By Deepak Chopra, MD
It feels to many people as if we’re living in a Humpty-Dumpty time, when everything has gone smash. A sense of chaos and disorder permeates everything, and as you look around, there’s no longer any consensus about the most basic facts. Reality has become the clash of opposing viewpoints. When the phrase “alternative facts” first hit the media, it was met with jeers. Now it’s the definition of our troubling times.
What’s missing isn’t what people usually point to—order, tradition, solid values, and cooperation. Those things depend entirely on the real missing element, which T.S. Eliot poetically called “the still point of the turning world.” For the fact is that chaos isn’t new; disorder has threatened humanity throughout recorded history. The only way for chaos to be defeated is to have a firm foundation, something so solid, immovable, and permanent that we can build upon it. Otherwise, anything we try to build stands on sand.
A phrase like “solid foundation” sounds physical and rock-like, but Eliot understood that nothing more is needed than a fixed point. In his mind that point was God, and civilization has agreed with him. Organized religion issues articles of faith and dogma, on which an entire culture can rise. All of these proclamations of truth stem from truth with a capital T, the almighty. God is like a point because in an age of faith, God is always at the center of everything, the way a merry-go-round might have, at its very center, an invisible dot that doesn’t turn.
The trend in modern society for two generations at least has been the steady dissolution of faith in organized religion. Its replacement was science, whose foundation isn’t a still point but a methodology: the search for objective facts. Whatever you think about science, its methodology has been supremely successful in discovering the mechanics behind the universe, but it has done nothing to cure our unease over disorder and chaos. Quite the opposite—with every passing year the universe can feel more unstable, unknowable, and mysterious.
This, however, is not the business of the average person going about the routines of daily life. Even if the New York Times announced tomorrow that physics has achieved its holy grail, a Theory of Everything that can predict the movement of every single particle in the universe since the big bang, this epic achievement would do nothing about our unease over climate change, refugees, Putin’s Russia, or anything else in the Humpty-Dumpty world.
If religion has lost its authority and science is occupied with cosmic issues, who or what will heal this chaos?
The answer is at once reassuring and bothersome. The only still point of the turning world is you. Until you discover your own center, a place immune to change, the world will be an out of control merry-go-round. This isn’t a glib metaphor. Imagine a carnival carousel in your mind’s eye. Once you see it, shift your viewpoint to the following different perspectives:
- See the carousel spinning as you stand outside it on the ground.
- Take a bird’s eye view and see the carousel rotating from above.
- Get on a horse and see the world as you go around and around, up and down.
- Find the center post of the carousel and lean against it, watching the world spin while you appear to be stationary.
What you’ve done is an exercise in non-Einstein relativity. You have shifted viewpoints in any direction you want to—this isn’t limited to the viewpoints listed above. You could if you wanted to view the carousel from the moon, or Alpha Centauri, or any place in the cosmos. The ability of the human mind to change viewpoints makes us unique among living creatures (we assume).
This isn’t just a special talent—it is who we are. Take any situation in world history, and it is open to countless viewpoints. It is mind-blowing enough to realize that reality is different for each person, but inside each person there are as many viewpoints as you happen to want. Think of any historical figure: Buddha, Napoleon, Mozart, Rudolf Valentino, anybody.
With no effort at all, you can imagine this person from the viewpoint of:
- A historian describing the march of history.
- The person’s mother or father.
- A doctor listening to his heart.
- A tailor measuring him for clothes.
- A beggar watching him go by on the street.
These are only the tiniest quotient of viewpoints. You could take any figure in history—or in your private life—and have a different reaction to him or her at every moment in your life.
Now we are at the heart of the issue. Chaos and disorder are mental points of view. We construct them out of thoughts, beliefs, opinions, prejudices, expectations, and fears. There is nothing about reality that is not structured “in here” in our own consciousness. The fact that there are infinite viewpoints isn’t the problem. Without shifting viewpoints, we’d never have art, music, literature, science, medicine, and so on.
The problem arises when we forget that these constructs are mind-made and can be unmade. Once you decide that chaos is real, you become the victim of your own forgetfulness. Truth with a capital T isn’t God, not anymore in the modern secular world. Truth with a capital T is the immutable, changeless, eternal, ever-present awareness that is the still point of the restless mind.
Therefore, there is nothing outside us that needs to be discovered in order to turn chaos into orderliness. Chaos and orderliness are like a stream that flows without end that also has standing eddies. The river sends water downstream without apparent design, yet the eddies remain constant even as they are in motion. Which do you prefer to see, the river or the eddies?
The fact that you even have this choice proves that you are beyond order and chaos. I hope that this conclusion surprises or even shocks you. What would it be like to live as the still point of the turning world? We will discuss this unique possibility next.
(To be cont.)