On Living with Chaos
It’s rather astonishing how easily our ordered lives can slip into chaos. It just takes one simple thing, like the loss of electricity or moving house, and suddenly it’s impossible to find a pot to cook in, even as you are staring at ten different spoons. This, I’ve decided, is a really good thing.
Why? Because life on the planet earth is naturally chaotic, or at least a lot more beyond our control than we think. We spend an enormous amount of time and energy keeping this chaos at bay and there’s good reason for that. Keeping the chaos at bay is also called, quite simply, survival. And survival is also a really good thing.
But we can get a little lost in thinking that survival and order is everything, that our main reason for living is to keep ourselves from dying when in fact life is a lot more than that. So learning to live with a little chaos is an important skill. New parents often discover this when their baby in born and their lives are turned upside down.
There’s a very famous Buddhist story that illustrates how I try to work with the seemingly uncontrollableness of life. It’s about a man who is chased off a cliff by a pursuing tiger. As he is falling he grabs a branch from a tree growing off the side of the cliff. The branch is rather thin and it’s clear it will not hold him for long. The man looks down and his heart leaps as he stares into the empty chasm below him. He looks up, and his heart freezes at the sight of the snarling tiger watching him from the cliff’s edge. Something bright catches the corner of his eye. It’s a perfectly ripe, crimson-colored strawberry growing on the side of the cliff. Again he looks down. And again he looks up. Then he reaches out, plucks the luscious strawberry from the cliff’s edge and gobbles it up. End of story.
Because this is a Zen story, there are several ways to interpret its meaning. Indeed, it can mean different things at different times, depending on what’s pushing at our hearts and minds at any given moment. To me right now, as I’m living in a fair amount of chaos, it means this:
Dealing with the tiger above and the empty chasm below is quite an all-consuming activity. The mind is completely filled with fear, anxiety, strategic thinking, hope, wishes and desire for it all to be different, leaving no room for enjoyment, pleasure, sustenance. And yet, right there, within arm’s reach, is the achingly perfect beauty of a strawberry, waiting to be plucked and eaten. Will this strawberry rescue me? Probably not, but does that mean I shouldn’t reach out and enjoy it?
Moral of the story for me, for today at least, is that chaos management shouldn’t prevent me from noticing, appreciating and enjoying the luscious and ripe offerings that are always right there in front of me. I use the word ‘always’ on purpose because in my experience, it’s true. Even in the most dire circumstances, there is always something to notice and appreciate, something bright and sustaining to pierce the rioting clamor of chaos. In my world, it would be a tragedy to not see this brightness, and a sin to ignore it.
My current experience of chaos isn’t that dire, although some people, while looking at the photographs of my new kitchen above, would beg to differ. Still, moving and unpacking is exhausting, exciting, difficult, inspiring, and above all, chaotic. So I’m going to keep a look out for the strawberries hidden in the piles of crumpled newspaper and beneath the upturned bowls. And each time I see one, I will not hesitate to gobble it up as if my life depended on it. Because, actually, it does.
Related: Weekend Meditation: A Messy Life
(Image: Dana Velden)