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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Life as a Focus of Meditation

For a long time, I have been thinking and writing that “life” is more fundamental to admire and think about than “consciousness” for the simple and evident observation that there can be no consciousness without a live body. One can say the same thing differently: “Prana (animating principle, breath?) is more deserving of our attention and admiration than Atman (self)”,  or put differently, “Anima is more deserving of attention than the soul”.  Kaushitaki Upanishad did point this out. Recent meditations have led me deeper into these thoughts.

Consciousness is not unique to humans. All “lives” have some form of consciousness. Even metacognition may not be unique, although metacognition using language is unique to humans. It is so marvelous that we are carried away. I am aware of myself and of my thoughts. I go to sleep and wake up, and “I” am still me.

In addition, when thinking about the origin of this earth and live forms, the mind suggests the word “creation” and immediately it asks “if created, who is the creator? And what was his motive?” This immediately implies that knowledge and intention associated with the mind are more important than and precede the beginning of life itself. It may be so. But, we will not even know we have “life” if we are not aware. So, our ancestors emphasized mind and consciousness of that Supreme Awareness, which is the basis of all awareness.

Even accepting that line of thinking, how can there be consciousness without a live body with an organ for thinking? Given what we know now about the biology of “life” and “consciousness”, it is time to rethink our focus. I believe I should meditate on the mystery and the wonder of “life” using the consciousness that comes with it, rather than on the consciousness which depends on life.

What is life? And, why? Daniel Koshland (Science 2002: 295: 2215-2216), a distinguished scientist, who used to be the editor of Science magazine identified seven common thermodynamic and kinetic factors by which “life” and living systems operate. He described them in the acronym “PICERAS” and called them the “Seven Pillars of Life”. They are: 1. Program – organized plan describing both the ingredients and the kinetics of interaction between the ingredients. 2. Improvisation – allowing the programs to change if and when the environment changes. 3. Compartmentalization – providing special containers in which concentrations of essential chemical ingredients can be maintained in an ideal state and protected from the outside. 4. Energy – availability of continuous source of energy and ability to exchange energy in an open system. 5. Regeneration – includes regeneration of essential constituents and reproduction. 6. Adaptability – different from improvisation in that this is a behavioral response from within the existing repertoire and not a change in the fundamental program itself. 7. Seclusion – of pathways that “allows thousands of reactions to occur with high efficiency in the tiny volume of a cell, while simultaneously receiving selective signals that ensure an appropriate response to environmental changes.”

If we look at the earliest unicellular life forms, they did two things: exchanged energy and divided. Therefore, can you call anything that divides and exchanges energy as living? Are both of these functions necessary conditions? What about a virus which does not do either but is capable of both, using someone else? What about spores which have “slow” or suspended metabolism and do not divide? In other words, if a “thing” has the potential for metabolism and division, does it have “life”?

What about ovum and sperm? They have metabolism but cannot divide until they unite. Does life start when they unite or even earlier, since they do have the potential?

And, given that the natural course of events in this world is for energy to equilibrate with its environment, how did such an inefficient mechanism of life evolve? It requires considerable energy to keep the chemical reactions going in a cell to keep it alive? We know it is able to do that by using energy from the sun. But, why?

The words “course of events”, imply time. Yes, TIME is a factor in this chain of thoughts.

If I define “life” with these questions in mind, I see that life exists in a body which consists of elements from nature that come together. As Buddha said “We are made of elements other than us”, “We are inter-beings”. It has to use energy from outside to maintain its integrity as a living thing. It has to multiply. But, this is not an absolute requirement; but a characteristic. The most important limiting condition for this living thing is  TIME – it comes at a time and gets out at a time. There is nothing called “immortal”.  And, it has no control over when and where it comes into being and how and when it will get out of the scene.

In essence, life has no choice in its presence or in its duration of existence. It happens and stays for a while and goes. That is the mystery. But, Why?    

Given that life gives us the benefit and gift of Consciousness, we need to use consciousness to reflect on that mystery called life. We can connect with all other lives (compassion) and with the Cosmos (humility) through our consciousness and wonder at the marvel. That wonder is mysticism and spirituality. It is better than using the mind and consciousness to create dogmas, “imaginary” worlds and “echo chambers”.

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