Despite our relatively comfortable lives, Americans have become the most depressed and obese people in the world. We read the latest headlines on the opening page of the Huffington Post and we feel shock and fear. Whether it's the financial crisis, global warming, or another terrorist attack / hijacking / natural disaster / paparazzi photo, the news affects how we feel throughout the day and colors the way we experience the world. The solution to this dilemma comes from understanding the relationship between our mind and body, and becoming consciously aware of the natural intelligence within.
"You," the conscious mind that interpret these words right now, are made up of trillions of cells (yes, trillions as in our national debt trillions). Each of these cells act alone to survive, yet also work with the other cells that implement your body and keep you healthy. These cells work tirelessly on your behalf even while your conscious mind is asleep. They are very busy.
Just to reproduce once, a cell must reconstruct verbatim a chain of over three billion molecules that represents your DNA. For perspective, can you imagine reproducing a sculpture of three billion Legos? This is what a million block Lego sculpture that took over 2,000 hours to build looks like. Scale that up to three billion, and thats six million hours or 684 years (and you thought we humans had to go through a lot just to reproduce). In the time that it took you to read and process the words of this sentence, your body produced millions of new cells.
To complicate matters, of the trillions of cells in our bodies that make up who you are, only a fraction of them are really you. For every human cell in our body, there are an average of ten foreign bacterial cells residing in symbiosis. When not kept in check, these bacterial cells cause disease. As an aside, Bonnie Bassler gave a great talk on how bacteria communicate at this years TED Conference.
Call it natural selection or intelligent design; that life works as it does to enable the conscious mind is a sheer wonder. Science or God, the same underlying intelligence that creates and governs the motion of the clouds, the oceans, and the heavens motivates the atoms and molecules in each of our cells. Early Greeks used the word Physis to describe this natural intelligence.
Our conscious mind constantly creates stories to explain how and why things happen. We observe the natural world and develop stories to explain our experience. Anyone that has ever gone on a first date and wondered when the prospective mate would call back has intimate knowledge of our mind's ability to spin stories. From an early age, we began collecting the stories told to us by our parents, friends, teachers, and especially the media. Stories, repeated long enough, become conditioned into beliefs. We construct our worldview from the stories we believe.
Every thought and decision made by your conscious mind directly influences the lives of the cells in your body. The foods we eat, how long we sleep, how frequently we hydrate, and how we breathe impacts our cells' living environment. When relaxed and at rest, your parasympathetic nervous system actively regulates your heartbeat, breathing, and digestion. When you experience stress, your sympathetic nervous system over-rides the parasympathetic system to increase heart rate, raise blood pressure, slow digestion, increase perspiration, and affect perception. In the early days of human survival on the African plain, this response prepared your body to either "fight" or "flee" to keep you physically safe.
As it turns out, your conscious mind activates the same sympathetic nervous system when you consume media that shocks or excites. This means that from the perspective of the cells in your body, the sight of a lion charging directly at you in an open field and watching the drama unfold in the latest news story on television appear identical. Your body activates the sympathetic nervous system by dumping a cocktail of chemicals such as Adrenalin, CRH, and ACTH into your bloodstream despite the fact that you are physically safe, though psychologically tormented. Over time your cells develop a chemical dependence to these stimulants. With the recent increases of heart disease, hypertension, digestive disorders, and obesity, the stories that we read and the media we consume have become just as dangerous as the predators that hunted us on the African plains.
Governed by a calm and attentive conscious mind, your body naturally resumes its natural state of parasympathetic control. Practices such as meditation, mindfulness, and deep breathing cultivate awareness and bring the mind and body into greater harmony. Spending time on these practices benefit our cells more than current forms of entertainment that further excite and titillate our conscious mind. However, many find contemplative practices very difficult and boring. We have become addicted to the chemicals that the body produces in reaction to mental stress.
Introspection and reflection provide a more active approach to weening the conscious mind off its addiction to excitement. When stressful situations arise, examine your emotional attachment to the ideas and beliefs that make up your world-view. What are the stories that create your stress? Are there other possible interpretations of the situation? Do the stories that make up your world-view serve to inspire or imprison? Can you let go of your emotional attachment to the story? What would happen if you let go of all stories that make up you worldview and experience everything without judgment as if for the first time?
Lastly, always keep your body hydrated by drinking a lot of water throughout the day. Keep track of the color and smell of your urine. Your kidneys remove excess chemicals from your bloodstream that come out when you pee. If your urine appears deeply colored or smells funny, drink more water.
For those interested in media's impact on consciousness, John Stewart, Steven Schafer, and I are organizing a workshop on Meaningful Media on June 10th in Hong Kong as part of the Asia Consciousness Festival. This workshop brings together researchers in the areas of consciousness, media, and media technology to explore ways we can apply stories and new media to inspire health and positive action. For more information about the festival, check out the festival site.
I'd like to dedicate this article to the memory of John Lennon.
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