This article was first published in Connections magazine, August 2006, as
“Order, Chaos and Carpe Diem”
“ Today I walked to my office, in pouring rain, and got soaked. Here I sit writing, my jeans steaming dry on the heater, feeling really joyful. ‘Why?’ you may ask. “Is she mad? What’s good about getting frozen and soaked in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of May?”
I’ll tell you why. Because normal and ordinary and energetic feel like gifts. Having a normal body, doing ordinary things, having the good health and energy to be able to walk in the rain, feel precious to me now. For years, whilst making the best of the circumstances in which I found myself, I couldn’t help longing at times for normal and ordinary as my body, mind and spirit went through apparently endless bouts of turbulence.
My five year odyssey in the underworld of burnout and retreat, which some of you will have read about in the first two issues of this column, now feels as though it is coming to an end. Quite suddenly, in recent weeks, my energy has sprung back and various unpleasant symptoms have largely gone.
Yes, order seems to have returned. I celebrate that, and give thanks daily.
However – having survived a prolonged period of chaos where most of my familiar landscapes simply disappeared and the usual strategies for managing life ceased to be of any use – a few things are much, much clearer than they ever were before.
Someone observed that life should be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards. How right they were! One of the many advantages of growing older is that we have more life to look back on. Surviving until middle age and beyond – something our remote ancestors rarely did – offers us an opportunity fully to understand and accept the essential precariousness of the human condition. With this acceptance can come a greater degree of letting-go, and consequent inner peace, than is possible in youth.
Along with many people, I owe a large debt to Buddhist wisdom. Of the many books of Buddhist psychology I read during my time in the Underworld, three stand out which I would recommend to anyone going through crisis. They provide both practical coping techniques and spiritual support:
Pema Chodron’s “When things fall apart”, Jack Kornfield’s “After the ecstasy, the laundry”, (see Personal Book Reviews page for review of this great book) and Bo Lozoff’s “It’s a great life – it just takes practice”.
Lozoff describes a prolonged solo retreat in which day in, day out, he meditates upon the following :
“Anything that can happen to anyone at any time can happen to me, and I accept this”. He keeps this meditative thread running through days of allowing fantasies of the worst things that could devastate him, and those he loves, to rise and dissolve. At the end of the retreat he goes home, more at peace with the realisation that chaos can and does arise at any time to sweep away the order of our personal and collective lives.
Bo Lozoff is now in his late fifties. His spiritual journey began at the age of eighteen. A typical self-absorbed materialistic American teenager (his own description) driving home late one night, a momentary lapse of concentration caused him to crash into a lorry and smash himself to bits. Many months of painful surgery and rehabilitation put him together again – a person much deepened and strengthened in spirit, no longer interested in pursuing the shallow materialistic agenda of his culture, intent on a life of service and of finding deeper answers to the big WHYs : eg “Why are we here ?” and “Why do we suffer ?”
In essence, the Buddhist view is that suffering is caused by wishing for things to be other than they are. I found reference to this simple, penetrating piece of wisdom – prominently displayed in our kitchen – bracingly therapeutic, especially at times when self-pity threatened to take me over.
Life requires both chaos and order. With chaos alone, nothing could take form. Order by itself shuts down creativity and ultimately life itself. Chaos and order interpenetrate at every level from the most trivial to the most profound. Most of us who are at all computer-literate have at least once had the experience, early on, of pressing the wrong key or clicking the wrong box – sending our beautifully ordered and pleasing words which we haven’t backed up, into the void. And I know of hillwalkers who, slipping in the wrong place, fell to their deaths throwing loved ones’ lives into chaos in seconds.
How do we cope with this ?
Buddhism advises us to hold very lightly to order, knowing it can turn at a blink to chaos; and to walk into chaos, regarding it as ‘very good news’ in the challenging words of renowned teacher Chogyam Trungpa. Clinging to outdated structures whilst the storms of life are tearing down everything familiar, usually doesn’t work. ‘Leaning into the sharp points’, trying to face and learn from upheaval, is a more fruitful strategy. But its rewards may take time to become evident, and it can be very hard to find the trust that new order will eventually emerge.
At an ordinary day-to day level, the key to coping well with the ever-changing energy pattern of life is cultivating the ability to live in the present moment. “Carpe diem” as the Roman poet Horace famously said in his Odes : “seize the day”. Now is all we’re sure of. Let’s live it fully!
Looking at the bigger picture, it’s also wise to remember that the scientific materialism which has come to dominate our view of life is very recent – a shallow surface layer of a couple of hundred years or so. For many milennia, at every stage of cultural and religious evolution, human beings across the world have perceived the whole of life as sacred, saturated with meaning.
Our distant ancestors realised that humankind could not survive alone. In coping with the often brutal buffetings of life they needed one another, and connection with the divine spirit which vitiates all creatures. Communal social and religious rituals were a vital tool in affirming connection with a greater Order. Despite the unprecedented materialism and self-obsession of our age, which seems to be bringing humanity increased levels of disorder and unhappiness, as a species we remain ‘wired for God’.
It doesn’t matter whether Ultimate Reality is perceived as transcendental unity, Emptiness or the Void in Buddhist terminology, the quantum vacuum of contemporary cosmology, or God of the traditional theistic religions. There is now much research supporting the fact that the happiest individuals are those who believe that there is a greater Order which embraces everything known, unknown and unknowable, and who are part of a faith community with shared values centred on the Golden Rule : “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
The great psychologist Carl Jung observed that he had never treated a patient in mid life for whom their spiritual need was not part of the crisis….so here, in conclusion, is a prescription for happy ageing:
“ Hold lightly to order, embrace chaos, realise that suffering arises from the desire that things be different than they are, live in the moment, and find the God of your understanding to honour and serve in the company of fellow spirits.”
There, my jeans are dry now and the sun has come out. Time to seize the moment and go sit in the park ! ”
1200 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page