patients are any indication few sleep well. Sound sleep is one fruit of a well executed spiritual discipline. Are you sleeping well? Does your cortisol cycle look like a sound diurnal rhythm? If not look to your spiritual discipline. Sound sleep and a well regulated hormonal pattern are signs the hypothalamus is doing its job; that you are allowing it to do its job, that your interior silence resounds with the voice of your hypothalamus. You are able to hear its urging within the school of silence that spiritual discipline nurtures.
If you are with me so far, this cut to the chase phrase will not shock you: most illness, including mental illness, is connected to a lack of a rich spiritual discipline.
You will, rightly, protest that there are many good and noble souls who are ill. For that matter, I’ve known a few profoundly depressed Buddhist monks and Catholic priests.
Which leads me to my next cut to the chase phrase: most illness reflects a sick culture more than a sick man.
Our culture is sick so we are sick; bad food, too little joy as we are insatiable, too much work, not enough creativity. I am the fortunate son of others ‘insatiable striving and greed:’ I went to Stanford and live in Silicon Valley as a gift of true charity. I don’t write this blog without gratitude but with a hope that there is a better way.
Smile, Have Fun, God Speed,