Monday, January 5, 2015

Chaos: Learn to live with uncertainties

Over twenty-seven years ago, I was speaking in Iowa City, Iowa before a group of women business owners when one of the participants came up to me at the end of the evening seminar and said, “When you are ready, I want to publish your first book.” I was completely stunned and really did not know what to say other than “thank-you.” I had never even considered the idea before.

About eight weeks later, I showed her a manuscript for a book called Listen to The Heart: The Transformational Pathway to Health and Wellness. After a period of editing, the book was published in 1988 and I began to share it with people attending my different seminars. Soon, the initial run was completely sold out, much to my surprise and to the delight of the publisher.

So, I sat down and completely rewrote the book. I finished the revised and expanded second edition in October 1990.  I realized recently that 2015 is the 25th anniversary of the second edition. So, in celebration of this milestone, I decided to share a series of essays from the book with all of you during January. Here is the first one called “Chaos: Learn to live with uncertainties.”

I believe that most of us struggle with inner and outer changes, and that this is a natural process. For many, it is not easy to give up the old and to wholly welcome the new. The old way of thinking and acting has been a pattern of survival that has helped us out in many ways and through many uncomfortable or difficult situations. Nevertheless, as we begin to walk a new pathway to clearer levels of health and wellness, we often struggle with large amounts of uncertainty and what appear to be inner and outer levels of chaos. We all would like the pathway to be a four-lane highway with clear signs about upcoming events and appropriate choices of when to exit or how fast to travel onward. Still, more often than not it is a very thin trail and one must take each step carefully.

I remember such a hiking trail in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Called the “Eclectic Trail,” it paralleled a rolling and bubbling stream. I do not think the trail was or had ever been formally blazed through the woods. There are a few simple points of reference when walking this trail and they are these: 1) Going up hill, keep the stream on your left. 2) going downhill, keep the stream on your right. 3) Most important, do not walk too close to the stream’s edge because of unstable, very dangerous, cliffs. Parts of the Eclectic Trail are very obvious by the well-worn pathway, but there are sections at the beginning and near the end where it is more like a consensus exploration for a common thread with everyone heading downhill or uphill. I have specific memories of leading groups down this trail, wandering amongst the pine trees and hardwoods in search of the pathway. We knew the correct direction, but heaven only knew if we were on the correct path. 

In learning to live with chaos, I came across a scientific law called “Prigogine’s law of dissipative structures.” Simply stated, the law says that the world evolves through change - stability is not balance but change. When we come to small and large transitions where we must blend our values and actions in new ways, we need to recognize that chaos is not the enemy but the friend of this process. The more we want everything to be balanced and in harmony, the less ready we are going to be to flow to the next level of understanding and growth. While I like to have stability in my life, I am not completely thrown off balance by times of transition that feel like chaos. My life experiences tend to be in accord with the fact that world evolves through change, and that change is a form of stability. As we come to accept this idea, our pathway to greater levels of health and wellness, though not always clear, is nevertheless educational. 

During the first, and only, fall I lived in Vermont, everyone talked about the hardships of winter, especially for those in isolated valleys like the one where I was living and working. At the time, I was part of a team of people teaching and learning homesteading skills, and the change of the seasons was very important because we needed to be prepared for all kinds of weather and all kinds of situations. As the days got colder and the leaves on the sugar maples turned red and fell, I began to worry about the impending “bad Vermont winter.” The old-timers in the area said that the caterpillars had thicker bands on them than normal so this was going to be the “worst winter in years.” I began dreading the arrival of winter. I looked at the sky every morning as I trudged out to the barns to care for the animals and milk the cows. Every day I inspected the local flora for signs of winter. Waiting and waiting, I became more and more worried about when winter would arrive because I was sure the homesteading crew would be caught unprepared. Like a good Boy Scout, I ranted and raved to the other team members that we must “be prepared,” and the sooner the better. My inner chaos, my worries, were based upon fear and the dread of winter.

Finally, one cold blue morning in late November as I hiked up the hill from my cabin to the barns, I saw the first clear sign of winter. On the high ridge, behind the farmhouse were we had community meals, was a large grove of pine trees. During the night a hoarfrost had covered the entire top half of the ridge with a glaze of ice. Each tree appeared to have been dipped in frosting. As I returned from the barn with two buckets of steaming milk, the sun came out and the ridge top was a sparkle of ice. All my inner, crazy worry was gone in an instant and I was at peace; winter had come to the valley. That day was no different from the previous ones and no different from the coming ones; we always had work to do. Yes, that was a cold winter and I did see more snow and ice than I had before in my life, but the outer world was not in chaos. I had created the inner chaos, and the outer world reflected this inner world. The transition from one season to the next was gradual and the arrival of winter that I feared was going to be a big problem was not really bad at all.

We need to learn to understand how inner feelings can become centered upon a fear of chaos, and we need to be open and receptive to change. We need to remember that we will not always know the correct pathway, but that we often have to trust we are headed in the right direction. The Eclectic Trail, with its clear and unclear parts, was not an easy trail. But it was a constant source of beauty and change. At the bottom of the trail where it merged with a local gravel road, there was a clear-cut pathway through hip high ferns. This was a very calm and still place in the woods. It always felt like we had entered a church, and everyone’s voice dropped. We have to cultivate the peaceful spirit that resides in this kind of place in our inner hearts when we are moving along our pathway to health and wellness. Chaos may scare us but it does not have to overwhelm us. All we need to do is continue our present direction and trust the pathway will open up before us. Chaos is the natural process of change. 

For more information about the book, Listen to the Heart, please click on the following link:

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

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