The Joy of Chaos
A Sermon to Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
September 3, 2017
When I was a young minister in my first parish I had a pad of paper I used to send notes to members of the Board of Directors. Each page had a heading that said “Isn’t it a beautiful day? I wonder what SOB is going to mess it up?”
The people who served on the Board were very offended by those notes and directed me in the strongest possible language to stop using the pad. So naturally, I used it as often as possible.
Hey, no one ever said I’m easy to get along with.
I recount this story not to demonstrate that I tend to be a difficult person in some circumstances, but to reflect on the wisdom of that saying. It does seem that every time we have everything all set and humming along, something is going to happen to disrupt it.
And disruption is everywhere. The racism of the Charlottesville protests to the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.
Dealing with disruption is my topic today. How can we deal with disruption, chaos, and all the bad things in life, most effectively?
As usual, I will look for the answer by looking at what science can tell us about human consciousness. I agree with Ken Wilbur who speculated that “in the highest reaches of evolution, maybe, an individual’s consciousness does indeed touch infinity.” That is, whatever process it is that directs our unfolding universe, it leaves fingerprints of itself on what it creates. By exploring the human mind we get a sense of the powers that lie behind that mind, and about how we may order our lives to live with spiritual power.
The Game of Thrones
As it is one of the most popular shows on television, I’m sure a lot of you have seen The Game of Thrones on HBO. There is a recently-deceased character in that show that was played by actor Aidan Gillen. The character is Pyter Baelish, also called Littlefinger.
Littlefinger is a nakedly ambitious figure in the storyline. A former brothel keeper he became the Master of Coin (Treasurer) on the Small Council of the Seven Kingdoms and the Lord Protector of the Vale.
There is a phrase Littlefinger used over and over again. He says, “Chaos is a ladder!” meaning that a manipulative person like him can use times of disruption to get ahead. Here is the full quote. He says:
"Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love... illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is. “
The fact is, he’s right. Chaos is a ladder. Progress in any field is always accompanied by disruption. Chaos is inevitable as disrupting the status quo is how all progress occurs.
The printing press disrupted the production of books by scribal copying. Automation disrupts manufacturing. Discordant sounds disrupted modal music and caused alteration in how we listen. That’s why Rock and Roll seemed chaotic to a generation raised on Blues, and why Metal Music sounds so extreme to some of us now.
In fact the theology of this congregation is rooted in disruption. We are founded upon what was considered the blasphemous ideas of a Spaniard named Michael Servetus whose book On The Errors of the Trinity started Unitarianism in 1531. To generations raised on the beliefs of the Roman church, Servetus’s ideas took orthodox theology and disrupted it completely.
But the disruption was a ladder. Servetus’s ideas caught on and laid part of the foundation for the Protestant Reformation of which our own denomination descended as the radical wing.
It’s far from over. Just as personal computers, the internet and smartphones have forever altered the landscape of our lives replacing typerwriters, encyclopedias and paper organizers, so the new technologies of Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality will certainly do more of the same.
Will the chaos of the Charlottesville protests ultimately result in an improved awareness of racial tensions in our society? Will the devastation of the Texas coastline serve to wake people up about climate change?
Will all this chaos be the doorway to something better? If Littlefinger were here this morning instead of being recently deceased on The Game of Thrones, I think he would say that it’s possible. And maybe it is. I really hope so.
The positive thinking guru Clement Stone used to say that “every adversity has the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit” and I repeat that to myself just about every time something bad happens. But I know it’s not really true. I’d like it to be, but sometimes adversity is just the start of a greater problem.
A psychiatrist client once joked with me by saying “Cheer up, they said. Things could be worse. So I cheered up and they were right. Things got worse.”
It’s always possible that things will just get worse. That’s the difficulty with chaos and disruption. Sometimes it opens to great new things. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Several times in the past I have spoken from this pulpit about my academic interest in the ancient precursor to chemistry, alchemy.
Alchemy was the proto-scientific tradition in medieval and renaissance Europe, Asia and Africa. The Alchemists opened laboratories in which they tried to discover how to create the Philosopher’s Stone that could turn lead into gold, they also tried to create the Elixir of Life that could prevent death, and the Panacea, a medicine that could cure any disease.
Eventually alchemy became the science of chemistry and the Alchemists did make great discoveries. They formalized the experimental method, developed laboratory procedures, they learned how to distill oxygen and isolate many chemicals. Their work transformed medical practice which had not changed much since ancient Greece.
They had great influence. We think of Sir Isaac Newton as a great physicist. However, he thought of himself as an Alchemist, and wrote more about alchemy than he did about physics, mathematics or optics.
The Alchemists believed that they were practicing a form of spirituality, and every alchemical laboratory had a small altar where the Alchemist prayed. They believed that as they transformed the chemicals in their crucibles they were also transforming themselves into more spiritual and refined people.
It was this practice that led the great psychoanalysis Carl Jung to conclude that alchemy was interesting from the perspective of depth psychology. He thought, and I agree, that it was the shadow side of Judaism and Christianity. Alchemy kept everything Christianity and Judaism tried to ignore.
The core alchemical principle was the Latin phrase Solve et Coagula, which means “dissolve and coagulate.” The Alchemist would try to take what already existed, dissolve it (that is, make it chaotic), and then reform it into something better.
For the process to work Coagulation had to follow Dissolving. Chaos was useful only if it leads to a new and better organization. Nothing good can ever come from just destroying things. That’s anarchy.
If you know me at all you know I am the enemy of clutter. I live in a curated and decluttered environment where things are organized. I think if one has stacks of stuff around that one has been meaning to deal with, they become an energy thief and pull the joy right out of life.
The most popular de-cluttering writer is Marie Knodo and her two books The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy are best sellers. Interestingly her method of organizing a home is to take everyone out and stack it in a chaotic heap in the middle of the floor. Then, she teaches a process to bring order out of that chaos by asking yourself questions about every item you remove from the pile. She starts with chaos and creates something better from it.
Chaos is a ladder only if it leads to a new and better organization. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m interested in what helps it lead to something better.
Adversity Into Advantage
In my Consulting Hypnotism practice I work extensively with people who are living with cancer. Typically my clients have late stage disease and know all about adversity. Very often, things are a mess for them. No one knows better about how to overcome chaos and make something out of it than a good-responding person living with cancer.
What I learned by watching and working with such people over several decades is that there does seem to be a formula to maximizing the chance that something better will result from something bad that has happened to you.
In the reading I shared earlier from his classic book Cancer as a Turning Point, Lawrence LeShan hints at it. The way one figures out how to get though a time of chaos is not by “living in the moment” nor “doing what your gut says.” The way relies upon using your imagination to predict your best outcome.
That way I express it is that when one is in a really bad place. When one is in a circumstance where everything seems to have gone wrong and there are no good options, imagine yourself in the future (I often suggest two years in the future) looking back at this time, and ask yourself what you feel most proud of having done.
I’ve been in circumstances where I’ve been angry or felt betrayed and at the time wanted to make an angry or aggressive response. But I realized that when I would look back at how I behaved from the future, an angry or aggressive response would not serve me well.
It might feel better at the moment, but in the long term it will embarrass me. Far better I make a graceful response that will mark me as a more evolved being when I think back upon it.
When you don’t know what to do, ask yourself what you will feel proudest of when you look back at this time from years into the future.
I had a client call to cancel an appointment recently. His reason was unique. He was trying to make bail. He was at a political demonstration and someone on the other side really got into his face. He gave in to his feelings and shoved back. A fight happened, and he was detained. Far better he resisted his feelings and instead of reacting to them, he might have used a discipline to create a more considered response.
A couple Lindsay and I have been friends with for some time are getting divorced. That’s always sad. Worse, they are really mad at each other. But they had the presence of mind to realize that working for an amicable end to their relationship was in their long-term interest. They didn’t give in to their feelings. They decided what to do based on what would be best for them in the future.
The Negative Brain
The reason I recommend navigating chaotic times using a philosophical principle like this rather than an emotional reaction is that brain science gives us a lot of data showing that our emotions are not the best guide to action.
Don’t get me wrong, knowing how you feel emotionally is important information. But acting on your feelings without more reflection will often end in trouble. I may realize I am angry. That’s important to grasp. But acting in anger will usually turn out badly. Better to use another guide.
The brain transmits information among its parts by sending out chemical information from one neuron to another. Neurochemestry is the sum total of all this messanging.
There are four major chemicals in your brain that influence the degree of happiness you feel. The acronym to help medical professionals memorize them is DOSE. They are: Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins.
Dopamine is the serious happiness drug, although its role is more in the anticipation of happiness than in the emotion itself.
Oxytocin is released by positive closeness with another person or animal. It strengthens affection and friendship.
Serotonin controls your greater mood and is one of the most important information carrying chemicals in your body.
Endrophins help you overcome pain or fear, and enable you to power through stress and take risks.
While these four are the most prominent, there are actually many others: Glutamate, Gama-Aminobutric Acid, Acetylcholine…in fact there are a group of ten molecules, fifty neuroactive proteans, several fatty acids and even a group of individual ions that your brain uses to regulate itself.
Of these, and this is important, most are involved in the experience of fear and negative expectation. We are all hard-wired to be negative and fearful creatures. Our brain is a fearful and negative creature. That is how the chemicals in our brain combine most readily.
It’s not hard to understand why this evolved.
Fearful creatures tend to survive and reproduce. Fearless creatures tend to become food for larger creatures. Therefore, we have evolved so that the experience of fear and negative expectation are the default setting in our brains because in a state of nature that keeps us the most safe.
If you do nothing expect react to the chemical activity of your brain you will be reacting in fear and negativity most of the time. In my experience and belief giving into the predisposition toward fear and negativity at times of disruption will almost always make things worse. Instead of bring a new order out of chaos—Solve et Coagula—we just get more chaos.
The only way to NOT react in a fearful and negative way is to use your willpower to superimpose some other process on your thoughts, rather than just going with what the chemical reactions in your brain dictate.
As time management guru David Allen says, “Your brain does not have a brain. You have to be smarter than your brain.” You need a process that can overrule neurochemisty. A process like asking yourself “what would I feel best about doing when I look back at this time from the future?”
One of the greatest psychologists of all time was the man we call the Buddha. 2500 years ago he taught his students about the mind, describing it as being filled with drunken monkeys. They jumped around, screeched, carried on, clamoring for attention.
Of course, the monkeys he mentioned were the chatter of our interior thoughts and feelings, often arising from unconscious forces as the chemicals in our brain flow and change in primitive response to external stimuli.
Much of the Buddha’s teaching is about how to tame those monkeys, and overcome the disordered thoughts that most of us find we have. He taught them meditation to calm the inner chatter, he taught a way of thinking so that his students didn’t take the chatter of the monkey’s so seriously. If you consider it, what he was teaching is that people need a process that can overrule their neurochemistry. I agree.
Just as the default emotional state in the brain is a fearful and negative one, so too our memory has evolved to facilitate this. The mind recalls bad things much more readily than good things. The chemical states prevalent in a negative memory are more plentiful in our negative brain, and so those memories stand out.
If I were to give you a large sheet of paper and ask you to make a list of the Bad Things And Wrongs Done To You, most of you would need to ask for a second sheet of paper, and you’d probably be able to create the list quickly.
If I were to then ask you to make a list of the Great Experiences you’ve had, most of you would need to pause and think a bit. Your lists would not be long.
I have been trained by the HeartMath Institute, a group that does high quality research into mind-body interaction. One of the techniques we use is to ask people to center themselves and recall some completely positive memory, and to really put themselves in it. Don’t just think about it. Re-experience it. We’ve learned that almost no one can do this at first. We have to give them time to dredge up a handful of positive memories. It takes work because of the way our brain is wired.
One of the greatest philosophers in the world was Friedrich Nietzsche. He got a bad press initially because his books didn’t sell much when he was alive. Then, his sister came to be in charge of his literary estate. His sister was a Nazi. She published edited copies of Nietzsche’s books to support that ideology. Since then her chicanery was uncovered and corrected editions of his books published. His though has come to be very influential in both philosophy and psychology.
Nietzsche wrote about a concept he called “Amour Fati,” or the Love of Fate. He thought that emotional and spiritual health came only when you have done enough inner work to get to a place where you love your fate.
By that he meant that if you really like who you are; If you really respect yourself and are at inner peace, you love everything that has happened to you. Even the bad things must be loved because they helped make you who you are. If you love the person who has resulted from your fate, you must then appreciate all the stepping stones that got you there. Even if they were no fun at the time.
In my opinion the only way to achieve such a spiritual state is to understand we need disciplines to control our mind, such as the one referred to here. You make fewer missteps and will have fewer things to regret.
And so, may you have good luck in taming the drunken monkeys in your mind, and when hardship befalls you may you have the presence of mind to listen to your imagination instead of your emotions, and may you ask “When I look back from the future, what behavior would I be proud of. What would serve me well in the long term?”
My experience, and those of my clients, is that asking that question and then doing what it suggests is the best way to bring better things our of disruption—be that disruption emotional, political, economic or spiritual.
And that’s my sermon.