The Myth of Personal Control (1999)
Chaos and stillness are completely interpenetrating. This is one of the most fundamental paradoxes of existence-one of the most fundamental paradoxes of being. Chaos is also infinite uncertainty. In India, powerful and intense-looking spiritual images, such as Rudra, Bhairava, or Kali, are intended to represent chaos because the infinite is chaotic.
By contrast, in the Biblical conception of the infinite, order has been imposed on chaos-an order which is fundamentally benevolent toward human beings as long as they do the “right” thing. It is an order that supposedly is man’s prerogative by virtue of his being made in the image of God. And so, in this system, people impress their personal sense of order over the disorder they encounter in their lives and in nature.
The Indian idea is very different. It is first the understanding that order and chaos are completely interrelated, completely interdependent-they exist together. Order emerges out of chaos, dissolves into it, re-emerges again and again and again. This is an understanding that has been confirmed by science: in chaos, there are patterns of order that emerge and then repeat themselves over and over. Likewise, the same chaos that exists on a universal level exists on a personal level-on a social, emotional, mental, electrical, cellular level.
Chaos is the fundamental core of everything, and change, therefore, is inevitable. Chaos exists at all levels, whether we are aware of it or not. It is one of the key features of the power that animates us-the power of spirit.
So the question then becomes: How much control do we really have in our lives? And the answer is: Not much. And the truth of the matter is, this is wonderful.
One of the most important understandings to emerge out of the study of system dynamics is that every solution to a problem is the source of another problem. For example, if we think we’re lonely, we try to fix that by getting a relationship or drowning our sorrows in some other way. This often becomes a bigger problem that the one with which we began because suddenly we find ourselves indulging in a drinking habit, or limited by the desires of another person we don’t know very well, or whatever.
Cause and effect mentality-the short-term focus, the quick fix-leads us to a misunderstanding about life and undermines our potential for true happiness. When we try to control the outcome of everything, we are limiting the possibilities of what can happen to us to the meager visions that exist in our minds. The possibilities generated for us by the infinite-in all its uncertainty-are far richer.
In life, we have very little control over where we might end up, and this is good news. The element of change that we must start to value and even pursue in order to be in harmony with the true nature of Life Itself is a completely different value from “protect yourself, don’t take risks.” Continuous change means that risks are inevitable.
Most of us are told to get a college degree in order to get a good job. There isn’t much emphasis on it being a job we really like-the thrust is to be secure financially. But when we understand that life is fundamentally chaotic-not the life of that person over there or this person we read about but everybody’s life, our life-we realize that the emphasis can’t be on anything monetary or material, and this includes romantic relationships. It can’t be on security because there isn’t any. The emphasis has to be on growth because growth is change at its most productive. If we’re not continuously changing, learning, expanding our horizons and developing new skills, what kind of alive are we?
Growth and change are synonymous, and anything that isn’t changing isn’t growing,, and if it isn’t growing, it’s dead, and that’s the worst thing anything can be-living and dead at the same time.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, chaos is often portrayed through wrathful images that reflect, in their extreme, energetic makeup, the uncertainty persistent in real change. These are images of entities that disrespect our physical self, like the natural forces of life. These images were created by people who understood that at the highest level, we have to make peace with the uncertainty that is intrinsic in Life Itself. Having made peace with it, we can then find value in that uncertainty because the spirit, the vitality in uncertainty is the power by which all change takes place. It is what encourages us to grow as human beings and then ultimately to transcend our own humanity for the benefit of all that is alive.
Chaos is a very good thing. Chaos is the source of our liberation.
So many of the drives we have to succeed and build are there to suppress and deny uncertainty, to convince ourselves over and over again that the territory we’re mapping out and the boundaries we’re reinforcing ultimately secure our issues. This is complete delusion. Change is inevitable, and the original focus of asceticism in spirituality was to get us to shift from an obsession with security to an embrace of infinite uncertainty, which is what powers the universe, which is the power of spirit and life and transcendence. This, then, is our liberation from the treadmill, from the orbit that keeps us doing the same things to obtain a security that is delusional.
The ascetic impulse is to be unencumbered so that at any moment life calls upon us to adapt-which is, after all, what life does; all living beings are compelled to do their living in a dynamic environment-we can change very quickly and establish ourselves in a new level of dynamism. We are not attached too much or deeply.
Chaos is nothing but the power of change. It is chaotic because we cannot anticipate the outcome. If we could, how much of a change would it really be? It would be just an extension of our personal agenda. And so chaos is in fact liberating-it is to be opened to, embraced; it is the opportunity for growth. Life is profoundly uncertain; change is inevitable. And yet out of egotism, greed, desire, ignorance and misunderstanding, we cling to what is untenable, which is what we have.
Much better to be ready to abandon what we have in a heartbeat, and I do not say that irresponsibly because whatever is living about our lives will live on. We are always ready to abandon our current circumstances for the possibility of achieving something finer. And is there a risk in that? Absolutely. Life is about risk; chaos is the very core of our existence. Through our practice, we can stay open in the face of this instead of allowing our minds to close to the rising tide of chaos, the rising, intensifying creative energy within and around us. Our minds close and our defenses come up and that’s where the struggle begins.
Closing and reacting are the path to doom, and opening and being aware of the flow of that power of spirit within us, which is the essence of our practice, embracing and absorbing whatever powerful energy presents itself in our life, that is the path to heaven.