From the Micro to the Macro

From the Micro to the Macro

Over the past few centuries, while we’ve made some advances in understanding the vastness of our universe, the prevailing trend in science and medicine has been to understand the world on a smaller and smaller scale. We’ve come to accept that our bodies are composed of trillions of microscopic units called cells, and that disease is often caused by creatures so small they might as well be invisible. We learned that everything is made of even smaller building blocks called atoms, and later we discovered even littler units of energy-matter that make atoms look huge. Today’s scientific advances often hinge on the ability to make tinier and tinier components, and to map and manipulate tinier and tinier pieces of the body, such as individual genes.

The microscopic exploration of the world promotes a tendency to isolate the things we’re exploring. The closer our focus, the more different and disconnected everything looks. It’s fascinating and useful, but it has contributed to the prevailing application of medicine in a similarly isolating or “atomistic” way. Disease is often treated with little regard for the body that contains it, or the person who has the body, or the beliefs the person has, or the food that’s put into that body, or the environment the body exists in.

Because we’re all educated in science these days, and we like to think that science is getting us the closest we’ve ever been to the truth, it’s natural that we often examine the dysfunctional factors in our lives through an electron microscope rather than taking a broad view. Science has shown us that the answers come from scrutinizing things at an infinitesimal scale, but are these the real answers?

I ask this as a science enthusiast, with a science degree and a career that began with years in a lab. Of course, science isn’t always reductive and microscopic. There are, for instance, systems biologists, who study the organic interactions of many variables, but there are too many moving parts involved to get the average layperson excited. We like our science the way we like our media – short and easy to digest – so that means a lot of isolated pieces of data.

When I went to grad school to learn Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and then married a practitioner of Ayurveda, my mind was blown at just how different the perspective of these Eastern systems is. In contradistinction to our modern reductionism, TCM and Ayurveda look at the biggest possible picture. They originated in the keen observation of nature, where we witness the interaction of variables from the massive to the minuscule. Consequently, practitioners of these forms of medicine look for patterns – multi-dimensional patterns of imbalance.

Fundamental to these medical systems is the importance of dynamic balance – a range of relative equilibrium that shifts and changes throughout life. In TCM, this balance is usually expressed as the two-part harmony of yin and yang. And in Ayurveda, it’s often expressed as the harmony of three qualities known as sattva, rajas, and tamas. Both systems also utilize five-element theories of balance. These multi-part concepts of balance reflect the interconnectedness of nature – a shift in one component causes a shift in the other components. Our backgrounds in these systems led to the development of the three-part expression of balance for a well life structure, sweetness, and space – which we present in our upcoming book.

Because of the constant push and pull between the elements of an organic system, it’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to maintain a state of constant, perfect balance. However, the more conscious we become of how we’re affected by diverse variables such as our thinking, our eating, and our climate, the more readily we can make adjustments in order to bring ourselves back toward center. In this way, we can achieve a dynamic balance that works for us. A person whose dynamic range is something like B in the diagram below swings back and forth within a range of about 75% of their optimum. Depending on their constitution, resilience, and present circumstances, this could feel balanced or wildly erratic, or somewhere in between. In comparison, most people would feel much better with a dynamic balance range more like A. Our target dynamic balance should be the range within which we can readily self-correct for any deviation without degrading our function or experience.

Our dynamic balance range is an expression of all the things we do that compromise our balance, combined with everything we do to bring ourselves back. Forty hours of sitting at a desk every week might push us toward a slow metabolism and sluggish circulation, but if this is offset with frequent exercise, the net experience may be close to optimal balance. Of course, mobility is just one of many metrics, and it’s not always easy to discern what you need more or less of in order to live closer to center, but when you act as a scientist – a scientist who takes the broad view – you’ll discover so much about how you work, and how integrated you are, both within and without.

It’s important to note that the difference between living in the A range versus the B range in the diagram above has nothing to do with the amount of excitement in your life or the emotional range you’re capable of experiencing. You could have an end-of-life sky-diving-karaoke celebration with a dear friend who’s dying – an experience that includes adventure, elation, and sadness – and stay within the A range the whole time. Balanced doesn’t mean boring or flat.

The farther you stray from your optimum (like the B range, or wider) the less comfortable you’ll feel, the greater your risk of experiencing crisis, and the harder it becomes to correct yourself. One reason it’s difficult to correct is that the more severely the scale tips, the more dramatic your efforts to restore balance will tend to be, which may throw you out of balance in new ways. It’s a lot like driving a car. If you fall asleep for a split second and notice that you’ve veered a few inches out of your lane, you can give the steering wheel a little tug and quickly get yourself back on track. But, if you fall asleep a little longer and open your eyes to discover that you’ve drifted to the wrong side of the road and are speeding toward oncoming traffic, you’re more likely to swing the wheel far in the opposite direction and risk careening off the shoulder. For this reason, it’s best to catch yourself early. But, even if it’s too late for that, you should always begin with moderate, consistent corrections.

This week, see if you can feel which activities, foods, or other factors cause you to stray the furthest from your optimum. Then consider: if you were to witness this activity in the context of the natural world, what would the “fix” be? How would nature resolve the imbalance? Then consider how you could adopt a similar balance to this destabilizing activity or influence.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten

Some of the material in this newsletter was excerpted from our upcoming book, The Well Life, published by Adams Media. Sign up here to be notified when it comes out!

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