What can you learn from a steam engine?

A simple metaphor sometimes leads to a change in the way one perceives and lives one’s life. I hope this description of a steam engine will lead to new and meaningful insights about yourself.

As you get a sense of how your system naturally slows down and speeds up, you will have a much better ability to support the overall “steady state” that leads to health and well-being.

Let’s look at a steam locomotive in order to understand more about ourselves, and the importance of self-regulating mechanisms. Coal is fed into the furnace of the steam engine. The burning coal heats the water supply and turns it into steam. The steam drives the engine’s pistons which power the wheels. Too little steam and the train slows down and even stops. Too much steam and the train goes too fast and the engine is likely to blow apart. The design issue thus becomes, how to regulate between “too much” and “too little.” Not at all that different than human beings.

In order to keep the speed and power of the train within an efficient range between “too much and too little” a speed governor was designed as an integral part of the engine.

1. As the steam pressure in the engine builds, the train’s speed increases. A speed governor sits on top of the engine somewhat like the bleeder valve of an old fashioned pressure cooker. An increase in engine pressure and thus train speed lifts the “arms” of the speed governor up.

2. Each degree the arms of the speed governor raise up in response to increased pressure and speed, winds up decreasing the size of the aperture that allows steam into the engine. The smaller aperture opening leads over time to less steam pressure and the train slows down. Greater speed makes the governor’s arms go up, which in turn reduces the steam available to the engine and thus over time, the train begins to slow down.

3. As the steam pressure and speed of the train lessens, the arms of the governor go back down. As the arms go down the size of the engine aperture opening increases, and thus the amount of steam allowed into the engine increases, and the speed of the train once again begins to increase.

An ingenuous design is it not? Higher pressure, and higher speed, leads to lower pressure and lower speed, which in turn winds up leading to higher pressure and higher speed. Such is the beauty of a self regulating system. Up leads to down. Down leads to up. Faster leads to slower. Slower leads to faster. If such a self-regulating mechanism was more readily available in human beings, perhaps we would not get drunk, smoke cigarettes, or have various other naughty habits. Perhaps.

“Nature” also seems to have numerous self regulating mechanisms at work. In a climax forest for example, when “too many” trees grow in an area, there is a lessening of sunlight to the lower portions of the trees, and dampness sets in. Over time, this leads to trees dying off, which leads over time to more sunlight once again reaching the ground, which leads to a spurt in new growth of shrubs and trees.

The efficient running of a steam engine, the ecology of a forest, and healthy human beings, all require a self-regulating mechanism be in place. In this way we can say steam engines, forests, and human beings, all have “mind.” The steam engine “knows” how to fulfill its purpose, and so does the forest. Yet as human beings we often don’t do so well.

At this point in time, it seems that man has perhaps found a way to remove the governor from the engine of life, and take control over the environment and various life forms. We now have the power to control life in a manner that Nature likely never intended. Perhaps as a species, our need to “go faster” has begun to create a runaway train.

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