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Lisa Anyan Smith | Ph.D.

“I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same”

~ David Bowie, “Changes”

Change is an inevitable part of life. Transitions are all around us – births, deaths, graduations, anniversaries, moving to a new residence, marriage, divorce. Beginnings and endings are occurring constantly. Some are small and mundane: the ringing of the alarm clock to signal the start of a new day, or the finishing of a good book. Some are major and catastrophic: the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings, or the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

Some changes are initiated by us, while others are imposed upon us by outside forces, or seemingly fall from the sky out of the blue. Some transitions feel more welcome and comfortable than others. Some feel downright unpleasant.

What can we learn from change? Perhaps the answer, in part, lies in chaos theory. While musing about various changes I have experienced over the past year, I came across a book entitled “Seven Life Lessons of Chaos: Timeless Wisdom from the Science of Change,” by John Briggs and F. David Peat (New York: HarperCollins, 1999). The scientific term “chaos” refers to an underlying interconnectedness that exists in apparently random events. Briggs and Peat deftly relate some of the complexities of chaos theory to everyday life, and I would like to share some of their lessons with you.

Lesson One: Being Creative In each moment, we have the opportunity to let go of prejudices and automatic habits. This letting go frees us to be open to the power of uncertainty, and thus creativity.

Lesson Two: Using Butterfly Power Chaos theory suggests that each one of us possesses the power of “subtle influence,” much like the idea of a butterfly flapping its wings on one continent that leads to hundreds of thousands of tiny interconnected events that culminate in a hurricane on another continent.

Lesson Three: Going with the Flow Consensus decision-making models involve much deliberation and discussion before an agreement is reached. The process can feel chaotic. However, when a decision is reached, all parties claim ownership and are committed to the decision.

Lesson Four: Exploring What’s Between Chaos theory holds that life is both simple and complex. When life seems most complicated, a simple solution may be just around the bend. Conversely, what appears simple on the surface may be incredibly complicated.

Lesson Five: Seeing the Art of the World Chaos is as much about art as it is about science. William Blake urged us to …”see the world in a grain of sand, and an eternity in an hour…” While observing birds, squirrels, and chipmunks at your backyard feeder, you may notice that although there are repeating patterns, something unexpected and random occurs that keeps you engrossed.

Lesson Six: Living Within Time Rather than thinking of time as a one-dimensional line running from past to future, chaos theory allows for elasticity in time. I especially enjoyed the story of monk who stops to listen to the beautiful singing of a bird in the woods. Upon returning to the monastery, he discovers new faces. While he was listening, all his friends died and an entire century passed.

Lesson Seven: Rejoining the Whole To live deeply and fully, we seek awareness. Yet as soon as we sense that we are seeking, awareness escapes our grasp. Chaos theory, as applied to change, requires that questions remain unanswered. Perhaps we learn more from the journey, than when we reach the destination.

So how can chaos theory impact our everyday life, and what does it have to do with change? Well-known to those participating in recovery programs is the Serenity Prayer, which asks “…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.“ While we strive to effect positive changes from within, and struggle to adapt to changes that appear from without, we can remind ourselves that chaos does not necessarily need to be tamed. Sometimes the path of least resistance is the way we are meant to follow. Yet “least resistant” is not synonymous with “easy.” Although we may not be able to make order of chaos, we can find calm within the storm.

“When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

~ Victor Frankl

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