Mitochondrial activism and the alchemizing of selfishness to love

NOTE: If you need a little biology brush up, mitochondria are organelles in our cells. Their main purpose is to convert food into energy. They have their own DNA and are theorized to originate as bacteria.

There is a lot of discussion within our activist community these days about subjects like emergence, call-out culture, slowing down, healing, and self-care.

In this little post, I want to zoom out a bit and look at the larger biophysiological ‘current’ that is running underneath these conversations: a move towards the loving abundance of mitochondrial energy production.

At first, this might seem like a mouthful and a vague connection. What does our cellular biology even have to do with social justice? 

I would say, almost everything. The mechanisms through which the body produces energy deeply informs the core worldviews of capitalist scarcity economics, which of course is the socio-economic scaffolding of all oppressive systems.

When you look at our metabolic function, there are two basic ways the body produces energy: anaerobic respiration and aerobic respiration.

Anaerobic respiration is meant for situations that require short bursts of energy, such as running away from a predator that is about to attack you. The physiological signs of anaerobic respiration are shallow and short breathing because it uses less oxygen.

On the other hand, Aerobic respiration is for lower-intensity endurance-based tasks, such as walking through the forest. Aerobic respiration is powered by the mitochondria organelles in our cells and requires a lot more oxygen in our bloodstream, which in turn means deeper breathing.

What does this have to do with capitalism you say?

For starters, anaerobic respiration is about 18 times less energy efficient compared to aerobic respiration. The lack of ‘enough’-ness in capitalist economics is very much tied to the inability to imagine a world beyond anaerobic respiration. 

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Delving even deeper, when you look at the relationship between the body and capitalism, you realize that it is an economic system built on top of bodies that are working exhaustion through anaerobic respiration, often with the help of stimulants such as refined sugars and caffeine.

Underneath this is the truth that capitalism is maintained by trauma. Anaerobic respiration is a type of energy production often meant for emergency situations and is deeply connected to the survival responses of fight/flight/freeze/fawn. It is certainly not an ideal type of energy production for building healthier relationships. It is our collective traumatization that keeps our bodies in states that default towards anaerobic respiration to do anything –  including social activism. 

Indeed, the biological meaning behind Audre Lorde’s famed quote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, shows us that reliance on anaerobic respiration cannot sustainably undo what anaerobic respiration has created.

Then how do we move from anaerobic respiration to aerobic respiration?

For those of us who have the privilege to not be in an emergency state, we can start with taking the time and space to nourish ourselves and tend to our trauma. As I mentioned above, we live in a generally traumatized culture. This means our bodies are constantly operating from sympathetic dominance: a state that favors the short burst, high-intensity sympathetic branch of our nervous system, which of course loves anaerobic respiration.

To address this issue, we need to rebalance our selves by activating our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for longer-term low-to-moderate intensity tasks such as digesting or connecting with others in intimacy.

The most efficient way I know of doing this is to stimulate the enteric neural network AKA gut brain, which is the anchor of our parasympathetic nervous system. When we can settle our guts, it helps us switch our bodies from an activated to relaxed state, and therefore from anaerobic respiration to aerobic respiration. This, in turn, can help get the mitochondria powerhouses going. (I attached a simple breathing exercise below the main article to get you started.)

The funny thing about this is that the gut is an intensely ‘selfish’ place. It is the part of the body that literally keeps track of what the body wants to keep in or out of itself. In a white/Western/colonial mindset this probably at first seems like the furthest thing from the goals of what we might call social justice.

The thing is, we are biologically paradoxical creatures. It is actually deep self-centeredness that creates the stable foundation for our ability to love others. By moving from anaerobic respiration to aerobic respiration, we can transform the self-centeredness of the gut-brain into loving mitochondrial abundance, a place from which we can authentically give ourselves to liberation. This process is what the Daoists called internal alchemy, which starts with filling the belly with life force and letting it slowly fill up the loving heart.

And it seems like we are in incredible times that this alchemical shift is happening on a cultural level, right before our eyes. For it is through aerobic respiration we can reach the somatic state that can fulfill the kind of intersectional justice work called for by Lilla Watson’s quote: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Lastly, I would like to invite you to simply sit with the awe of our sacred bodies and consider that mitochondria actually have their own DNA. And in humans, it is only passed along the feminine/child-bearing ancestral line.

Yes, mitochondria are the great eternal mama that permeates our being, if we only care to slow down and notice.

Blessings to her.

Exercise

Below is a breathing exercise to help you develop your gut brain. If there is one meditative practice I would encourage social justice communities to embrace, it would be this one. As the belly starts to become abundant with energy, your heart will naturally start to fill with loving kindness. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: There is no need to rush. Your gut is a powerful place with many unseen emotions and memories. It is best to contact it gently and slowly.

  1. Come into a relaxed sitting, standing, or lying position. If you are sitting or standing, try to keep your back straight but relaxed.
  2. Lay your hands softly on your stomach, a few finger-widths below your belly button.
  3. Imagine a glowing ball behind your hands, inside your belly.
  4. Breathe gently into this ball, in through your nose and out through your mouth or nose. (If the ball image doesn’t work for you, you can use any other kind of loving image or word.)
  5. While breathing exercises can quickly become advanced, this simple exercise is a great place to start.

When you develop more settledness in your gut, you will notice that your nervous system will become less reactive and have more energy, without needing to constantly stimulate itself.


Are you a therapist, facilitator, organizer or healer called to a deeper exploration of subjects discussed in this post?

I provide coaching and consulting services for individual practitioners, enterprises, and organizations that are committed to intersectional cultural healing. You can find more information here.