Posted by: Alton | May 7, 2009

Mitochondria and Identity

You’ve got to see who you are and how you are, without illusion, judgment or resistance of any kind. You’ve got to see your own place in society and your function as a social being. You’ve got to see your duties and obligations to your fellow human beings, and above all, your responsibility to yourself as an individual living with other individuals. And you’ve got to see all of that clearly and as a unit, a single gestalt of interrelationship.

-Mindfulness In Plain English, Ven. Henepola Gunaratana


So I’ve been spending some time recently reading Mindfulness In Plain English, recommended to me by one of my Aikido instructors. I’ve found it well written, so far, but haven’t gotten through much- I’ve been playing phone tag with my health insurance all morning. Fortunately, that situation seems to be resolving soon. As for the book, though, I can’t recommend it enough for its readability. It’s a very pragmatic book, written for an American audience, designed to strip the ceremonial away from the purely functional aspects of meditative practice.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what the heck this has to do with Mitochondria. The quote at the start at first seems to be an argument that we need to develop social awareness, a sort of communal imperative- but I’d like to use it as a jumping off point to looking inwards.

One of the more well-known metaphors for conceptual and physical identity is the story of a wooden seafaring vessel. Upon every visit to port, bits and pieces of the ship would need repairs, or occasionally replacement- planking coming loose, new sails, a new anchor, new crew, etc. Eventually, after a few years, every single piece of the ship is composed of newly-added repairs or replacements, such that no element of the ship was a part of the ship on its first voyage. The question arises, then- is this really the same ship? Functionally, the ship has served its purpose for many years. But the original ship itself is physically long gone.

In the instance of health and wellness, this ship can be thought of as a representation of the human body. And the individual planks and crew members can be thought of as the organs, cells, systems, and the like. More specifically, we can include vital components of cells in this list- such as Mitochondria. Mitochondria are commonly understood to have been introduced into our ancient progenitors between 1.7-2 billion years ago, and existed beforehand independently as a kind of primitive microorganism known as Proteobacteria. Yet today they’re taken for granted as a sort of organelle, just another component of a healthy, functional cell body. Cells would not function without Mitochondria, and dysfunction can be the cause of a large number of diseases. Mitochondria, then, are essential to our ongoing existence- life as we know it would be impossible without them.

So, just as we lean on our surroundings, we depend greatly on components of ourselves that we would be hard pressed to define as essential to how we conceive our own identity. We cannot exist independently from Mitochondria- they pervade and sustain us from birth until death. They are at once a part of the whole we like to think of as our "self”, but have their own strong and distinct identity, their own genetic heritage independent from our own. Neither makes much sense without the context of the other- or, as the quote at the start puts it, they form a single gestalt of interrelationship. This concept should be extended in all senses.

It is because of these fuzzy boundaries in regards to our own identity and humanity, both inward and outward, that it is an imperative to never consider yourself outside the context of the entire ecology around you- to always be aware of yourself as a single component in a greater whole. Disagreements may arise on the implications of social structure, and political opinions- and I have no real interest in discussing them. To me, the perceptual baseline will lead to wisdom and clarity, regardless of initial bias. This is as true in scientific endeavors as it is in personal ones. Speaking for myself, I’ve found the more I search for this clarity in my own perceptions and reflections, the less opinionated I am on any given subject- but the more I learn and understand.

So next time you have a glass of milk… from that cow, pause for a moment, and reflect on just how much goes into that drink. From the cellular level, and all of the body’s symbiotes involved in digestion, all the way outward to the cow that produced the milk, the grass that fed the cow, and the weather and geological forces that produced the grass, no piece can be truly disconnected from the others. We only divide up the world into pieces in order to describe the functional components discretely, and to wrestle with the concepts for understanding. The divisions only exist within our minds.

Ramblings aside, I’m reminded of this imperative whenever I run into frustrations at work. I’ve found that largely individual employees exist solely in the small context of their corporate structure- to avert work as much as possible, to control as strongly as possible the elements they can’t avoid, and to satisfy the demands of the only people they’re held accountable to. This grasping for control and security seems endemic in any organization of sufficient size- and the obfuscation it lends itself to naturally prevents understanding of any meaningful sort from pervading to decision-makers. The type of awareness that this environment conditions is a parochial sort, a small-minded unconscious pettiness that is inherently dehumanizing in nature- producing a sort of suffering that has been well understood by eastern traditions for millennia. It is utterly impossible to combat on an individual level, because existing in that context denies the premise of the appeal to be greater, no matter how individually aware any person or team might be within the whole. Individual exceptions to the rule occur, but inevitably the pattern of behavior is well defined, and extremely habitual.


Fortunately, we’re human, and can be much much more than this. Just remember to relax.




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