Our Lady of the Dry Tree
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
My deep wish is to submit entirely to an inner voice, the feeling of the divine, of the sacred in me. I know that a higher energy—what religions call God or Lord—is within me. It will appear if the mind and the body are truly related.
Jeanne de Salzmann, The Reality of Being, p. 260
When we take in impressions, the way that we take them in has an inevitable, direct, and fundamentally physical effect on our cellular mechanisms. Ultimately, the finer material of impressions that flows into our body causes cellular reactions of an extraordinary variety; specific proteins and other molecular entities are expressed as a result of these interactions and come into contact with the genetic material in the nucleus of our cells, causing it to undertake appropriate (or inappropriate) responses as a result of those entities and the messages they impart. New molecular entities are then produced; and those have an impact on the further work of the DNA in the cell and the cell itself.
In this way, all of the impressions we take in create (in the course of a lifetime, unto itself) an "eternal-internal" exchange in which both the nature and quantity of various molecular structures and substructures in the body is determined. All of the activities we undertake either increase or decrease the presence of various intercellular and intracellular molecules: proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and other substances; and these determines the nature of our entire physical functioning—but also, in the sense of “fineness,” that is, the finer energies which Gurdjieff and de Salzmann urge us to cultivate — they determine both our spirituality and our psychology.
When de Salzmann said that everything is in constant movement, always going up or down, that nothing ever stays in the same place, she was referring to the cosmos in general, but it applies just as much to the microcosmos under discussion here as to anything else. Our bodies are always producing a range of molecules that either build on our inward growth of Being, or act against it.
This book on genes, in other words, provides an important mirror to Gurdjieff's idea of the chemical factory in mankind; and it offers us the potential to gain a new form of insight into the genetic nature of our spiritual being, and the way that the performance and function of our physical being relates to it.
It’s already established that the cultivation of spiritual being can effect actual, measurable material changes in the body on a molecular level. Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness and meditation practices can produce physical changes in organs; they also change the way in which the brain functions. A material expression of function through DNA is the ultimate ground-floor vehicle for that change; so perhaps the reason that it takes so many years for any real spiritual change to take place in the human being is because of the unusual delicate, intricate, staggeringly complex, and constantly changing nature of cellular activity. It takes many years, one can see, for finer impressions to create enough change within enough cells for them to collectively reorganize the structure of their molecular relationships enough to truly change Being.
In this sense, spiritual effort is indeed an incremental undertaking; and we may intuit here that there are physical and chemical laws governing it that are difficult to overcome. If there is such a thing as "instant enlightenment" — a matter that has historically created more than a few disagreements, especially in the Zen schools — it’s extraordinarily unusual for just this reason.
When the inward sensation of Being changes such that one senses different vibrations, and in particular when one acquires the capacity to sense higher and sacred vibrations, it takes place because of rearrangements of chemicals within cells on the molecular level. Cellular mechanisms need to be retrained over a long period of time to produce the molecular relationships that can make this possible; and they need to be not only retrained, but learn to produce proteins, etc. (Gurdjieff's “finer substances”) in much greater amounts, because sensitivity depends on having enough “finer molecules” available to do the work of sensation that’s necessary. When we work on our sensation, when we make efforts to be, it may seem to us that we are making them with our mind or through our feeling, but we are really engaged in changing the inner relationships of our molecular and cellular Being.
The matter is worthy of a great deal of consideration, and may perhaps lead us to a greater respect for the collective inward effort we are undertaking. We’re not just trying to reeducate our attitudes, our feelings, and so on; we’re engaged in a reeducation of our genes themselves, since we’re “retraining” the genetic material at the heart of our spiritual being so that it better aligns with the higher senses of purposes which are built into it—but which generally remain dormant.
There’s an interesting aspect of this in the context of the word “opening." A spiritual engagement, a freeing of the spirit or soul, is often called an opening. We know that the DNA molecule is folded into an extremely complex shape; and that its folds undergo metamorphosis as it brings various parts of itself into contact with one another in order to synthesize new molecules according to the instruction sets encoded in the on/off switches that lie in long strands of the DNA molecule outside the genes that used to be thought of as "nonsense" encoding (for example, “pseudogenes”), but which are now increasingly understood to perform many vital functions. Spiritual awakening may well involve literally opening folded areas of the DNA molecule so that they are allowed to make new kinds of contact with one another and express new potentials.
Mukherjee reports: “In 1988, a National Research Council document on the Genome Project made a crucial projection about the future of genomic research: “Encoded in the DNA sequence are fundamental determinants of those mental capacities—learning, language, memory—essential to human culture. Encoded there as well are the mutations and variations that cause or increase the susceptibility to many diseases responsible for much human suffering.”
—Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene, Scribner iBooks, from the section So, We's the Same.
It is just as certain that all the capacity of our spiritual being is not just encoded, but also hidden within, our DNA; that all of the possibilities we have for consciousness and Being are already in there; and that they are simply not expressed, because appropriate relationships and conditions haven't been fostered and formed. This is, for those familiar with it, strikingly reminiscent of Gurdjieff’s contention that man already has “higher centers” within him, but we are just not in contact with them.
His comment that one must of necessity make contact with the lower in order to contact the higher – that the process is entirely reciprocal — makes even more sense—molecular sense—in this context:
"Each cosmos is an animate and intelligent being. Each cosmos is born, lives, and dies. In one cosmos it is impossible to understand all the laws of the universe, but three cosmoses taken together include in themselves all the laws of the universe, or two cosmoses, the one above and the other below, determine the cosmos which stands between them… by passing in his consciousness to the level of a higher cosmos, a man by this very fact passes to a level of a lower cosmos."
—Gurdjieff, as quoted in In Search of the Miraculous by P. D. Ouspensky, P. 333
It's already well understood that in terms of mechanical physical characteristics, DNA encodes all kinds of latent information which is not expressed except under a specific set of circumstances. Yet we always conceive of this understanding as applying to physical characteristics such as hair color, height, susceptibility to particular diseases, and so on. It's rarely considered in the context of our psychology and spirituality — yet it should be obvious to all of us that it also works in exactly this way:
Most notably, perhaps, children with Down syndrome have an extraordinary sweetness of temperament, as if in inheriting an extra chromosome they had acquired a concomitant loss of cruelty and malice (if there is any doubt that genotypes can influence temperament or personality, then a single encounter with a Down child can lay that idea to rest).
—Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene, Scribner iBooks, from the section The Birth of a Clinic.
Disturbances of the mind and of the soul are well known to have genetic and molecular origins, just as physical features do. This has been recognized for a long time; yet there's a vast difference between maladies caused by defective genes, and spiritual potentials concealed by latency.
Installment 3 of the Molecular work of Being will publish Nov. 17.
Installment 3 of the Molecular work of Being will publish Nov. 17.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.