Years ago, when I was misdiagnosed with a form of incurable cancer, I resorted to meditation to battle the disease. But, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, writing in Baffler, meditation was the worst activity in which I could have engaged. (“Terror Cells,” by Barbara Ehrenreich, Baffler #26, 2014, pgs. 57- 61) Microphages — a key factor in the body’s immune system and once thought to be stimulated by happy thoughts, meditation and a positive attitude – are actually freed by these practices and can switch sides in the battle against cancer, making it possible for cancer cells to progress to their deadliest phase. Put simply, “”microphages and cancer cells seem to excite one another to the point where cancer cells are pumped up…” (Ibid pg. 57.)
What’s startling about Enreich’s article is that recent discoveries in the lab have blasted previous notions about the way cells work in our body: that they are assigned specific jobs throughout their lives. In fact, the new science shows that individual cells have a “striking degree of individuality… most cells turn out to go their own way” and cancers cells within a tumor exhibit “extreme diversity.” (Ibid pg. 58) To some degree, cells have a memory and most startling of all, they are capable of “decision making.” which throws the old deterministic notion of a cell out the window. While microphages play a significant role in the autoimmune system, they can switch sides, become overly ambitious and “play a central role in autoimmune diseases and the many inflammatory ailments like arthritis, that plague the elderly.” (Ibid pg. 60).
Ehrenreich compares the cells in our body to that of large garrison too long kept in confinement. “…the warriors may get greedy and turn against their own people, demanding ever more food and other resources…” which in the case of immune cells can lead to “insurrection and self-inflicted death.” (Ibid, pg. 60) In sum, the cells in our bodies, while not capable of full consciousness, aren’t automatons either. To some degree they make decisions, depending upon the climate in which they find themselves. That understanding throws out the old notion that the body is a “single sustainable organism.” At the microscopic level “an individual cell can sabotage the entire operation.” (Ibid 61) It’s not an exaggeration to say the human anatomy contains worlds within worlds, each with an ability to make decisions and serve its own interest without concern for the body-general.
How does the brain’s consciousness make peace with the cellular consciousnesses of billions of cells? No one knows, but it is clear that the human mind, separated to some degree from the rest of the body by the blood-brain barrier, is not the unmoved mover who controls the whole. What we have inside us, beyond the worms, viruses and bacteria that make up 10% of a human being, (Blog 1/6/15) ) is an army of soldiers with whom the mind has little commerce. It would follow as the night the day, therefore, that against these rabble, meditation becomes an exercise in futility.