A Different Kind of Chaos Theory
I have had an interest in chaos for quite some time now. Twenty plus years ago, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on how art, specifically the art of making dance, can grow out of chaos. I ended my thesis with what at the time seemed a very revolutionary concept to me – how self-growth and self-awareness can arise from one’s personal struggle with chaos. So it may not be surprising that in my current work I continue to be intrigued with how we perceive and react to our chaotic lives.
Whether I am working with someone who is going through a major transition or with someone who is struggling to maintain some order in a hectic life, the conversation often turns to feeling overwhelmed. A very common phrase that I hear over and over again is (and I am paraphrasing) “Things will get better or easier when this stressful period in my life has passed.” We often feel that in order for us to enjoy ourselves and to be happy and present in our lives that the chaos or stress must end. But there is another possibility, one that is by all accounts much more challenging but immensely rewarding.
For me personally, I have had chaos on the mind these past few months as I have had my ample share of disorder and transition. Juggling all that is involved with moving a private practice and an office full of stuff with the unending and unwavering responsibilities of family and work has afforded me plenty of chaos. And like many of my patients, the most challenging part of living in transition for me is to relax and be present throughout the “mess.”
There were days when my mind felt like it was being devoured by an endless list of things to do. I found it almost impossible to stay grounded when my feet were tripping over the many boxes that needed to be unpacked. No matter where I turned there was always something or someone who needed my attention. Being present is such a struggle when we perceive our lives to be disorganized, in transition or chaotic. And despite our best efforts there will always be long lists and loose ends at the end of the day, and there will always be stressful periods in our lives.
When we talk about dealing with chaos, often the first thing that is encouraged is to find and create some order in our lives. While this can be extremely helpful, it may not be the answer to our feeling happy and present. While it may initially feel satisfying and rewarding, the catch is that it can become another condition for our happiness and another way of avoiding ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, organizing and cleaning can be healthy forms of stress management, as it is necessary and helpful to put things in their place as well as to label and categorize things. But when order becomes something that we feel is necessary in order to feel safe, settled and in control, we must look at alternative ways to find that peace within ourselves.
For me personally it is so satisfying and rewarding when my home or office is freshly cleaned and everything is organized. The difficult part is not the organizing, cleaning or unpacking, rather that part comes naturally and easily for me as I have learned over the years that order feels good and brings emotional relief – it sure feels like happiness to me. For me the challenge is to sit down, breathe and accept the feeling of being unsettled. Being unsettled is both a physical and emotional discomfort for me – a discomfort which is my anxiety.
I have always looked at procrastinators with a rather envious curiosity. “How is it that someone can go to the movies or out to dinner when there is a deadline due the next day?” I do recognize the challenges and difficulties that arise from doing things last minute, but I do envy the procrastinators ability to put off the inevitable. But when I look a little deeper, I do realize that procrastination is not the secret to living in the present. The fact is that both types of people, those who use organizing as a way of feeling in control or avoiding discomfort and those who use procrastination to avoid tasks that cause discomfort could both benefit from a lesson in staying present.
So how do we begin to have other choices in the way we react or respond to our chaos (our stress)? Those who have worked with me know that the first step toward changing our reactions and behaviors is not an active step. Rather it is observation – the act of listening to and noticing oneself. Noticing the holding of your breath, feeling the physical experience or sensation of your nervousness or anxiety, noticing the rumination and swirling of thoughts, and observing the physical pain and tension in our bodies is what I call “Taking Inventory.” It is this inventory that is our honest assessment of “where we are” at any particular time. I use the term “where we are” not to refer to our physical location but as a way of describing whether we are focused on the past, the present or the future. Are we worried about something that has already happened or obsessing about something that we fear will happen? Or are we simply savoring the experience of this very moment?
Another important concept about “Taking Inventory” is that we must observe, notice and accept where we are at any particular time without an agenda of “where we think we should be.” Agendas create a lot of work, a lot of wishing and hoping, and a lot of should of’s or should do’s. Agendas aren’t helpful. Accepting where we are, even if it is stressed out and completely overwhelmed, is more important than wishing or pretending we are in a “zen” state when we are not. Observation may be our first step to change but being honest with ourselves is next in line. If we want to make a change in our lives and we want to respond differently than we do, we have to know and accept where we start from.
Once we have noticed and observed where we are, we can then gently begin the practice of some form of daily meditation or mindfulness. Whether it is feeling the ground underneath us, feeling our feet and our roots, noticing the rhythm and waves of our breath, or another form of awareness, it is that very act of bringing our attention to an experience, a sensation or a feeling that connects us with the present moment – the moment that is now and the moment which is our reality.