Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The universe outside is a reflection of the universe within

Based on my Talk “The universe outside is a reflection of the universe within: Journey from the star wars at the start of the Big Bang to the star within you” given at the Dattoli Cancer Center Support Group, February 15, 2011, Sarasota, FL.

Good evening and thank you for having me here.

I apologize if the title of the talk was confusing to some people. Hopefully it the meaning will be more apparent at the end of this talk.

I find that my best teacher and the source of my inspiration to find my real self is the world around us. I am a cardiologist by trade and I deal not just with problems related to the heart and blood vessels, but I am also very involved with preventive care. Prevention involves trying to prevent disease before it manifests in the physical body. Just like we can’t build a house without a plan or a blueprint, I sometimes wonder if there is a blueprint of illness somewhere within ourselves before diseases set in. Scientists are studying genetic makeup of individuals to determine if there is something in our genetics that can serve as a forewarning. Conversely, once disease manifests, scientists are also looking at targeting treatment based on the genetic makeup rather than using a shotgun approach that constitutes modern medicine as we know it. This targeted approach is also called personalized medicine. There are a lot of unknowns that are still being worked out. 

One aspect of prevention of heart disease is proper breathing habits. Proper breathing has a lot of benefits on heart health. We feel invigorated when we breathe in clean unpolluted air. Slow deep breathing can slow our heart down and lower blood pressure. Sometimes I get a call from the hospital in the middle of the night and the call is about someone in deep sleep with a very low heart rate. This is a very normal physiological finding and no treatment is usually required. The same person during the daytime has a normal or a high pulse rate. During deep sleep, the mind is resting and not chasing thoughts, worries, anxieties etc.

We can recreate the same restful state of sleep during the waking state by proper breathing. From the air we breathe in, we extract oxygen and send out carbon with exhaled air. Through our breath we have a very consistent connection with the outside world whether we are awake or asleep. When we look at the complexity of the universe we live in, and the complexity of the human body, it is hard to imagine that the breathing process we engage in several thousand times a day only serves the function of oxygen extraction and carbon expulsion. Perhaps there are deeper more subtle layers to the breathing process that we do not fully understand. Perhaps modern science will give us some answers to these questions, just like we are only now understanding the role of genetic makeup in disease management.

As a physician and scientist, I have always been thought to go to the source of the knowledge that we acquire from various sources. When it comes to the breathing process we know that we inhale air and extract oxygen and exhale air and expel carbon dioxide. Where did oxygen and carbon, the fundamental elements that we breath in and out, come from in the first place?

To answer this question, you have to go back in time. The story of oxygen and carbon starts 13.7 billion years ago. A commonly accepted scientific theory of the origin of the universe is the Big Bang. According to the Big Bang theory, 13.7 billion years ago, something very interesting happened. A primeval atom of infinitely small density and infinitely hot temperature, very rapidly expanded and cooled creating the ever expanding physical universe we see today. First, the universe existed as clouds of gases made of hydrogen. Hydrogen is the first element in the periodic table of elements.

When these clouds of hydrogen collided, gravity got a chance to take over, collapsing these gas clouds inwards. As gravity compressed these gases, the temperature rose and when it got hot enough, a nuclear fusion process started that fused hydrogen into helium. When three helium atoms fuse carbon is created, and when a fourth helium atom joins in, oxygen is formed. This fusion process occurring in the stars generated heavier elements such as oxygen and carbon from hydrogen, and oxygen is vital for life as we know it.

As these heavier and heavier elements fuse and in the nuclear fusion reactions occurring in every star including our sun, other heavy elements are produced. These heavier elements move towards the core of the star by the force of gravity. They keep fusing and finally iron is produced, which forms the core of the star. The nucleus of iron is very stable and when the more superficial hydrogen, which serves as the fuel for this process, runs out, the iron core cannot sustain the force of gravity and ultimately the star collapses under the weight of gravity and explodes into a supernova and in the process of this explosion comes out other elements such as gold, platinum. Next time you look at a gold or platinum ring, think of where this came from. You don’t have to worry about our sun losing its fuel. The core of the sun is still composed of hydrogen and It is projected to burn for 5 billion years, long enough for mankind to complete many millions of lifetimes.

Physical similarities between the outer and inner universe

An element like oxygen produced billions of years ago in a far away place is what sustains our life. It also feels strange to think that other elements such as iron, titanium etc that we commonly use today were also created many billions of years ago in a far away place. If we look hard enough, we can find some similarities between the outer universe and our own physical bodies.
It would be interesting to take a journey from the outermost reaches of the physical universe and trace steps back to our physical being. There are billions and billions of stars, galaxies. Perhaps there are solar systems with planets similar to ours. Perhaps one of those exosolar planetary systems are lucky enough to have the suitable substrate for life. We don’t know and probably never will. All I can say is that I feel extremely fortunate that circumstances are just right for life to thrive and proceed on earth.

As we trace steps from the outer reaches of space to our own planet, we find some similarities to our own body. These similarities are symbolic and helps put our lives in better perspective. You can use this in one of two ways. One way to look at it would be to say that the day to day problems we face and the perceived difficulties in our lives don’t really matter on a grander scale such as the universe. The other way to look at it is we are beings of infinite potential and we don’t lack anything and if we apply our minds, we can achieve anything we want to.

Composition of the human body
If you look at the elemental composition of the human body, you cannot help thinking that what we are all made of is the same thing found in stars. Breaking down the chemical composition of the body by weight, you will find that 65% is oxygen, 18% is carbon, 10% is hydrogen and the rest is composed of other elements1.

Our conception and the Big Bang
If you look at the basic building blocks of our DNA, the hereditary material we have inherited from our parents, they are composed of the same oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen molecules. When these are rearranged in different ways, we get the units of DNA called adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine. We all get half our DNA from one parent and the other half from the other parent. When we go from a single-celled organism to a fully grown human with trillions of cells, this is akin to what happened when the primeval atom created the entire physical universe.  

Our brain and the Milky Way Galaxy
If you think of each brain cell (called a neuron) in the human brain as a star you will find similarity with our galaxy, the Milky Way. The number of cells in the human brain is about 100-200 billion. The number of stars in the milky way is about 200 billion.

The human body and the solar system
If we look at our solar system, we find some other similarities. There are nine planets in orbit, the center of which is the sun. Our body has nine gates or openings and at the center of this is the human mind. Like our sun, our mind-brain complex powers our entire body.

The human spine and the earth
If we look further, we see other similarities between our body and the the earth we inhabit. The human body is supported by the spine. The base of the spine provides the foundation that keeps us erect. The spine can be compared to the earth. Travelling upwards from the base of the spine to the brain, along the way there are 5 nerve plexuses. The neural (brain) output is filtered through these 5 nerve plexuses before the various organs in the body receive these impulses. If you start at the surface of the earth which is like the base of the spine and travel upwards towards space, you will traverse five layers of the atmosphere, the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere and exosphere. Beyond this is space. The function of the atmosphere is to filter down the sun’s rays and thereby make life possible on earth. In similar fashion, if you think of the brain as the sun putting out energy, the various bodily functions are carried out through information transmitted from the brain and filtered through these five nerve plexuses. These five nerve plexuses starting from the bottom to the top are the coccygeal, sacral, solar, cardiac and thyroid plexuses. Some of the endocrine glands are also conveniently located near these nerve plexuses. Through chemical messengers from the brain, hormones are secreted leading to smooth functioning of the body.

Going from the farthest reaches of space to our own planet, we find many similarities in the external universe with that in our own physical bodies. We see that our body-mind-brain has a lot of similarities to the external universe.

Functional similarities between the inner and outer universe

Now that we have seen some of the physical similarities let’s now study some of the functional similarities between the outer physical universe and our inner universe. When stars are formed, the basic fuel is hydrogen. From this everything else is produced. When we are born and come into the world for the first time, the basic fuel we use is oxygen. From this we get the power to grow, eat and then start to take in other fuel sources such as food. Just as a star dies when it’s fuel source hydrogen dries up, our bodies die when we stop breathing. Therefore breathing is such as vital process. When we breathe in we take in oxygen and when we breathe out, we exhale carbon dioxide. Everything we do, including our thought processes depend on incoming oxygen. Imagine for a second, during the process of creation of a star, oxygen was not produced, life as we know it would not exist.

Our capacity to generate thoughts depend on the energy derived from oxygen in the incoming breath. Our state of mind changes our breathing pattern. Using this logic, why can’t we change change our thoughts by regulating the incoming breath? Indeed, there is a link between our breathing pattern and the state of our mind. If you observe an angry person, you will notice that the breathing pattern is rapid at the height of anger. In deep sleep, when are minds are the quietest, our breath is barely perceptible.

Good thoughts lead to good actions. Bad thoughts lead to destructive actions. If the stars that generated oxygen for all of us started asking for royalties, you probably would carefully regulate your breath and put the thoughts that you generate to good use in order to pay off those royalties. What we have in abundance we take for granted till we lose the ability to use it. Just as stars exist for a while (measured in billions of years), along the way put out useful elements that are the source of new life, we should use our limited existence (measured in tens of years) to put out good thoughts, ideas and actions. Always ask yourself, what have I contributed to mankind? You will never go wrong if you ask yourself this question all the time.

I mentioned the use of breath to regulate our thoughts. Let’s see if this works for you. To help you focus, let’s have everyone close their eyes. Now all you are doing is watching the breath. You are like a watchman sitting at one of the entrances of a house with nine doors and watching the breath go in and out. Breath is considered a “VIP” in this body house of nine gates and the watchman (that is you) has been instructed only to watch this “VIP” go in and out and not regulate the timing, frequency, or change the breath in any way.

Guided meditation

With eyes closed, turn your attention to your nostrils and watch the breath. Be a silent spectator of the incoming and outgoing breath. There should be no change to your breathing pattern. You should be breathing just as you were 15 minutes ago. The only difference is that you are now aware that you are breathing. If you find your mind starting to wander, bring your attention back to your nostrils and observe the breath. Tell your mind that without the incoming breath, it will cease to exist. Gradually your mind will obey you.

The power of your breath is the gravity that pulls the clouds of your mind to revolve around it. Make the incoming and outgoing breath the center of your being. The mind is nothing but a cloud of thoughts. The more you concentrate on your breath, the tighter the gravitational pull of your breath on your mind. The thought clouds that are scattering into infinity from your mind are being gradually pulled to a tight orbit around your incoming and outgoing breath.

As you watch the breath more intently, the stronger the pull. If you find your mind wandering away, coax it back into an orbit around your incoming and outgoing breath.

As you continue to watch your breath, your thoughts are coalescing together. This will be manifested by your mind becoming quieter. Continue to watch the incoming and outgoing breath.

As you continue to watch the breath, your mind is condensing into a smaller and smaller point pulled by the gravity of your breath. This is being manifested by increasing peace and calm that is welling up inside you.

This increasing peace and calm is coming up from within you. Keep watching the incoming and outgoing breath. Now, let’s try and find this source of increasing peace and calm within you.

Inhale gently and ride along the breath to a point in the middle of your brain. All you feel here is the peace and calm that you have generated by watching the incoming and outgoing breath.

Imagine this peace and calm looking like a spot of bright light. Focus on this bright spot of light in your brain. From this bright spot of light, spread waves of peace and calm thought your body. Keep your attention on this bright spot of light.

Feel this peace and calm permeating your whole self. Now send these waves of peace and calm to your neighbor, to all people in this room. Continue to radiate this peace and calm from a point inside your head to the whole city, the state and the country. Continue extending this bright spot of light to the whole world.

Imagine people in the most distant reaches of the earth becoming enveloped in the waves of peace and calm that you are generating.

To someone that has received your waves of peace and calm, this is seen as a distant star in the night sky. This bright spot that has generated the peace and calm within you is the star inside you.

Enjoy the peace and bliss that you have generated for yourselves and others. Gradually open your eyes at your own pace.

Thank you for your attention.

1. Chang, Raymond (2007). Chemistry, Ninth Edition. McGraw-Hill. pp. p. 52. ISBN 0-07-110595-6.