A Million Different Things: Noon, Meditation #4

Meditation #4 is from the middle section, Noon, in this free serialization of my book, A Million Different Things: Meditations of The World’s Happiest Man, and concerns itself with the amazing organization of fifty or so trillion cells constantly operating in unison. A full index for the articles so far can be found at: Gift of A Million Different Things

David Stone, Writer

It’s been suggested with increasing frequency in New Age circles that we’ve entered a new phase of expanding spiritual awareness. Evidence, of course, is slim or never provided at all. If true, it’s probably not the first time. Apart from “spiritual awareness” being impossible to define, I doubt the claim to be true in what it intends to convey. Much of it’s just sensationalism tossed out to sell books and movies.

By what standards and with what tools could be measure the infinitely intangible? Spirituality has probably never meant the same thing from one century to the next. I do think, however, that early humans, closer to our origins, were almost certainly more spiritual, as it’s most commonly thought of today. Spirituality was not likely as abstracted from reality for them. Still close enough to their origins, it was probably nothing special, just part of a casual understanding of who they were, still closely in touch with powers in the natural world.

Anyone who seeks a deeper spiritual experience can start by taking spirit back out of the sky where earlier generations parked it and out of crystals and horoscopes and whatever other separating boxes we’ve devised. Detached from essence is not a provident living condition. If you’re willing, the change can be easy. We can reconnect quickly and stay plugged in if we start to practice the skills of consciousness that evolution has given us.

We might be able to get a preview by watching a cat. If not living in the company of a cat, it might be worth the effort to find one. There are plenty of feline volunteers willing to enrich our lives. Watch and discover a crafty animal designed to flourish in the present. We will never get inside the mind of a cat, but we can be lucky observers. They know what they want and never stop pursuing it.

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If starting off on a journey without an established, detailed endpoint sounds exciting, hop on board now. Speculation about the future abounds, but I believe we will discover mostly fresh space unlike anything we’ve imagined. Some smart people will have suggestions that resonate, but imagining a place that has never been and which we now have a chance to build swings the door wide open to ambitious creation. Creation, because it is so intertwined with discovery, can’t be known in advance. In other words, it’s not possible to know exactly where we’re going, but we can still be very good as conductors and discovery tour guides.

Our train is always leaving the station.

Staying aware of what we know now and practicing appreciation is the finest way to get started. At some early point, you are likely to graduate into wonder. Consider the basics immediately in our hands–literally. The soft, blue ridges rising along the back, extending between knuckles and wrist, are veins robustly returning blood to our hearts. Blood carries waste exchanged at its final delivery stations in the microscopic capillaries that keep the ends of our fingers pink, picking up volume as it speeds upstream to be replenished with oxygen. Oxygen is the stuff that fuels our many internal engines. Burning it creates body temperature. Oxygen is a messenger of life, and delivery cycles are constantly occurring throughout our bodies, while waking or sleeping, playing baseball, watching a movie or making love. If oxygen isn’t happening, neither are we. End of story.

The palm side of your hand, either hand, offers lush living quarters for one-hundred and twenty types of bacteria, on average, that find the environment irresistible. They get busy doing what bacteria do in a prosperous human-host community. Mostly, they scavenge and salvage whatever they find useful in our secretions and the remains of whatever we touch. It’s rare when any harm us, and it’s likely that many are beneficial, at least in maintaining balance in the contained environment commonly referred to as you. Each hand contains roughly one-hundred and twenty types of bacteria, but we are not at all ambidextrous. Neither hand has exactly the same varieties of bacteria as the other. So, in total, roughly two hundred bacteria do bacterial things all over ten digits and two palms. We know they are essentially harmless because evolution has never been pushed to develop any natural way to get rid of them. More likely, history has taught us the value of hooking up with many helpful microorganisms. Our understanding of all they do, all the interactions between them and them, them and us, is only beginning. For now, we just live together, although appearances suggest we’ve probably been happily married for a long, long time.

Recognizing these few things about only a tiny representation of the activity in and on our hands is fascinating.

We take so much about ourselves for granted. Here, I’ve described only a small fraction of the total, manual picture. Simply converting living cells into fingernails, complex processes ceaselessly intermingle, but think about how it all happens in continuous harmony over the decades of an average life. Conflicts rarely flair up, and when they do, contingencies are nearly always available. Our veins are protected by layers of flesh. They weave through, dropping off nutrients and returning disposals of oxygen-depleted blood. Absent trauma or illness, none leaks accidentally from our pipes, although intentional exchanges of components pass through the walls without recess. Nutrients go in; waste is passed out. As the manager of this factory, the living you, we rarely even think about much it, if we do so at all. Oxygen fuels our every action, even the majority, which are unconscious and involuntary, and it’s delivered in precise amounts and right on schedule, no vacations. The complexities of oxygenation execute reliably on autopilot. Evolution has produced some wonderful things.

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Here might be the best time to stake a first claim on awareness. From whatever resource we like, we can learn about what those amazing bodies of ours are doing. No need to become a biologist. There are many good books available, online encyclopedias and lectures in iTunes. Try to get a better idea of how our factory of fifty-trillion (50,000,000,000,000!) cells works. Take less for granted, and appreciate the stunningly successful set of operations that you call “me.”

Although I am not making any claims about its having given us a complete or even satisfying set of resolutions yet, evolution is the best explanation we have so far for the developments that have made every living thing what it is. Even with no guarantee of it’s being anything close to an ultimate description of the operations of adaptable nature, evolution is the best we have at our disposal for now. So, we can use that term, with reasonable caution assumed, in our stories.

Evolutionary design, natural selection, has produced countless varieties of living things, so many that a vast number have already come and gone without leaving us with shortages. The diversity is so broad and integrated that scientists struggle to categorize and contain it in multi-volume works that are partially outdated before completion or in computer models allowing for constant revision. We can still celebrate general truths.

Our human bodies, including brains assigned most of the direct management, are masterpieces of history. The sheer volume of the things that must occur simultaneously, just to accomplish the raising of a hand, would cripple any computer. And who ever raises a hand in isolation? Additional actions and connected dependencies are always going on. We may be walking and talking. If awake, we are looking. We are breathing and running information along the layers and channels in our brains. To raise that hand, we must start somewhere, and rather than lose ourselves in guesses, let’s assume the decision has been made and synoptic activity has already excited billions of cells. The mechanics of motion must be activated. If emotion is involved, as it almost certainly is, subtle elements must be recruited from multiple locations. Is there anything in our memories to suggest a fear of whatever we are raising our hand toward? Should we touch a person before us or hold back?

Emotion wants planning. Contemplation comes to the table. All this has taken place in less than a second, and we haven’t even mentioned the goings on outside our skulls.

Billions of cells now with skin in the game collaborate in the action. As the usefulness of one set is expended, another is emphasized in a chaining process that travels with lightning speed down our spinal column to the nerve systems in our shoulders, arms and hand, alerting muscles along the way to swing appropriately into action. Our hands, that collection of skin, bones, muscle, veins, arteries and–don’t forget–bacteria perform the action that trillions of interacting cells have concluded is the right one. It’s nearly always is. In the meantime, billions of other, unrelated activities have continued, oblivious to this consequential or inconsequential handshake. Our pancreas has continued to manufacture and distribute digestive enzymes. We have wiggled our toes to release nervous energy. This marvelous contraption, this multi-functioning thing that is us just keeps going, millions of different activities at once, fifty-trillion cells humming in unison.

Do things go wrong? Of course. A heart will short circuit, and the pump that keeps oxygen going in and carbon dioxide going out will fail. The engines of cell division will misfire, initiating cancerous growths. Eyes, ears and noses will lose sensitivity over many decades. People die while still young, and babies are born deformed. We certainly have enough newscasters to remind us of anything that can and does go wrong, but the miracle is that of the millions of activities taking place in our bodies every second, the ones that go wrong or cause disasters, let alone simple discomfort, are minimal beyond any measurement we can know. The truth is that incidents become news because they are exactly that, new and unique, rare enough to note as an exception.

Since it’s clear, out of squeamishness, fear, laziness or a preference for not knowing, that most of us are close to clueless about what we are as a collection of persistent processes, it seems impossible to ignore the conclusion that we are even less aware of how we touch the external world of expansive connections.

Spirituality? How can we have that when we lack an awareness of anything as basic as how oxygen is drawn in to give us the charge of life?

If we hope to get beyond the plateau on which we currently rest, a smart first step would be to learn the basics of who we are as physical beings. Paying attention is bound to create wonder. Each of us is so much more than we ordinarily know, yet we, for the most part, manage ourselves efficiently, if in blindness. Imagine what might come from a little more light.

David Stone, Writer