by Carmen Hering, MD
Our body temperature is closely regulated. For adults, normal body temperature can range from 97 to 99 F, with the average being 98.6 F. In children, temperatures are slightly higher, with a normal range being between 97.9 F and 100.4 F. Physicians consider body temperature a vital sign, but vital for what, exactly? Our internal temperature determines a lot of things- how well something gets broken down and built back up, how well our food is digested, what interactions take place, whether foreign bodies and microbes get destroyed and removed or take up permanent residence.
And our inner warmth wants to permeate our whole organism. We want to be warm everywhere! This is a unique quality of heat- it spreads. This helps to unify the body’s functions and integrate its activity as a whole. If our temperature gets too low in one or more areas, many of these healthy processes are incomplete or don’t take place at all. If it gets too high, then the processes may speed up or veer out of control, breaking down our own tissues. In other words, measuring the regulation of body temperature is vital to knowing how well the human being can integrate itself and assert and maintain its own autonomy. Said in another way, body temperature is a functional measure of our individuality or our “I”.
This is one reason why having a healthy fever is so important. When we get sick with a virus or other foreign invader, our body needs to push it out. Fever helps us do that. Raising our core temperature is one of the most effective means of activating our immune response, reducing viral load and overcoming infections (warmuptofever.org).
What other ways can physical warmth help us? We already mentioned digestion, but digestive problems are so ubiquitous today perhaps it deserves more elaboration. Our gut is like a kitchen- it starts with chopping and grinding the food as we chew, then diluting it with water and enzymes, all the while slowly heating it up, and then doing a lot of stirring. We really do ‘cook’ our food again after we eat. Then what we absorb in our intestines gets taken up by our liver, where it is further metabolized, sorted, stored or excreted back into the intestines. What remains enters the bloodstream and is rhythmically pulsed by the heart and spread out over the whole body through the circulation. Some nutrients get taken up directly by tissues and immediately put to use, other nutrients get used in expending energy or building up new tissues, and still others get excreted or stored.
So we are very active in our warmth! We build up our bodies continually and shed things that no longer belong. This expression of our “I” through the warming process of our blood allows for our inner growth and transformation physically in our tissues. But it also allows for our outer activity in the world. We create warmth when we move our limbs. We shape and transform the world around us through our physical activity- we play, learn, teach, share, build, cook, clean, mend… All the activities of our life, both inwardly and outwardly, are mediated by warmth. So we see again there is a close relationship between our self-expression, the expression of our “I”, and our warmth.
There is another measurement of warmth, which relates to our emotional state. We could call this emotional or social warmth. For example, we may speak of others as being ‘warm’ or ‘cold.’ We might comment on a ‘warm’ smile or being given the ‘cold’ shoulder; we may close a caring letter with the word ‘warmly’. So warmth can refer to how we feel when we are in someone’s presence- if they are friendly, caring and show genuine interest in us, we feel warm. In other words, we feel physically warm when we receive emotional or interpersonal warmth. Interestingly, this works the other way around as well- when we feel physically warm, we are more likely to display interpersonal warmth! So physical and emotional warmth are closely linked. For example, researchers found that when participants were placed in a warm room or held a warm cup of coffee, they were more likely to display behaviors of empathy and generosity towards others. The opposite also held true. Furthermore, participants who experienced social exclusion or disconnectedness (social ‘coldness’) were more likely to seek out strong warmth experiences in response, like taking longer, hotter baths or showers. This points to a therapeutic effect of physical warmth, one in which “feelings of social coldness, caused by recall of an experience of social exclusion, were significantly reduced by an interpolated physical warmth experience.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3406601/)
So how does all this relate to service? We discussed aspects of physical warmth which have to do with our individuality or “I.” We presented examples of social and interpersonal warmth which relate to “you” or the “other.” Then we described how physical warmth has a therapeutic effect on experiences of social coldness- it diminishes or eliminates the effects of the negative emotional experience. This example of a therapeutic application, of healing, brings us into the realm of spiritual warmth. On a spiritual level we do not experience separateness; there is no longer a polarity between “I” and “you.” Now, there is “us.” With spiritual warmth, we have an experience of wholeness, of being undivided: One Health. We begin to experience another’s suffering as our own, another’s healing as our own. In our spirit-imbued activity, no one is left out. As we said, warmth likes to expand, to spread out, unify and include. By developing our capacity to enkindle warmth, to stimulate our warmth organization and thereby mobilize and enliven our inner activity, we can infuse our outer actions and therapeutic activities with loving morality and a willingness to make ready sacrifices for the realization of the good.
And what is good? The origin of the word “good” is holy, sacred, of God and connoting moral perfection. The path to finding the good is a precondition for all sacred striving on behalf of the world and humanity. The good, as connected to service-oriented activity and therapeutic work, is aimed at the ongoing transformation of the individual towards the future. This future is full of promise and moves towards us with hope and love, carrying with it what is possible for ourselves and the world.
This orientation towards the future and the good is the spiritual center of a humanistic approach to health and medicine as well as regenerative and restorative forms of ecology, education and social justice.
May our warmth lead us to serve this future good together. And may it spread!