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Chaos & Impermanence

Author: Asoka Selvarajah    (all articles by this author)
Published on: January 20, 2002

Chaos Theory is a dramatic new science that has forever changed the way we look at Nature, and indeed reality itself. Yet, it also bears strong resemblance to ancient metaphysical views; particularly the Buddhist doctrine of Impermanence.

Phrases like "The devil's in the details" or "What you don't know can kill you" are good starting points for understanding Chaos Theory. Simply put, throughout the history of Science, scientists have traditionally used neat formulas to explain natural phenomena; everything from steam boiling from your kettle to the movement of planets. They were approximately correct. Until recently, the computing power simply did not exist to solve more complex problems with any degree of accuracy.

However, the world is not a simple neat formula. It is far more complex. Indeed, it is precisely what you do NOT know about any given natural system that can lead to your prediction about it eventually being a million miles away from reality.

Scientists call this "sensitive dependence upon initial conditions". In plain English, it means that unless you know EVERYTHING about a system to the nth degree, your prediction of it will eventually go astray as time elapses. The chaos/disorder in the system will eventually overwhelm the order predicted by your equations.

This is why weather forecasts are frequently incorrect. It is also why economists, no matter how expert they pretend to be, can never predict the stock markets accurately, no matter how much information they have at their disposal. The fact that the data available on these, and other highly complex systems, is not INFINITE, is precisely why they can never be predicted for long.

Nature is mostly 'non-linear', and Chaos Theory seeks to describe this. An example of a linear system is a billiard ball. Give it a light push and it moves slowly for a short distance. Give it a stronger push, and it moves faster and further. In non-linear systems, the feedback can far exceed the input.

An example of non-linear feedback is stock market activity. Markets are not intrinsically dependent upon fundamental "real world" factors. Opinions, rumor and overall market sentiment are frequently bigger factors in moving the markets than the actual economics of the nation. That is one reason why crashes happen. The negativity leads to selling, which leads to more negativity, which leads to even more selling. This is the non-linear feedback effect.

Metaphysical Implications of Chaos Theory


This new science tells us that what we call "Chaos" or disorder, and what we call "Order", are really two aspects of the same thing. They resemble the classic Taoist symbol of the Yin interwoven with the Yang; each possessing a portion of its opposite.

Thus, Chaos and Order flux back and forth. Order gives rise to Chaos. This is readily understood by most people. However, the opposite is also true, although much less well understood. Chaos gives rise to Order!

The huge tidal waves, called Tsunamis in Japan, are a good example of this. One strange feature of non-linear chaotic systems is that they possess memories! They remember their previous energy states. In the case of the oceans, much of the time the energy dispersed in them is incoherent and chaotic. Thus, you see only random choppy waves. However, there are times when a burst of highly ordered behavior can emerge from Chaos - seemingly spontaneously. The burst of coherence may give rise to a wave only a fraction of an inch high (although very long) in deep ocean water, but it rapidly assumes enormous heights as it moves into the shallows. This is the origin of the Tsunami tidal wave.

In many ways, the ocean is a good analogy for all chaotic systems, including human civilization. In the ocean, Order (tidal waves) arising spontaneously from Chaos makes it clear that these are essentially two aspects of the same thing. The only constant is Change.

Yet, this is what the Buddhists have been teaching for thousands of years. In the teaching on Impermanence, the Buddha taught that all things change. Also, in their essential nature, all things dependent upon other things for their origination. Nothing is a thing in itself, and nothing lasts for ever. All things have within themselves the seeds of their own decay. Anything that we regard as "real" or "solid" or "true" rapidly breaks down under examination. Moreover, these component parts also break down further until we end up at the quantum level, about which little more can be said.

This teaching makes it clear that we should not cling to Order as if it were a desirable thing. Order simply IS. Chaos simply IS. They are two aspects of the same thing. At any specified time, a non-linear system possesses Chaos and Order simultaneously, in differing proportions. At times, Order seems to reign. At other times, Chaos seems dominant.

We see this in our bodies when they succumb to disease and subsequently recover. We also see it in the affairs of nations. They rise from obscurity, overcome rival nations to become a power in the region, impose Order on a wide scale, and call it an empire. However, over time, the opposite also occurs. Chaos gradually builds up, often from within as well as without, until the entire empire collapses in upon itself.

If you have ever seen those colorful fractal computer patterns, formed from plotting non-linear equations, you will see this interweaving of Order and Chaos in a very visual way. As you zoom into such a pattern, ordered symmetric structures give way to chaotic swirls of color. Yet, after a while, you again begin to discern tiny blobs of order appearing. These grow ever larger until they fill the screen once more. Chaos gives rise to Order, which gives rise to Chaos. They are, in fact, the same "stuff".

The implications are profound. We should not cling to Order, and thereby equate it with happiness and security. Rather, we should actually embrace change, the only certainty in life, and not express undue dismay when it appears. This is the essential nature of the flow of existence. Understanding Impermanence means understanding that you cannot keep propping up the walls when the house is collapsing from the inside. Yet, that is precisely what humanity tries to do all the time. We try to preserve our jobs, our nice homes, our aging bodies, our nation. The leaders of our countries continually seek to preserve the status quo in an ever-changing and chaotic world.

Yet, all of this bears the nature of illusion. It is not a case of preserving Order against the Chaos that threatens from the outside. It is actually a matter of realizing that Chaos is inherently part of the system and works from within! Thus, the loss of a job and the seeking of a new career is not bad news. It is simply the way things are. The rise and inevitable fall in the fortunes of nations (even YOUR nation!) is simply a fact. This cannot be changed. It will happen. It is just a matter of time.

When you also realize the total interdependence of everything upon everything else, the folly of grasping Order alone becomes even clearer. It is like bailing out a leaky lifeboat in the midst of a stormy ocean. You might do better to learn how to swim in the waters of Impermanence, rather than continually fight against them.

What does all this mean practically? Examine your life. In which areas are you bailing out the ocean with a teacup? Are you frantically trying to preserve a career, and thereby neglecting emerging opportunities? Are you vainly seeking to keep a dead relationship afloat, harking back to how things used to be, and refusing to accept that they have changed forever? Or does your desire for security and the status quo prevent you from taking a big leap into the unknown; a leap that may be unexpectedly forced upon you some day when your whole world collapses around you?

All of us are guilty of refusing to flow with change in some areas of our lives. Take a look and see where this applies to you. The more you can understand Impermanence and give up grasping your present or past conditions, and simply learn to be content whilst in the flow of change, the happier your life will be. Paradoxically, in a world of inevitable flux between Order and Chaos, the only thing that has the potential to be constant, and under your complete control, is your state of mind. It is there, and not in the external conditions of life, that you have the only chance of developing the harmony and peace you seek.

Copyright 2001, Asoka Selvarajah. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Asoka Selvarajah is an active writer/researcher on personal development and esoteric spirituality. Asoka's work helps people achieve their full potential, deepen their understanding of mystical truth, and find joy in their true soul's purpose.

His new book, "The 7 Golden Secrets To Knowing Your Higher Self" is available at

Visit the Mystic Visions website, and subscribe to his FREE ezine, Aspire To Wisdom at:

Originally published in Project X Newsletter #68

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