Lesson of the Vortex
How did a human being come to make the first arrowhead or the first cave painting? How is it that Einstein discovered the theory of relativity? What happens when we have an original thought? What is the nature of creativity? Why is there something rather than nothing?
Self-Organization: Nature’s Magic
Systems that self-organize out of chaos survive only by staying open to a constant flow-through of energy and material. Vortices in rivers and streams typically emerge out of the swirls of turbulence produced downstream from obstructions in a fast, deep current. Each vortex has a definite shape, but is in reality composed of the material flowing through it. In a similar way, we ourselves are composed of the material constantly flowing through us. Our “shape” is created and sustained by the flux of which we are part. We are what we eat, what we breathe, what we experience from our environment.
Many of the structures we see in nature are examples of self-organized chaos. The cupped, hexagonal patterns on the surface of sand dunes, snow fields, and cloud layers result from chaotically organized vortices of warm air rising into the atmosphere, similar to the pan of water. These vortices remain stable as long as the conditions out of which they were created are kept within certain limits.
Watch a flock of birds taking off from the trees and you’ll see another type of self-organization in action. The birds jockey frantically, trying to get free of the maelstrom of their fellows and up into the air, wanting to be part of the group, yet at the same time trying to avoid collisions with each other. Computer models show that each individual’s attempt to keep minimum and maximum distances from others causes flight paths to couple into feedback loops of attraction and repulsion. Positive and negative feedback balance so that the individual birds appear transformed into a single organism.
Random, highly energetic gases in interstellar space self-organize into galaxies and star systems. During the Earth’s geological history, self-organization occurred as water ran across the great erosion channels left by melting glaciers. For one reason or another, some paths of water became amplified—more deeply grooved—and linked into one another, eventually forming the vast dendritic patterns of the relatively stable river systems draining the continents.
Some scientists believe that the complex DNA molecule which contains rules that help guide our own unfolding bodies (rules that are themselves subject to the bubbling transformations of chaos) emerged out of a chemical flux in the early days of the Earth, much as the cellular vortices emerge in the pan of water.
So it turns out that chaos is nature’s creativity.
Our bodies are pervaded by chaotic, open systems that allow a constantly creative response to a changing environment. For example, our brain self-organizes by changing its subtle connectivity with every act of perception. The list of ways that nature puts the principle of self-organized chaos to use is virtually endless.
People who regularly engage in creative activities usually resonate immediately with the description of how chaos emerges into form, recognizing that they also collaborate with chaos.
Chaos and Creativity: Truth and the Connection of the Individual to the Indivisible
For the human animal, creativity is about getting beyond what we know, getting to the “truth” of things. That’s where chaos comes in.
We’re all necessarily conditioned by society. Our conditioning lays out, with apparent certainty, a seemingly complete picture or map of what reality is and how we’re supposed to act in it. We’re trained to accept and move about in this reality from the moment we emerge from the womb.
Our habits of thought, opinions, and experiences, even the “facts” of the world, are similar to negative feedback loops that go ’round and ’round to keep us in essentially the same familiar place. Such loops of limiting, negative feedback are obviously needed to keep society stable, but they can also be horribly confining if we come to believe that that’s all there is to our lives. The danger we all share is of becoming like Pavlov’s dogs—our glands reacting every time the bell rings. And society is full of bells.
Often enough, habits of mind, the supposed certainties of our “knowledge” about the world, produce distortions and deceptions about reality. More important, the opinions and facts that constitute our conditioning may end up obscuring a deeper authenticity and “truth” about our individual experience of being in the world.
What do we mean by “truth”? In a culture of postmodern relativism, the word “truth” has become overloaded with unfortunate associations. It’s difficult to use in any authentic way. Many people today understandably avoid it, because those in the past who have claimed to possess truth tended to impose it on others, often by violent means. With all the diversity of our modern world, how are we to choose between the truths offered by various religions and cultures? But truth, in the way we mean it here, can’t be possessed and imposed on others. One of the early meanings associated with the idea of the “true” came in the context of the craftsperson who makes a thing straight and balanced. Similarly, a person’s life can be “true” in the sense of moving in a straight way, being undistorted, and responding authentically to the present. Here the word “truth” does not mean something absolute (this truth is the truth) or relative (you have your truth and I have mine). Truth is, instead, something lived in the moment and expressive of an individual’s connection to the whole.
The Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti described truth this way: “Truth is not a fixed point; it is not static; it cannot be measured by words; it is not a concept, an idea to be achieved.” There is no path to truth, he asserted. Truth cannot be arrived at through technique or discipline or logic. It is not something that we agree or disagree about. Truth is what holds us all together, yet each must find it individually out of the terms and conditions of her and his own unique life.
Novelist Joseph Conrad wrote of truth as “the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation…the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts.” Conrad believed truth can be found in every place in every moment—in small things as well as in grand things. But we’re so caught up with looking at the world through our conditioned ideas, opinions, and emotions about its truth that we often don’t see right in front of us the sort of truth to which Conrad is referring.
Grasping the truth of the moment was central to the French painter Paul Cézanne. He strove to record on canvas the exact sensations arising in him as he sat in front of his subject. His aim was not to paint his “idea” or conditioned opinion of a landscape or table of fruit, but the exact truth of his moment-by-moment perceptions as they connected him to the life in front of him. He would make small movements of his head as he painted, each new glance acting to shift the entire scene and calling into question what he had previously seen and painted. His paintings are therefore a series of bifurcation points of vision, constituting what has been called “Cézanne’s doubt.” Cézanne believed that in the fluctuation of these “little sensations,” as he called them, lay the truth of his perception. He encourages us to come into contact with the movement of truth that lies in constantly questioning what we see and think about the world.
Truth and chaos are linked. To live with creative doubt means to enter into chaos so as to discover there the truth that “cannot be measured by words.”
Making the Vortex
The poet John Keats called the entry into chaos an immersion in “doubts and uncertainties.” Think of doubts and uncertainties as a way of extending whatever limited degrees of freedom we have come to accept from life. Artists, healers, and those undergoing life changes open up to the uncertainties, accessing degrees of freedom that can spur new self-organization. Going through the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a period of self-doubt is painful, but often those are the very experiences that bring us to a keen sense of the truth beyond words and a new path in life.
The history of the world’s religions is full of stories about mystics and sages who spent time in the “wilderness”—either literally or through some “dark night of the soul” and inner chaos. Healing of mind and body in many traditional societies involves a descent into darkness, chaos, and death. Greek healers encouraged “incubation,” in which a sick individual was required to sleep and dream. Using ceremonies designed to loosen the grip of the conscious ego, the sick person was encouraged to let go of the familiar structures of his life and enter the dark world of gods and underground forces. By letting go of consensual structures, a creative self-reorganization became possible.
Native Americans use vision quests or the dark, superheated, claustrophobic interior of the sweat lodge to foster psychic self-organization. Traditional psychotherapies make use of the container of the psychoanalytic hour, in which a patient is encouraged to let go, free-associate, and make contact with the chaotic material buried in the subconscious. From out of that primal chaos something true can self-organize.
Creativity simmers in the sweat lodge, in the exploration of uncertainty, in the sacrifice of the familiar. But it need not be heroic or dramatic. Creativity can occur in a conversation when the turbulence of questioning and exchange gives birth to a subtle, new understanding or a true way of expressing something.
It can happen when, in looking at a tree, we momentarily dissolve our “knowledge” of trees and see one particular tree’s absolute freshness, the unique turns of its branches, its knots and twists, the play of air and light among its leaves. At that moment, we are seeing the truth of the tree. As psychologist Erich Fromm wrote, for the most part “the tree we ordinarily see has no individuality…it is only the representative of an abstraction.”
And so when we encounter the truth we encounter what the Taoist sage Lao Tzu alluded to when he said, “Existence is beyond the power of words to define. Terms may be used but none of them absolute.” Seeing the tree beyond abstraction and the seduction of “the known” involves entering, like Cézanne, into doubts and uncertainties and allowing our abstractions and mental constructions to die or be transformed. When this happens, creative insight self-organizes, catching us unaware with the shock or delight of the unexpected truth, essence, or being lurking even within the “objects” of the “ordinary” and “familiar” world around us.
Making the Vortex 2:
Bifurcation and Amplification
Because of their willingness, even outright eagerness, to enter a chaotic state, people who engage in creative enterprises have a different attitude about mistakes, chance, and failure than contemporary society.
Creators know that a drip of paint on the canvas, a slip with the chisel on marble, even a mistake in an otherwise well-planned experiment can create a ‘bifurcation point’, a moment of truth that amplifies and begins to self-organize the work. This is far different from our usual attitude where mistakes are dismissed as wrong answers, we try to plan accidents out of our enterprises, and failure is an occasion for shame.
Novelist Henry James coined the idea of “the germ” for the point when amplification takes place. A germ is the seed from which the creative thing flowers.
The literature of creativity is full of descriptions of that magical moment when the flux of the creator’s perception shifts and the chaos begins to self-organize—moments of the ‘aha!’. A completed creative work is a record of the many small and large germs and ‘aha’s that leapt into being as the individual pursued the creative activity.
Making the Vortex 3:
The Open Flow
When we’re being creative in our work and daily life, immersing ourselves in chaos, bifurcation sometimes happens. Then a germ seed concatenates into the flower of an open, flowing creation.
Moments of flow and exhilaration are the reward for the previous descent into chaos, uncertainty, discomfort, or shock at simply not knowing. The chaos hasn’t ended, of course. It’s still there, surrounding and feeding the creative activity, like the turbulence fluctuating behind rocks in a river continuously feeding the vortex it has generated.
The idea of the chaotic openness has been associated with self-organized creativity for thousands of years. The first hexagram of the I Ching is Ch’ien, “the Creative,” the image of the dragon, which the Ching identifies with the electrically charged, dynamic arousing forces of a thunderstorm. The commentary on Ch’ien says, “Its energy is represented as unrestricted by any fixed conditions in space and is therefore conceived as motion.”
Artists try to keep a sense of flowing openness going within their creative pieces. That’s why they use poetic and literary metaphor, irony, and ambiguity—all techniques that plague readers looking for fixed answers, morals, and certainties.
The importance of creative openness is reflected in the talking circle of the Blackfoot people. It is the organizational center of their community, the circle where they make their decisions, but they are always careful to leave a gap for the new to enter. This gap represents the open flow always present within their self-organization.
A few years ago, Buddhist monks were creating a sand painting in a public area in Philadelphia. Each day a woman came to watch them at their work. Then, just as they completed the painting, the woman ran into the center and kicked the sand. The organizers were stunned at such an act of desecration by what they took to be a madwoman. The monks, however, welcomed her intervention, for it allowed them to begin again. It was a kick of chaos for another self-order.
The Vortex and the Paradox of Individuality
The idea of openness and the image of the vortex provide a good way to explore one of the most important of the many paradoxes of chaos.
A vortex is a distinct and individual entity, and yet it is indivisible from the river that created it. In a vortex, a constantly flowing cell wall separates inside from outside. However, the wall itself is both inside and outside. The same is the case for the membranes in animal and plant cells. The vortex suggests the paradox that the individual is also the universal: Our creative moments—whether it is looking freshly at a tree or coming to a new understanding about our lives—are moments when we are in touch with our own authentic truth, when we experience our unique presence in the world. But, paradoxically, the experience of a unique presence is also often coupled with a sensation of ourselves as indivisible from the whole.
Creative Chaos Means Each of Us
The Romantics pictured the creator as genius and hero, but this first lesson of chaos is that creativity is available to everyone. We can all access an ability to let the ego die for a while and touch the chaotic ground from which forms and orders are constantly bubbling up.
In spite of this, many of us don’t feel creative and persistently block the action of creativity in much of our lives. We lose it in our obsessions with control and power; in our fear of mistakes; in the constricted grip of our egos; in our fetish with remaining within comfort zones; in our continuous pursuit of repetitive or merely stimulating pleasure; in our restricting our lives to the containers of what other people think; in our adherence to the apparent safety of closed orders; and in our deep-seated belief that the individual exists in an irreducible opposition to others and the world “outside” of the self.
Chaos theory teaches that when our psychological perspective shifts—through moments of amplification and bifurcation—our degrees of freedom expand and we experience being and truth.
The “self,” which our postmodern society has enshrined at the center of reality, is essentially a social construction—a collection of categories, names, descriptions, masks, events, and experiences—a complex ever-changing series of abstractions. By entering the chaos of those abstractions, we touch the magical place where the self is also the “not-self,” or, if you like, the larger, chaotic self of the world.
When water cuts its way through the landscape and self-organizes the sinuous course of a stream, it uses the available materials of rocks, trees, and soil to create its pattern. The key to creative activity lies in the self-organization of available materials. For humans this means we must literally create with our lives. Like water, we can always find a way to be creative with what’s available.
Krishnamurti argued that a deep creative appreciation of life comes “only when there is enormous uncertainty.” But he saw this uncertainty as existing not just in our grand occasions of life and death but, more important, in each moment. In each moment, we have the opportunity to die psychologically by letting go of prejudices, mechanical habits, isolation, precious ego, images of self and world, and conceptions of the past and future. In this way we set in motion the possibility of a creative, self-organizing perception that puts us in touch with the magic that gave us birth.
Chaos’s lesson of creativity is suggested by the following story: Month after month, year after year, a baker got up early to make bread. One day a customer remarked that over the years the loaves he bought always looked about the same and weighed the same, but the bread always tasted surprisingly warm and fresh. The baker said, “the bread may look the same, but every loaf I make is new because that is where I express my creativity.”
Every single morning we also have the choice to be open to the creativity of chaos, open to the world around us, open to the possibility that we can make our lives afresh, like the baker’s bread.