text © Jonathan Zap
One of the core, irreducible truths of human incarnation is being subject to the hand of fate, to forces outside of our conscious control. There is a recent New Age tendency to psychologize everything, to see every aspect of health, wealth and life in general as reducible to psychological causes. But the citizens of Pompeii didn’t share some psychological complex that required all of them to be enveloped in volcanic ash in 79 CE — some things really are best understood as the hand of fate. Even insurance companies recognize that some things are “acts of God,” and not anyone’s fault or subject to human control. Kamran Hamid said, “Fate is for those too weak to determine their own destiny.” I’m not sure who Kamran Hamid is, but one assumes he didn’t live near an active volcano. From a more mature perspective, Shakespeare wrote, “What fates impose, that men must needs abide; It boots not to resist both wind and tide” Another very traditional view of fate is reflected by Emerson: “Fate is nothing but the deeds committed in a prior state of existence.” But even if this were true in some cases, would it be true in every case? Do volcanoes erupt only when it is consistent with the prior deeds of those who live nearby? And even if fate were reducible to prior deeds of forgotten incarnations or inscrutable unconscious forces, how much does that perspective help you when you are in the hands of fate? If it keeps you from victim mentality and allows you to approach fate from an empowered Warrior stance then I am all for it. Paraphrasing Don Juan (Casteneda), “For the average man everything is a blessing or a curse, but for a Warrior everything is a challenge and a learning experience.”
Depending on how the hand of fate touches you, there may be better and worse options for interpreting and reacting to fateful occurrences. Consider this a propitious time to contemplate how you respond to the hand of fate.
For more on the Warrior and Taoist approach to fate see:
The Way of the Warrior
The Taoist Path
The hand of fate often takes the form of a shock, which may seem positive or negative. Shock, or punctuated equilibrium, is crucial to both personal development and evolution. If you are presently dealing with the hand of fate in the form of shock, you may benefit from reading “Dealing with Shock” from A Guide to the Perplexed Interdimensional Traveler:
But how do we deal with the shocks that appear outside as fate, the curve balls chucked at us by the Tao that sometimes seem to smash us right in the face? How can the Interdimensional Traveler work creatively with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?”
Since I’m undergoing a series of shocks in my own life right now (and shocks, like earthquakes and their aftershocks, tend to come in a series), this is no academic exercise, but a challenge to see how well my philosophy of shock can hold up to the real thing.
The Necessity of Shock and the I Ching
First, in order not to take shocks personally, we need to acknowledge that they are both inevitable and necessary. Shock is such a well-recognized principle in the I Ching that it is not only one of the 64 hexagrams (hexagram 51, Shock, Thunder, the Arousing) it is also one of the 8 trigrams out of which the 64 hexagrams are built. Shock is a crucial alchemical ingredient needed for evolution.
Homeostasis and Punctuated Equilibrium
Why is shock so crucial? One reason is that all organisms are conservative. They dial in an equilibrium, what biologists call homeostasis, and they seek to maintain it. This is a crucial life function, because organisms are generally complex, fragile processes, that require relatively narrow parameters of environmental conditions — such as oxygen levels, temperatures, food sources. inevitably, the environments in which they occur have destabilizing, chaotic elements that frequently threaten death or even extinction. Organisms work indefatigably to try to dial in their niche, to maintain the homeostasis that keeps them going. You don’t want your liver enzymes, heart rate or blood sugar to fluctuate wildly. That would threaten your survival. You want them dialed in, rolling along on an even keel. The human psyche is an organism, the most complex we know of, and complexity often means fragility. What both Freud and Jung recognized, what anybody looking around himself should recognize, is that the human psyche is also highly conservative.
Contra Naturum Development
Conservatism can be good for homeostasis, but can also, if it is excessive, put a ceiling on development and evolution. To evolve means to change, and we don’t always want to change. Two fairly conscious and compassionate people I met recently told me, and without mincing words, “I don’t like change.” I told them that I could sympathize because change is usually precipitated by shocks, often unpleasant shocks. But to dislike change is to create inevitable suffering because change is the only constant we have.
“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction.” — Abraham Lincoln, in an address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859
The conservative tendency is so strong that many will resist change even if they are in a bad situation and an opportunity for improving change presents itself. You may remember the Morgan Freeman character in Shawshank Redemption who is unable to adjust to life as a free man (after decades in prison) and wants to get locked in at night. I’m also reminded of a newspaper photo I once saw of a young girl who had been horribly abused by her mother who had broken many of her bones. The photo was of a court hearing and shows the little girl being led away by some kindly-looking matron while she is screaming to be reconnected with her mother. Better the devil we know, than a devil, or even an angel, that we don’t.
The conservative, homeostatic tendency, once again, is almost always beneficial for any organism. Organisms like homeostasis. For example, your dog or cat would love for his bowl to always remain in exactly the same spot, and for feeding to always happen on a fixed and predictable schedule. Your body does better with a consistent diet and bedtime. However, if there is one organism we know of that has a deeply conflicted relationship to the conservative, homeostatic tendency, it is the human psyche. It’s not good enough for our psyches to stay the same. We need them to evolve. Bob Dylan, in a song lyric, summarized this essential situation:
He who’s not busy being born
is busy dying
A person with a commitment to conscious is, by definition, a person busy being born. Consciousness is never a static, permanent attainment. It is quite often a moment-to-moment struggle as you fend off tape loops, schema attacks, etc. that would like to own your consciousness. On the positive side, the commitment to conscious can bring you many moments of being born again into beginner’s mind or self-remembering. It can bring the new dawn of a revelation that opens a whole new vista of awareness.
Another type of person is busy being born by the struggle to live a righteous life and the courageous attempt to bring a high degree of compassionately engaged impeccability to bear on every moment. Although they may not employ the same consciousness practices I have suggested here, they probably have their own versions. When afflictive thoughts and feelings arise, instead of doing a number’s exercise, they may repeat The Lord’s Prayer in their heads. They are busy being born through the continuous growth of both character and soulful relations with others.
Many other types of people are busy dying. Aside from the obviously self-destructive types, consider how many people are psychologically stagnant. The main transformation is that all their quirks and neurotic symptoms and distorted thoughts only become more defined and rigid as they age. Essentially, they are becoming more mechanical as conditioning seems to their thoughts and actions. For a great many people, being dominated by acquired conditioning is the default state, and may encompass nearly their entire incarnation. Consider how many people are born, live and die within the thorny confines of a fundamentalist religion. That’s from my point-of-view of course. From their POV, they may be having a very fulfilling life that is given needed structure and mythical dimension through fundamentalist religion. The degree of structure and mythical dimension that they inherit may be stronger than anything they could have created for themselves. This may depend on an innate level of development. It is a very particular blessing, from my POV, if a person is strong enough to generate their own structures, and a life of moral and mythical dimensions, without the help of fundamentalist religion.
The average person tends to tread water, seeks to maintain status quo, homeostasis, and will change inwardly only in response to drastic outside shock. When shocks occur, the average person takes no responsibility for them (especially if they are negative shocks), choosing instead to believe that he is the victim of “bad luck” or forces beyond control. Of course, sometimes circumstances really are, as far as we can tell, independent of individual will. When there are earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, most of us assume that these are caused by geophysical forces and not because there were too many sinners in the land, or that God was upset because we failed to massacre the Hittites as instructed, or something like that. (see Dynamic Paradoxicalism — the Anti-ism Ism for a discussion of the paradox: you create your own reality/outside reality creates you.)
Many shocks we create ourselves — for example, an illness brought on by our willful neglect of health and the active abuse of body. Especially with self-created shocks, you must get busy being born or else you’ll be busy dying. Our lives are extremely complex processes. When a process hits a bifurcation point, it goes toward a higher state of organization or a lower one.
Please go to A Guide to the Perplexed Interdimensional Traveler to read the rest of this philosophy of shock.