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  • Karl Thunemann

Oh, Life Can Be So Grueling!

The first time I experienced this movie, I fell asleep three times as it ran. And the film was only an hour long! Still at its conclusion the work seemed enormously potent, far more than a demonstration of my ability to learn while asleep.

At first, I thought the ideas in the film posed a huge challenge to me as a meditator. The film, The Gut: Our Second Brain, is not exactly new: It is dated 2013. But it was full of news for me. Most striking? That we human beings are each host to a huge number of bacteria and other microbes. The number as I recall—I made notes the second and third times I watched the film, but the notes having disappeared, I can only guess—was 100,000 billion. Be sure to key in all those zeros! The film is kind of psychedelic, so it’s easy to get lost.

In fact they say we have more bacterial cells than human cells—you could call us the Prius species, but I later learned that it’s common for all manner of species to harbor bacteria. All of us—our cats, dogs, even our budgies—are hybrid species. So Earth is home of the hybrids.

Bacteria in the stomach

I wrote a mini review of the film for our co-op newsletter, and my wife intervened to observe that I had omitted the film’s main point: That the gut, our second brain, is up to its gunwales in working things through. Our guts are in themselves quite intelligent—about as smart as a cat or a dog. (Which is it? demanded my brother, an inveterate keeper of cats.)  I duly amended my review.

Not that I dismiss the importance of the gut, or of pets. But I was off on another tangent. I had doubled down on loving-kindness to address my bodily health. It never occurred to me to send an emissary to my bacteria. Some people say we each have a trillion of these tiny imps, so you have to expect that there’s more than a little guesswork in calculating their numbers.

I looked online and found a commercial site (they sell things) that pinpointed the kinds of meditation that most benefit the gut (which might be a proxy for bacteria). They listed four types: 1. Loving-kindness. 2. Mindfulness. 3. Mantra 4. Breathing. And if you get into trouble, they advise guided meditation. Good idea—it reduces the chance of operator’s error. The website also offers cleansing recipes (they sound pretty good) and some introductory pills on sale. Hey, I already take enough pills to make my head spin! *

Now I employ all four of these meditative styles, to some degree, and I still think there should be something more. So I opened a new account in the department of meditative browsing. Kind of like leaving a door open to see who or what wanders in.  Then, on most days, I would lie back after meditating and imagine I was opening doors to bacterial meditation. This went on for a few weeks, bringing many images. Some were intriguing, but none compelling. Yet I was patient. I have a lot more patience these days.

And then one morning I drifted off to sleep and awoke 30 minutes later with—I am not sure whether to call it a vision or a dream. I’m sitting in a huge cauldron filled with a dark brown gruel. It bubbles. It is warm, but not boiling. I have just two thoughts. First, this is an assemblage of all the bacteria and micro-organisms that call my body home. Second—get this—I understand that they are in plenary session.

The vision faded before I understood my role in the session—if in fact that’s what it was. I tried to summarize my possible roles. Observer … participant … reporter … supplicant? Landlord?  Heaven forfend! I am not completely sure what plenary sessions are. When I covered them as a journalist they seemed like a break. Oh, I had to cover the keynote speeches and debates before the whole group. But when they broke out into smaller groups, I could follow my muse, from finding novelties to digging deeper into subjects I fancied I understood.

Wait a minute! This is not about me in the outer world, but about my inner world. How could they have a plenary session? How would they register even a million participants, let alone a trillion? Can they find social justice? How do they speak or vote? Might they be governed by meritocracy? My thinking is swayed by the fixation on social justice in my outer world. I do not imagine most bacteria care about governing, To the extent they “want,” it is just to do what comes naturally. I suppose that in our vernacular they are just a bunch of tiny one-trick ponies.

My involvement is preliminary. I will just have to watch, hoping that understanding will slowly slip into my befuddled brain. And I can start reading about science. Next time I am invited to a plenary session, may I ask to speak to the presiding officer. If those within hearing distance shrink with a look of panic on their oh-ever-so-tiny faces (if they can even be thought to have faces) may I just straighten up and ask if they would like to learn the words and gestures of that favorite childhood song, “In a Cabin in a Wood.”

The song is described as an action song. I think of it as progressive, but not in a political sense. Each line of the song has a prescribed action. As you sing and sing again, you drop out the words, line by line, showing only the action. Eventually there are no words—just the pantomime of a serious but very silly song. I have led groups singing this song a dozen times, and at the end the singers collapse in giddiness. Maybe—just maybe—they are ready to meet the world of bacteria.


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