“They began to believe that the orderly behavior they see is the only possible state of the system. Then, at the critical boundaries in time and space, the components and forces interact in unexpected ways, with catastrophic results.”
— Laurence Gonzales--Deep Survival
Shock is what often stirs up transformation, evolution, and metamorphosis, both personally and collectively.
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 we 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, to avoid taking shocks personally, we must acknowledge that they are 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), but it is also one of the 8 trigrams that pair up to create the 64 hexagrams. Shock is a crucial alchemical ingredient needed for personal and collective 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, and food sources. They will inevitably be subject to destabilizing, toxic forces (such as cosmic rays and viruses) that can cause 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. Both Freud and Jung recognized that the human psyche is highly conservative.
Contra Naturum Development
Conservatism can be good for homeostasis but can also put a ceiling on development and evolution if it’s excessive. To evolve means to change, but most people resist change. Without mincing words, a reasonably conscious woman told me, “I don’t like change.” I told her I could sympathize because unpleasant shocks often precipitate change. But disliking change creates suffering because change is our only constant.
“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 with 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 The Shawshank Redemption, who cannot adjust to life as a free man (after decades in prison) and wants to get locked in at night. I once saw a news story about a young girl who had suffered horrible abuse from her mother, who had broken many of her bones. At a court hearing, we see a kindly-looking protective custody woman leading the little girl away. As she’s removed from the court hearing, the little girl screams that she wants her mother. Better the devil we know than a devil, or even an angel, that we don’t.
In most circumstances, however, the conservative, homeostatic tendency benefits organisms. Organisms love homeostasis. For example, your dog or cat would love for their bowl to always be in 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 with 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 committed to consciousness is, by definition, a person busy being born. Consciousness is never a static, permanent attainment. More often, it’s a moment-to-moment struggle as you fend off tape loops, chaotic emotions and desires, and other forms of psychic entropy that would like to overwhelm your consciousness. On the positive side, the commitment to consciousness can keep you busy being born for an entire incarnation.
Some people are 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. They are busy being born through the continuous growth of their character, soulful relations with others, and a commitment to ethics.
But there are a great many people I call the “hollow folk” who are busy dying. Aside from obviously self-destructive types, such as people suffering from addiction, consider how many people are psychologically stagnant. Their neurotic symptoms and distorted belief systems only become more defined and rigid as they age. They are becoming more mechanical as conditioning increasingly controls their thoughts and actions.
For many people, being dominated by acquired conditioning is the default state and may encompass 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 enjoy a fulfilling life that is given needed structure and mythical dimension through fundamentalist religion. The degree of structure and mythical dimension they inherit is stronger than anything they could have created for themselves. The need for people to be structured from the outside depends on their level of development. From my POV, it is a very particular blessing if a person is strong enough to find spiritual truth on an individualized path that allows them to live a life of moral and mythical dimensions without the help of fundamentalist religion. This oracle and the whole Zap Oracle site are designed for such people.
The average person tends to tread water, seeks to maintain the status quo and homeostasis, and will change inwardly only in response to drastic outside shock. When shocks occur, the average person takes no responsibility (especially if they are negative shocks), instead believing that he is the victim of “bad luck” or forces beyond his control.
Of course, sometimes circumstances 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 dynamic paradox: you create your own reality vs. outside reality creates you.)
Many shocks are self-created — for example, an illness brought on by willful neglect of health and the active abuse of one’s body. Especially with self-created shocks, you must get busy being born, or else you’ll be busy dying.
Our lives are highly complex processes. When a shock punctuates equilibrium, systems move toward a lower or higher state of organization. The conscious person seeks to use shocks to reorder themselves, their relationships, and sometimes the larger world in life-affirming ways.