It's common to think of a human being as flesh and blood and bones and organs -- something made of matter. It's less common to think of a human being as an electrical system -- something made of energy. But we are both.
Your body is permeated by electricity and its interaction with the body's chemistry. The presence and movement of electricity throughout your body is part of what distinguishes you as a living being from an inert and lifeless piece of steak, which is made of the same flesh and blood. As with Frankenstein's monster, electrical activity is one of the things that separates a creature that's alive from one that isn't.
From the top of your head to the soles of your feet, electrochemical signals travel at up to 150 meters per second along the roughly 45 miles of pathways of the central and peripheral nervous system. This is our modern medical way of talking about the body's energetic network of highways, roads, and side streets, and the traffic of energy flowing along them. Ancient yogis described these channels as "nadis" and the energy as "prana," while traditional Chinese medicine speaks of "meridians" and the "qi" or life force that flows along the meridians. Like a large city glowing at night when seen from outer space, your entire being is lit up with an electrical field that may be invisible to your eyes, but can be measured with scientific instruments and seen by other kinds of creatures with different eyes.
Electrochemical signals mediate your experience of yourself and the world around you. They make possible your every perception, movement, word, and thought. In fact, our human cognitive ability and capacity for abstract thought and reasoning is one of the unique ways that humans have evolved to exploit our brain's powerful electrical activity. No other creature on earth can harness the electrical activity of its brain to do algebraic computations or read a book or send a rocket to the moon or build an artificial intelligence system or map out and follow a path to enlightenment.
Other animals have evolved different ways of using electricity. Sharks have unique electrical sensory faculties that allow them to see the electrical fields of other creatures in the water, which is part of what makes sharks such good predators. And electric eels can store and release electricity at a very high voltage, delivering a powerful shock of up to 600 volts for defensive or hunting purposes.
The central processing unit of the brain sits atop the vast network of electrochemical pathways in your body, receiving, interpreting, and sending signals that make it possible to sense and know what you're feeling and to interact with the world around you. When it's time to respond to a threat with a defensive measure of fighting or running, the brain orchestrates a burst of electrical signals into the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, triggering the release of adrenaline and epinephrine and other chemicals that enable a fast and powerful physical response to the perceived threat. The pupils dilate, digestive functions slow down or pause temporarily so that vital energetic resources can be diverted to the parts of the body needed for running or fighting. Glucose is released into the body, and there's a sudden increase in the heart rate and breathing rate. This rapid and intense cascade of physiological responses in the body happens because of the electrical signals received and processed by the brain.
And hopefully, when threats have been dealt with and it's time to chill out, digest your food, and go to sleep for the night, the CPU of the brain sends electrochemical signals into the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, bringing about an opposing response. The pupils and airways constrict, the heart rate and breathing slow down, the release of glucose is inhibited, the glands stop secreting that intense surge of activating hormones and neurochemicals, and energy is redirected back to the digestive functions and to cellular recovery. In a word, you relax.
Both of these powerful responses in the body happen without the interference of the conscious mind. That's why they are part of the autonomic nervous system, which basically means automatic. And they are both necessary for our survival and healthy adaptation to our world and our experiences.
One of the big problems with human beings today -- and it's something I observe in myself and in my meditation students -- is that our autonomic nervous systems are out of balance. There's too much electrical activity firing into the sympathetic branch, stimulating a chronic "fight or flight" response, a pattern of overstimulation that's very difficult to step out of. We commonly call this stress or anxiety. The habitual response and activity of our sympathetic nervous system is disproportionate to the actual threat level posed by anything in our environment. Biologically, we are bringing a physiological response that evolved to help us survive life-or-death situations, and we're applying it to everyday situations like relationships and jobs and emails and social media, things that don't objectively merit such an extreme physiological reaction.
So one of the first and most essential steps for us when we sit down to practice meditation is to recalibrate that balance and get more electrical activity firing into our parasympathetic nervous system in order to trigger the relaxation response. Forget about balancing chakras, cultivating bliss or higher states of consciousness, raising kundalini, or achieving enlightenment. What the majority of meditation students I work with need first and foremost, before starting to think about more lofty spiritual goals, is to simply slow their roll on a purely biological level.
If we can't first train ourselves to relax, there's not much point in talking about enlightenment or discovering the true nature of mind. As Step One, we need to learn and practice techniques that help us retrain the brain's electrical activity and the nervous system to be less chronically stuck in a sympathetic "fight or flight" response, and more skilled at shifting into the parasympathetic relaxation response.
You get good at what you practice. As you repeat certain thoughts and actions, the brain builds neural pathways -- electrochemical grooves -- that encourage signals to run along the same pathways more and more habitually. A pattern of responding to situations with stress or anger builds neural pathways that make it more likely that you'll respond with stress or anger to the next situation.
But the same is also true of more wholesome responses. With time and practice we can train our brains and rewire our neural pathways and our body's electrochemical activity to respond to stressful situations with more calmness and steadiness of temper, more empathy for others, more compassion and loving-kindness. Once we start building electrochemical patterns in the brain and body to sustain those kinds of wholesome feelings and responses, creating those sorts of neural pathways, and becoming more skilled pilots of our own nervous systems, then maybe we can start talking productively about cultivating mystical states of consciousness or investigating the true nature of mind. Let's keep the cart behind the horse.
For now, most of us just need to learn to relax.
Yes, there is a lot more to meditation than just relaxation. But relaxation is an absolute prerequisite for all other practices. And honestly, if we all simply learned to relax and nothing more, we would still become happier people, we would probably cause less trouble for ourselves and others, and the world would be a better place for it.
In Part 2 of this article, I'll look at four teaching modalities I use with students to help them (and me!) restore balance to the nervous system's electrochemical activity, specifically engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and the relaxation response.
For over 15 years, Dennis has taught meditation, mindfulness and Buddhist studies in classes, workshops, retreats, teacher trainings, private sessions and online. A former monk who lived for two years under the guidance of Pema Chödrön in her monastery in Canada, he is author of the books You Are Buddha (2014) and The Four Reminders: A Simple Buddhist Guide to Living and Dying Without Regret (2017).