Nature is brilliant at conservation. We, being creatures of nature, only have so much energy. And few things require more energy than creating change. This is purposeful. If demand runs high, the body will shut down non-essential systems to meet the need. For example, if we are in danger, our body turns off digestion, immune activities and reproductive systems to pour energy into fight or flight. This rerouting of energy is critical for our short-term survival, yet if we feel stressed or threatened frequently, the chronic activation can damage our ability to digest properly, ward off illness or make babies.
Another way the body conserves energy on an ongoing basis is to form habits. Habits start out as intentional actions that are practiced enough times that they become automatic. Habituated actions consume very little energy. Whereas consciousness is consumes an extraordinary amount of energy. In other words, it’s metabolically expensive.
For this reason, we learn to discern what we need to pay attention to right now. Think about when you first learned to ride a bike or drive a car. In the beginning you a model vigilance, monitoring every component – balancing, breaking, steering and signaling – all at once. Chances are it was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. But over time, you got the hang of it and before you know it your texting, changing the radio station, eating a burrito and talking to friend while going 65 MPH on the freeway.
In this way, nature’s economy is both a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, it’s a blessing that after spending some expensive, conscious effort we zoom across town without exhausting our precious resources. The curse of habituation is that it takes twice the effort to cease a behavior that no longer serves us.
The Myth of Willpower
Willfully telling ourselves to change doesn’t make it so. Change is expensive. It requires both conscious and behavioral effort to overcome habit. This lends a compassionate lens to “resistance.” What is more likely true is that change is simply too costly for some. Their precious energy is being spent elsewhere for other purposes, such as keeping traumatic memories at bay or making rent.
Another expression of the body’s need to conserve energy is cessation. As the saying goes, “use it or lose it.” A muscle that isn’t exercised loses strength and efficiency. A mind that isn’t stimulated will lose its sharpness and acuity. This might be why all spiritual traditions as well as physical disciplines stress the importance of practice, practice, practice.