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The Subtle Body

Earlier I talked about the forth-dimensional body, looking at the human body from an evolutionary point of view, to see how our bodies have evolved over eons to be a certain way - essentially super-efficient and physically activity. We also looked at the survival instinct, evolved to protect this body of ours. It is a fairly harsh master; sensitive to every threat, able to perpetuate the stress response seemingly indefinitely, able to extinguish our pleasure drive at the flick of a switch if it conflicts with our 'survival'. Moreover, our survival instinct doesn't seem to be able to distinguish between a real threat and an imaginary one, a true life-threatening situation or a socially unpleasant one. A difficult boss at work is as liable to trigger the same response as a hostile tribe seeking your food source. The same pathways are triggered: appetite is suppressed, sleep becomes shallow, cortisol is released, blood sugar levels increase, the pleasure centres become numb, our attention becomes fixated on the threat. The difference between us and our ancestors is that in our age of information overload there is no shortage of threat - indeed fear is cynically deployed everywhere we look to hook our attention. Competition and comparison have become woven into our economy and culture, triggering our social anxiety at every turn. 

The survival instinct is not confined to a certain part of the brain or body. It is part of what I call the 'subtle body' - a phrase borrowed from Tantra. Before the development of modern medicine, certain systems were used to explain disease and by extension the working of the human body. We had the 'humoral' system of the ancient Greeks - black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood all in balance; the meridian system of energy channels in ancient China. In the Tantric system of ancient India and Tibet, the Subtle Body was an energy system originating around the base of the spine, which could be mobilised, via meditation and visualisation, to travel up points of concentration or chakras to harness creative and healing powers. 

Like these ancient systems, the subtle body is a way of looking at our body as an integrated system, intimately connected with our mind and moods, via pathways we are only just beginning to appreciate. Day to day, we are largely unaware of our subtle body. We may be aware that we are tasting or touching something, but are we aware of our gut detecting what we eat ('enteroception') or our sense of balance and joint position making dozens of adjustments while we stand, or our immune system as it constantly 'tests' the outer world? A time we might be aware of the subtle body is when it rebels against us. Instead of protecting us it misfires, causing distress. This might be unexpected pain or inflammation, often at a 'barrier' part of the body such as the sinuses, the gut, the skin or the immune system. Or it might become overprotective: ramping up our sensitivity to pain or causing crippling spasms in the muscle tissue. This type of disease can be difficult to pick up with conventional tests and scans. As medics we see a lot of people suffering from unexplained symptoms: irritable, uncontrollable gut pain, migraine-type headaches, back pain, gynecological pain, rashes, itching, fatigue, palpitations, breathlessness. In almost all cases there is a degree of stress and anxiety causing or exacerbating the symptoms. Medications can be of little help. For me it was cluster headaches - random excruciating headaches - which eased off only once, for whatever reason, my life became less stressful. Depression cannot be picked up on any blood test, but the profound sense of physical numbness and inertia, the heaviness of the heart, is undoubtedly as physical as it is mental. So where do we draw the line between physical and emotional? The subtle body is an attempt to see the body without these distinctions.

The subtle body is not separated into various systems. Around two-thirds of our gut is immune tissue - the gut is actually the main training ground for immune cells - so in what sense can we meaningfully separate the 'immune' from the 'gastrointestinal' system? Our liquid tissue, blood, is made mainly inside our bones (several million cells per second), with other components like clotting cells made in the liver. Bones not only make blood cells, but provide structural support, and help regulate calcium levels in the blood, along with the gut, and the skin and the kidneys. The kidneys filter out nitrogenous waste, but also control blood pressure and regulate steroid production via the adrenals. Muscle not only enables us to move, not only controls the diameter of blood vessels, peristalsis for digestion, breathing, the beating of our heart, but muscle is also endocrine tissue which releases various hormones beneficial to health. Conversely adipose tissue - fat cells - releases damaging hormones. Almost every part of our body 'multi-tasks' in this way. Increasingly we are having to combine these specialisms into unwieldy compounds such as 'neuro-immuno-endocrinology' to do justice to this complexity.

This is my interpretation of the subtle body. Not necessarily as a hidden reservoir of energy channels - though I don't discount their existence - but as a connected, multi-faceted thing, where each 'organ' performs several tasks, in conjunction with other organs and tissue, constantly communicating via signals and messengers to maintain homeostasis - the optimal conditions for functioning, for surviving and thriving. 

This sometimes gets missed in our 'specialization' model of medicine. Of course, to learn about something as insanely complex as the human organism, it helps to break it down into various systems. If something goes awry, you want to see a specialist: If you're going to tinker around with the heart for instance you want to see a Cardiologist, someone who has seen thousands of patients with such conditions, who is up to date with the latest research, who knows what they are talking about. Likewise cutting into something so tightly packed as the body or blasting a tumour with radiation, you want a surgeon or radiotherapist, who knows anatomy inside out, lest you damage some vital blood supply or nerve. Furthermore this approach works well the majority of the time. If we think about it most of us know someone whose life or health has been saved with modern medicine. So the subtle body is not an alternative to medicine. It is simply another way of looking at us as human beings, as integrated, complex and constantly adapting organisms, inseparable from our environment. At heart, the subtle body is basically the mind, the mind of the body. This idea opens up possibilities. What is the difference between this 'mind of the body' and our 'thinking' minds? Can we live in a way that breaks down this separation?

H James, 2018

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