Ingrained in each of us are mechanisms for survival, many of which are involuntary. The “fight or flight” response is automatic, for instance, in the presence of imminent danger. These survival mechanism are necessary to preserve physical life, but they can get in the way when they kick in when there is no real danger. And when they keep kicking in when survival is no longer an issue, they actually work against us. They present a clear and present danger in and of themselves.
Our prehistoric ancestors lived in a time when the survival of the species was a real issue. So when confronted with a saber-toothed tiger, for instance, survival mechanisms kicked in—there was a rush of adrenaline that allowed them to run faster if flight was possible or to fight fiercer if that was called for. Focus was heightened, the heart started pumping faster to get blood to the muscles that would need it, emotions moved toward fear, which helps you run faster, or anger, which helps you fight better. (Fear and anger are connected; in many ways they are different expressions of the same response.)
Our prehistoric ancestors also endured periods in which food was scarce, and the body responded by needing less food. Metabolism slowed down, calories were directed toward those parts most needed for life—the heart, brain, central organs—and away from those parts less needed—biceps. When food was found, the body learned to use less and store more in anticipation of scarcer times.
These things helped us survive, and in many parts of the world, where survival is still an issue, they still do. However, in our culture where surviving is not an issue for the vast majority, these mechanisms get in the way. We don’t have to deal with saber-toothed tigers, but we do have to deal with unreasonable bosses, deadlines, profit-margins, teenagers, traffic jams, and many other things which aren’t issues of survival but do cause stress. And stress is nothing more than the fight or flight mechanism at work. But whereas our ancestor Grog (because we can’t imagine a Neanderthal named William) experienced stress at an acute level, it was for a short period of time, and his body returned to normal. For many of us, stress is normal. It’s not heightened like for Grog, but it’s constant, and it results in irritability, sleep deprivation, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, maybe even cancer. The survival mechanism is effective for occasional, short-term episodes, but as a constant it is not a survival mechanism but a killer.
Similarly, food scarcity is not a problem for most of us, but just the opposite. We consume an excess of calories, and the body does with the excess what it’s supposed to do: store the excess so that we are ready for the next famine. Which, of course, never comes, and all of a sudden our clothes don’t fit us. So we decide to lose weight and we cut down on our calories, and the body says, “OK, I sense a famine coming. Time to slow the metabolism down, because I might have to make all this fat last for a while.” Cut out too many calories, and the body says, “Whoa, better slow down the metabolism even more to conserve my energy stores. Maybe I’ll even use some muscle for energy so that the fat will hold out even longer.”
Then, when we fall off the diet wagon and hit the Golden Corral buffet and dessert bar, what does the body do? Replace the muscle? No! It replaces the fat and makes even more, to be even more ready for the next “famine.” The result? More than tight clothes, it’s heart disease, cancer, strokes, diabetes and all sorts of other things.
Grog didn’t need much discipline. When he found food, he ate as much as he could because he didn’t know when he’d eat again. See a big carnivore, he'd hide. If the carnivore saw him he ran or fought like crazy. But for us, we have to gain control of these mechanisms in order for them to work for us and not against us, and that requires discipline. We have to discipline ourselves to exercise in order to burn calories, shed fat, build muscles, burn off adrenaline, and keep our minds clear and our hearts healthy. We have to discipline ourselves to eat a lot of the right kinds of food and keep to a minimum the wrong kinds. We have to discipline ourselves to eat the right amount of food—not so much that the body creates more fat, but not so little that the body thinks you’re starving and slows down the metabolism while also using muscle for fuel.
There’s a spiritual aspect to this as well. The survival mechanisms are by necessity (and by definition) self-centered, but this self-centeredness is harmful to us spiritually. It gets in the way of our relationships with others and our relationship with God. We need to tame it, domesticate it, make it work for us, not against us. And that takes discipline. That’s why the ancient practices cannot be seen as outdated. They are never so necessary as now, yet so many of these practices, which not coincidentally are also called spiritual disciplines, have been ignored by Christians, particularly Protestants. Or misunderstood and misapplied.
And it’s killing us.
Next up: The Necessity to Return to Ancient Practices