Expanding Our Capacity to Be With Chaos

By Leo Babauta

We don’t like chaos.

It is uncertainty, overwhelm, a feeling of groundlessness, being unmoored, out to sea without a compass.

And it usually triggers a shut-down response in us: hide, avoid, procrastinate, try to get control, anxiety, or wanting to give up. Or not wanting to even start in the first place, if we know there will be chaos.

I’m here to advocate for the beauty of chaos! It is the fabric of life, and we can never escape it. What we can do instead is slow down, get quiet, and open to the beauty of chaos.

This takes tremendous practice.

Let’s talk about it.

Chaos Can Be Overwhelming

We like order, and when things are messy or chaotic, it can feel scary or overwhelming.

A few examples:

  • I’m going off to college and am feeling overwhelmed by the idea of a roommate and there being so many people around. It feels like I won’t have my own space.
  • I worry about getting into a relationship when I’m just learning to take care of myself, and enjoying having alone time. I don’t want to get too entangled and then hurt the other person by breaking it off later.
  • My spouse is unpredictable with their emotions, and I never know when they’re going to get frustrated or shut down.
  • My life is overly full right now, I feel scattered and all over the place and I can’t focus on anything!
  • I’m at an event with so many people, I am not used to people being around, how can I handle the overwhelm?
  • My health has taken a bad turn, and I feel helpless and lost.

These are just a few ways that chaos shows up for us. In fact, it’s always present, in small and big ways. The world is unpredictable, dynamic, swirling. And we often don’t want to be with all of that.

There is so much possibility if we let ourselves be with chaos.

Practicing Being with Chaos

We can learn to be present with the chaos in a relaxed way.

It starts with recognizing when we’re feeling it.

Then we can decide whether we want to practice with it. Do we have the capacity to train ourselves in chaos right now? No judgment if we don’t — it’s a recognition of whether we have anything in our emotional and mental battery, and absolutely a wonderful thing to do for ourselves to opt out when we’re not up for it.

Then we can practice grounding ourselves. Start with a little stability before going into chaos.

Next … we can turn towards the chaos. This is like turning towards the storm: bring attention to the sensation of chaos in our bodies (internal) and the presentation of chaos all around us (external). It’s watching the wind blow the grass in unpredictable ways. Watching the ocean swirl. Watching people flowing past a window.

Opening our eyes to the beauty of the moment.

And learning to relax in the middle of the swirl.

Expanding Our Capacity

We all have a limited capacity to be with chaos, fear, uncertainty, groundlessness.

When we hit that limit, we shut down. We go to our comforts or defenses. And that’s of course completely OK! We don’t need to force ourselves to stay open to chaos when we’re not in a place to do that.

That said, we can expand that capacity, through training.

The training goes something like this:

  • Intentionally create a practice to train with chaos daily. It could be at the same time of day, or just have a note somewhere that will remind you to practice. That reminder will get less effective over time, so change it up weekly.
  • When it’s time to practice, notice the chaos you’re feeling. Or recall a time earlier in the day when you were feeling it.
  • Practice turning towards the feeling of chaos in your body, as mentioned in the section above.
  • Practice keeping your attention here, keeping your heart open, as long as you feel able to do so.
  • Close the session with some gratitude for yourself for practicing.

If you do this on a daily basis, your capacity will expand over time. You’ll be able to spontaneously practice when chaos arises in the moment. Sometimes.

Other times, you just won’t have it. That’s OK. We’re human.

The Beauty of Chaos

What we begin to open to, as we sit in a quiet moment with this practie, is the swirling beauty of chaos.

We automatically turn away from it as if it’s an unwanted burden, but chaos is the fabric of life. It is the ocean splashing against the rocks, the light filtering through dust motes in the still air, the clouds of a storm. It’s the joyous play of a child, the trees swaying in the wind with leaves tremulously shaking.

Chaos is a loved one interrupting us when we’re trying to focus, asking for the gift of our attention. It’s a day full of activity and abundance. It’s a life never short of surprises. It’s loss and death and heartbreak and intimacy.

It’s my wish that the world opens to this chaotic beauty.

“Live quietly in the moment and see the beauty of all before you. The future will take care of itself …” ~Paramahansa Yogananda

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