“We all know the myth of the four ages—of gold, silver, bronze, and iron—where the world is represented as declining from its golden age, growing ever worse. It will disintegrate, presently, in chaos—only to burst forth again, however, fresh as a flower, and to recommence spontaneously the inevitable course,” Joseph Campbell writes.
It’s familiar, but unhelpful, to believe that chaos exists only outside of us, “out there” somewhere. And that this chaos “out there” presses in upon our internal lives in an intrusive and disruptive manner. Yet referencing chaos as solely occurring outside of ourselves positions us as passive victims. If we could only trust the grace, beauty, flow and fluidity, which can potentially arise out of chaos, we’d then touch into the boundless possibilities that exist beyond our commonly held misconceptions.
From our observed, direct experience we learn that 99.9% of creative processes happen at the border’s edge between order and chaos. For anything truly original to be born in the world, chaos must first precede it. Nothing new can emerge until we’re ready to reach into the chaos—willingly—and pull it out. Only out of chaos can a new order emanate, be this order within one’s own personal psyche or in the collective. In the apparent void, which chaos leaves behind in its wake, life renews itself. And this renewal of life occurs through the alternate filling and emptying of consciousness.
Too often, though, we attempt to prevent the appearance of chaos. To avoid it we try to imagine it in advance and rush ahead of it. Or when we’re in the throes of chaos, we prematurely try to organize it and instill conceptual frameworks on it. But we usually get burnt in the process because chaos, although meaningful, is non-rational. We can never halt it. We can only accept it and heed its instructions.
There’s an aspect of our psyche that “knows” chaos is the condition of potential before manifestation—the progenitor of all progress—but how do we trust this recognition when we’re facing our own personal pandemonium? And when it appears that our external order is threatened with disarray, how do we maintain faith that a divine reordering of our internal life is simultaneously occurring? How do we find the inner compass within ourselves to even locate metaphoric north when there’s seemingly a swirling, catastrophic mess surrounding us? How do we establish our center and poise in the eye of the storm?
Campbell states, “Those who have identified themselves with the body and its affections will necessarily find that all is painful, since everything—for them—must end. But for those who have found the still point of eternity, around which all—including themselves—revolves, everything is glorious and wonderful just as it is.”
To find our bearings, it’s crucial we focus on guiding our soul into present time and reconnect with that deeper part of ourselves that “knows” and can move in concordance with the chaos. Given that we’ll always be in a dance between order and disorder, being and becoming, can we discover a way to cultivate wu wei, a state where our actions are effortlessly in alignment with the flow of life? And can we also learn to be quiet and still in the river of life and actually listen to what it requests of us?
Campbell reminds us:
“The first duty of man, consequently, is to play his given role—as do the sun, the moon, the various animal and plant species, the waters, the rocks, and the stars—without fault; and then, if possible, so to order his mind as to identify it with the inhabiting essence of the whole.”
However, as C. G. Jung said, “In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.” We often confuse self-sabotage with the chaos that births universes. The latter chaos is certainly cosmic, while the former most definitely puts us out of commission. There’s always chaos when we move into new paradigms of power, potential, creativity, and influence, but we must first question whether we’re indulging in the type of self-generated, fracturing, and distracting chaos that keeps us trapped in our obsolete and dysfunctional patterns. Here we must break the old order to create a new order—and do it consciously.
Once chaos has fulfilled its task of rearranging what needs reordering, it will begin to dissipate, step aside, and allow us to gradually take the next steps towards the higher reordering that’s presented itself. Yet a note of caution here: transformation isn’t linear and the spiral of evolution will eventually bring another form of chaos to test our courage, resilience, and self-awareness because everything—whether it’s spiritual insights gained or physical challenges overcome—will return to be repeated at higher iterations of themselves.
The position from which we engage the chaos also matters. It affects its alchemy. That’s why we’re continually invited to remember that our minds can’t ever leap ahead of the chaos. Only an open, assenting, non-judgmental heart can meet and accept its inevitable phases. “There is but one way to say yea in love,” Campbell writes, “and that is to affirm what is there. That is true love; and, as Paul says, ‘Love bears all things.’”  And we never have more light, love and inspiration available to us than when we’re in those frightening, disorienting, helter-skelter places. Sometimes it takes an overwhelming breakdown of the mind to have an undeniable breakthrough of the heart.
And because chaos is the genesis of all things sui generis, the nine Muses and three Graces are far easier to access during this time. Campbell states:
“This number (9) is the number, moreover, of the great goddess Aphrodite, as the personification of love, and of whom the nine Muses and three Graces are the specialized manifestations. There is a beautiful harmony to be recognized in these mythological images; and this harmony is a reference to the hidden, the occult, which sits within the universe and all things.”
And for emphasis, I would add the recognition of the beautiful, hidden harmony, which exists within chaos.
This essay was first published as a Myth Blast
by the Joseph Campbell Foundation
Photo: Vlad Zaytsev/Unsplash