A journey through Physiology, Poetry, Symmetry and Yoga
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“But your god-self dwells not alone in your being. Much in you is still man, and much in you is not yet man, but a shapeless pigmy that walks asleep in the mist searching for its own awakening.” -Khalil Gibran
Two of the most ancient systems in our bodies are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. They work in consort, and regulate opposing aspects of our physiology.
Sympathetic: stress response, fight/flight/freeze, increased heart rate, bronchiole in lungs dilate, pupils dilate, digestion inhibited, functions not critical to immediate survival shut down
Parasympathetic: rest, digest, relaxation, restores body to state of calm, muscles relax
The sympathetic nervous system is great at dealing with moments of punctuated stress. If an animal attacks, our pupils dilate, we become alert and ready to make split-second life or death decisions. Once the threat is dealt with we return to a state of rest and digest. The problem in the modern era is that we are constantly in a state of minor stress — the body seldom has a chance to return to its calm parasympathetic state. These two bodily systems are extremely complex, and they have many subtle overlapping functions. However, I will be using their modern definitions of:
Sympathetic = quick response mobilizing system
Parasympatheic = more slowly activated dampening system
There is a fight within all of us. Sitting down for five minutes, we can all surely imagine — what if darkness really wins out? What if I don’t do any of the things I know I’m supposed to do. What if I become instinctual, evil, envious, and greedy. Alternatively, what if I shine? What if I do everything I know I should be doing. What if I choose joy, peace, generosity, empathy, kindness? As the quote expresses at the beginning of this article — we all exist somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. As Khalil Gibran says, we are “in the twilight between the night of our pigmy-self and the day of our god-self”. Everything that is fundamentally human about us — is precisely what happens in the space between.
Human existence confronts us with immediacy. We must act in this world, oftentimes quickly, without enough information, and without any apparent meaning. There is no time for complex thought when danger is immanent. This is the realm of embodied immediacy — and is controlled by our sympathetic nervous system.
It is only when the external pressures of the world are absent, that we can begin to pose fundamental philosophical questions. Who are we? What are we doing here? What is right action? This is the realm of the parasympathetic.
What I find fascinating is the following: the nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system originate at the top and bottom of our spine — while the sympathetic nerves originate from the thoracic region. Our spine, much like our Being, is bookended by the primal and the godly. The sacral nerves of our parasympathetic system control what are often consider more primal aspects of our physiology. Sexual organs, bladder, rectum. While the cranial nerves control the more complex and what are often considered the ‘higher faculties’.
Chakras, Yoga and Maslow
While many traditions dismiss the body as being a hindrance to spiritual liberation — tantric systems teach that bodily mastery is essential to enlightenment. Our bodies are holy, and are the homes of deities. The divine feminine, Shakti, lives within all of us. She represents the primal creative force of existence.
Worship of Shakti is worship of the body.
She is energy made manifest. Shakti’s power is called Kundalini, and is often thought to reside in the lower spine. When Shakti is awoken — she rises up the spine to meet her consort, Lord Shiva, who is meditating at the crown of one’s head. Their consummation is nothing less than ecstatic spiritual awakening. Yet, in between them lay the Chakras. Whether they be actual energetic meridians of the body, or sophisticated psychological metaphors doesn’t matter. What matters, is that they accurately represent the internal landscape of the human animal. They describe the human experience, quite similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. From the base of the spine to the crown the chakras in the Vedic tradition are:
Muladhara: root support — the base of our being
Swadisthan: own base — our intrinsic need to connect, share and enjoy
Manipura: jeweled city — power, the root of egoism and personal identity
Anahata: unstruck sound — original love, openness, intimacy
Vishuddhi: purity — expression, calm, fearlessness, kindness
Ajna: wisdom command — spiritual insight, true awareness, self-actualization
Sahasrara: thousand petals — wordless and indescribable unity
Once again, the metaphor of experience being bookended by the primal and transcendent appears — this time in psychology. In yogic philosophy this idea is embodied by Shakti, living below Physiological Needs and Shiva, living above Self-Actualization.
Recall that Shakti is the primal creative energy. Shiva is structure and form. Yin and Yang, black and white, Sun and Moon, masculine and feminine— it’s all the same metaphor. Yet the key is this: Shakti goes up the spine, through all the Chakras and only meets Shiva at the top. Shakti is the shapeless pygmy, Shiva is the godself . Shakti explores the human domain through the chakras, yet doesn’t stick around — she keeps flowing. When she reaches the crown, her and Shiva do not leave the body, but they fully and totally inhabit it.
Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking and Experience
The subtle permeates the gross
The idea of symmetry pervades physiology, mathematics and even fundamental physics. In math we have Lie Groups, in physics Gauge Fields, in physiology the Skeleton, in Vedic philosophy the Tantric systems. These symmetric models inform reality — yet are never made manifest. Symmetry and invariance are closely related concepts. For example, a sphere is rotationally invariant in three dimensions. No matter how I rotate it in 3D, it looks the exact same. Yet, such a perfect sphere remains only a concept — never to be actualized.
The notion of spontaneous symmetry breaking appears in physics, and the existence of many particles is the product of a fundamental symmetry of the universe being broken. These symmetries are often considered ontological primary — yet it is their breaking which gives rise to our myriad existence. Living in the world, it is inevitable that our idealized bodies will develop asymmetries. Any small postural or muscular perturbation has a cascading effect in the body.
So how does subtlety permeate the gross? The realm of ideas is certainly more subtle than the realm of the physical. Ideas are private(until shared), impermanent(until written) and amorphous. We have ideas of perfect symmetry — the chakras, our skeletal models, the internal realm of humans. Less subtle than this are the many poems describing how our existence is bookended by extremes. Slightly more gross, our spine itself actualizes this metaphor. With our parasympathetic nerves being located at the top and bottom of our spine and the sympathetic nerves being in the middle. Finally, in our lived reality, these idealized symmetries are broken. The asymmetries of embodied existence ripple through your body, creating your unique psycho-physical situation.
The key is this: don’t focus on the model, focus on yourself. How does Shakti manifest within you — where does she get stuck? In the Hierarchy of Needs, where do you struggle the most? Where does the creative flow of existence stagnate within you — sit down and inquire.
You can’t move Shakti — she’s forever magnetically attracted to Shiva. All you can do is clear the way for her — by understanding and mastering the space between.