The other day a word popped into my head. The word is “homeostasis.”
It is a term that I was familiar with from studying ecology but I hadn’t thought of it in a long time. It describes plant communities that don’t change much over time, like an old-growth forest. Homeostasis doesn’t describe the plants, it describes the system of internal regulators that keeps the community in balance.
Homeostasis is a set of regulators that keep a condition from changing. It is a built-in mechanism that works to keep a system in balance. Homeostasis occurs in plants, people, animals, rocks, air, water and even our thoughts. It is a pattern that repeats itself over and over in nature. That’s why I am including it in the Geography of Life. Homeostasis has a pattern that is worth studying.
Homeostasis is happening inside of us right now whether we know it or not. We have a series of invisible regulators that are working to keep us from changing. For example, our internal body temperature is being regulated by a series of mechanisms to keep it within a fairly narrow range. Our blood sugar is kept within an even narrower range. Our entire body, from our cells to our brain, is made up of homeostatic systems driven by a complex set of regulators that detect fluctuations, send messages, and follow commands.
Disease and illness are the result of homeostatic systems that are out of balance. As we get older it becomes harder to keep our systems in homeostasis so illness becomes more frequent. The secret of youth and vitality, I think, is to keep all our systems in homeostasis.
The trouble is, homeostasis implies a minimal amount of change and humans are about the most changing creatures ever put on this earth. We love to change. We change the surface of the earth, we change our environments, we change our location, we change our thoughts. We have caused more change to this planet than any other species ever. We are the supreme organism of change. And yet . . . we need homeostasis and have regulators working non-stop to try to keep us there.
That conflict between changing and staying the same is the classic struggle of mankind. We have motivations that make us want to change, but we also have motivations that make us want to stay the same.
In particular, we have mechanisms that control our thoughts and keep them the same. Yet there are times in life when it becomes clear that we have to change our thought patterns, and then we struggle because we have competing systems that try to keep us in homeostasis. Learning to change our thought patterns takes a great deal of energy.
It always comes down to energy, because all systems are ultimately about energy. Change takes energy, but homeostasis takes energy, too. In fact, sometimes in order to stay in homeostasis a system will have to create stress if there isn’t enough natural stress provided by the outside environment. It all depends on what the “normal” pattern is that homeostasis is trying to protect.
In my case, I lived for many years with stress and its associated chemicals, and stress became my “normal” pattern. Stress became my homeostatic position. At first it was due to the particular circumstances and environment I was faced with, but even after the circumstances changed my stress levels stayed high. Looking back, I was probably creating stress to maintain my homeostasis. In hindsight, I see that every time I got rid of one stress, I replaced it with a new one.
Finally the totality of my stress got too big for even me to take, and today my focus is on identifying the stressors and getting rid of them. I am actively working to change my patterns and create a balance point. But it hasn’t been easy. Sometimes I would get discouraged because I was putting a lot of energy into changing my thoughts and my health, but nothing was coming out of it. I was still stuck in the stress pit.
Now I understand how homeostasis was working to keep me exactly where I was. By looking at my thoughts in those terms I can see how there would naturally be multiple mechanisms within me that work to keep anything from changing, regardless of how miserable I was. Homeostasis is kind of like the ego – it really doesn’t care about the quality of your life, it wants what it wants, and it operates almost invisibly until you recognize it for what it is.
Recognizing that we are naturally inclined to seek homeostasis is a very useful piece of knowledge for understanding how we humans work. It explains part of the reason why change is so stressful to people, and why we cling to bad habits or behaviors even when they are obviously harmful to us. If those bad habits keep us in homeostasis, we will find ways to preserve them.
The ultimate goal is to reset my homeostatic point so that stress is not a major component of my ecosystem. Stress will always be present and we thrive under a certain amount of stress, but I want a system that minimizes the stress and maximizes the laughter, rather than the opposite.
I want something very different than the system I have been operating under, and it feels like that change is actually starting to occur. It is comforting to know that I have powerful and invisible forces within me that will work to keep this position once I have changed my homeostatic condition to a new point.
Change in nature tends to happen in one of two ways. Either it occurs slowly and gradually over time, or it happens suddenly and almost catastrophically. All the work I was doing towards changing my balance point was like energy I was adding to a river that has a dam in it to prevent flooding downstream. The dam is my homeostasis mechanism and my thoughts and actions were drops of water that I was adding to the river behind the dam.
It felt like these drops of water weren’t making any difference to the river. It seemed like nothing was changing. But something was changing. The water was gradually getting higher behind the dam. Finally, all the drops of water I put in combined with the drops of water my friends put in through their prayers and thoughts, and suddenly the river changed. It crossed over the top of the dam and spilled out the other side, free and tumbling and wild. It felt like a flash flood that raced inside of me and scoured out part of the old river channel. The ecosystem of my world, the geography of my world, the homeostasis of my world was changed when the river finally flooded over the dam. New possibilities began to present themselves almost immediately.
Just like a plant community that is ravaged by floods, I will rebuild my ecosystem and eventually will achieve homeostasis again. For now, I’m fine having a new stretch of river to work with and I’ll replant my gardens in new areas with fresh soil brought in on the flood waters. There are a couple of places where big boulders washed in and blocked the pathway into regions where my river used to flow. I’m not even going to try to move those boulders. I’m going to accept that some of those channels should stay dried up so that the river can move into new regions.
I love how geography can describe so many things.