text © Jonathan Zap
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? 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 — and, inevitably, the environments in which they occur have destabilizing, chaotic elements that frequently threaten them with 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 I met recently told me at different times, and without mincing words, “I don’t like change.” I told them that I could sympathize because change is usually precipitated by shock, often unpleasant shock. But to dislike change is to create inevitable suffering because change is the only constant we have.
You may have heard of the story of the ancient emperor who challenged the wise men of his court to come up with a statement that would be true at all times, in all circumstances. What they came up with was, “And this too shall pass.” But when we inwardly resist the passing, the change, then we are more likely to experience it as an outward shock acting as fate.
The conservative tendency is so strong that many will resist change even if they are in a bad situation that is attempting to get better. You may remember the Morgan Freeman character in The Shawshank Redemption who is unable to adjust to life as a free man 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 know.
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 take no responsibility for them (especially if they are negative shocks), believing instead that he is the victim of “bad luck” or forces beyond control. This may be especially true, of course, when the shock is a macro-geophysical or nation-state effect like a flood, earthquake or war.
Shocks, it should be pointed out, can be “good” or “bad.” Winning the lottery or suddenly falling in love are shocks just as much as a car accident or economic crash. Shock just means the equilibrium has experienced a perturbation or disturbance — a sudden disequilibrium. Don Juan said (I’m paraphrasing), that for the average man everything is either a blessing or a curse, but for the warrior everything is a challenge and a learning experience.
The psychic inertia that resists change is so strong that Jung described the path of individuation, or unique individual development, as “contra naturum” — contrary to or against nature. Gurdjieff, who so eloquently described man’s mechanical nature, called the change to unmechanicalness “against God.” Their point was that to generate your own internal change meant pushing against such vast inner and outer inertial force that it was as if you had a whole universe resisting you. Often it is us, our own neurotic homeostasis and passivity, our false ego, that provides the resistance. And as Jung said, “Man’s greatest passion isn’t sex, love, money or power — it’s laziness.”
So shock can be like a divine gift, a catalyst for evolutionary change. After all, if it wasn’t for shock in the form of a giant asteroid hitting the earth sixty-five million years ago and flattening everything larger than a chicken there might be a velociraptor strolling through tropical foliage instead of you sitting there reading this over the internet. Our incarnation began with birth shock and often ends with a shock too. Shock is our constant, if unpredictable, and often unwelcome, companion.
Thought Experiment In Subcreation
Try this thought experiment. You are the author (the equivalent of God) of a novel about a young person who in the course of your story is going to develop greatly as a person — psychologically and spiritually. Would you as God/author provide him with the perfect, peaceful relationship, the perfect career and a tranquil, happy “successful” life? Not unless you wanted to create a boring story and a boring character. What you will probably find is that as God/author you are going to have to create “evil,” you are probably going to have to hurl at that young person some gigantic shock, right at the limits of what he can handle, to get him out of the door and on his quest. If you are writing a screenplay you better do this in the first ten pages (the equivalent of the first ten minutes of screen time). This is called the “inciting incident,” and if you don’t have it, unless you are an absolute master with a cult following, you will probably lose much of your audience. There are classic, archetypal elements to story structure because story structure parallels life structure.
Tolkien called fantasy writing “subcreation” because the author is acting as a subset of God in creating his own world. What would The Lord of the Rings be if Tolkien hadn’t subcreated evil in the form of Sauron, Saruman, ring wraiths, orcs, etc? Hobbits going on dates with other hobbits? Boring. Nobody wants to watch Frodo eating second and third breakfasts every day while getting fat and complacent in Hobbiton. No, we want to see him at the cracks of doom tormented by evil temptation. We want development in our stories, not stagnation; we want shock, change and lots of it. But when it comes to us, no way, we want predictability, we want a world where we get what we want when we want it — and what we want is to get dealt the royal flush with no jokers or wild cards.
The message of hexagram 51 is that shock can be developmental. What counts is our stance in relation to the shock. We need to accept shock, even welcome it as a learning challenge.
Many shocks we experience involve relationships. Our voluntary relationships (such as romantic relationships), by an almost invincible psychological principle, reflect where we are inwardly. So instead of going into he said/she said mode and creating a schema-driven storyline bound up with the particulars of that episode of the soap opera, you can instead ask yourself this question: When have I been here before? When have I felt, in different circumstances, what I am feeling now? If you are honest with yourself, you’ll probably recognize that this isn’t the first time. So pull your gaze off of the present overly charged situation and look at these parallel points on your inner map, especially if they are points involving other relationships. Take a step back and see if you can find a pattern. Is there a mistake here you’ve made before? Are certain schemas activated? Remember the principle that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, especially if it is relationship history!
Subtle and Gross Shocks
The way things often work is that we are first given a chance to learn from a subtler shock, but if we don’t learn from it, don’t answer its demand for change, we get more powerful shocks. Our bodies teach us through shock, and so do our psyches as well as the force vectors of seemingly outside fate. For example, a man poisons himself with too much alcohol and his body sends him a self-protective shock. He finds his head in the toilet in a violent spasm of vomiting and he wakes up with a horrible hangover. That’s actually a subtle shock, way too subtle for some people. The man works through that subtle shock and a few more like it while he develops his “acquired taste” for self-inflicted punishment and he even comes to take pride in his tolerance for poison, “I can really hold my liquor. I may be fat and impotent, but I can drink these young punks under the table.”
When subtle shock doesn’t work, then you get big shock. Instead of nasty symptoms, your body presents you with a major disease like cirrhosis of the liver. Still, some will disown responsibility for the shock, “I ought to sue those liquor companies.” Feeling a victim is indicative of refusing to rise to the learning challenge of shock. If you are a victim of your personal history, than you are bound to remain one as history repeats itself, because a victim is the opposite of a learner/warrior.
Catching Things Before they Exit the Gate of Change
The conscious person prefers to learn from the subtle shocks rather than getting hit over the head with a two-by-four. Instead of waiting till we have a major disease we can pay attention to our bodies, notice the subtle shocks that tell us we’re doing something harmful and make corrective adjustments. The idea is to, in I Ching terms, “catch things before they exit the gate of change.” If you can notice the subtle pre-signal shocks you can sometimes avoid the need for full-scale shocks. For example, if your observation of body language signals tells you that your approach toward a certain person is creating resistance in them, you can back off and avoid the shock of argument and conflict.
Attuning to Subtle Shocks
Some ways to become attuned to subtle shocks include paying attention to intuition, considering synchronicities as possible signs or portents, remembering and interpreting dreams and consulting with the I Ching or other oracles.
In his potentially life-saving book, The Gift of Fear, security consultant Gavin de Becker provides numerous case histories that demonstrate that most victims of violent crime rationalistically overrode distinct intuitions warning them of impending danger. Our intuition is much more acute (and so much faster) than our conscious thinking, especially in rapidly unfolding life or death situations. Many of Gavin de Becker’s clients, often celebrities, are being stalked or harassed by anonymous threats. Gavin discovered an intriguing and effortless way to find the identity of an anonymous harasser. I don’t have the book in front of me but it goes something like this:
Gavin: Who do you think it could be?
Client: I have no idea.
Gavin: OK, just as a game I want you to pick the name of anybody you know, anybody, right off the top of your head.
Client: OK — Bob.
Gavin: Any reason to think it might be Bob?
Client: Oh, no way, it couldn’t possibly be Bob; he’s such a nice guy, so polite. He sent me a dozen red roses last week.
Almost inevitably the person they pick off the top of their head will turn out to be the harasser.
Dreams, especially nightmares, can be subtle shocks seeking to awaken us to inner (and much more rarely, outer) problems giving us a chance to learn and make adjustments so that we don’t have to get whacked over the head by fate or develop full-blown diseases, “mental illnesses,” etc. Oracles, especially the I Ching, The Book of Changes, can give us a heads up about a problem that if neglected may become shock. Sometimes it can give us an early warning radar blip that shock is coming. If the shock has already arrived it can advise us on how to weather the storm.
Choosing Shock through Self-Initiation
Some people seek to generate their own shocks to stimulate development. Since we live in a culture that does not provide the developmental shocks that in traditional cultures are provided by initiation, we may seek to create our own initiations. Self-initiations, voluntary shocks, include things like fasting, heroic doses of hallucinogens, mountain climbing and extreme forms of travel, sports or adventure. These self-initiations can go amiss if they serve to build up false ego rather than collapse it. I might, for example, undertake these extreme practices so I can build up a prideful identity for myself as a master of asceticism, an hallucinogenic test pilot, a daring mountain climber, etc. If the means of initiation becomes an end in itself then it is being abused and has depotentiated as a developmental shock.
Traveling, for example, can be a great way to stir up change, to shock your complacent equilibrium, but as Emerson put it, “The problem with traveling is you take yourself with you.” Traveling can be a real secular pilgrimage, a transformational journey, but only if we are integrating it as inner change, not just as a changing glamorous backdrop for ego identity and dramas.
Some people try to push the self-initiation option too far, which amounts to the spiritual self-violence of forcing progress. Some people have a Germanic death wish and fall for the glamour of excessively risky behavior. One of Nietzsche’s moral superman notions was, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” But that notion can be pushed too far, and Nietzsche ended his life completely insane. So taking a hundred tabs of acid, for example, my neither kill you nor make you stronger. You want to learn from subtle shocks if you can, and don’t necessarily need to whack yourself on the head with a two-by-four.
Avoid Presumptions about the Shocks of Others
Also, we should adopt a learner/warrior relation to shock for ourselves, an inwardly independent stance, but not necessarily apply it across the board to the shocks and misfortunes of everyone else. In twelve step programs they’re fond of saying, “God only gives you the burdens you need to bear.” Fine, I accept that for myself, but I wouldn’t want to tell that to a baby dying of AIDS. I don’t want to smugly look at a continent of people dying of famine and presume they are getting the burdens or learning experiences they need, or that their karma is punishing them. It’s not so clear (without having to resort to reincarnation and multiple lifetime karma) if the shock as learning challenge applies to those who, for example, don’t seem to have enough neurological/cognitive function to learn from what’s happening to them. I accept this stance for myself because I know that I have (and probably anyone able to read this has) the inner resources to learn from the shocks I am experiencing. If I don’t choose victimhood for myself, that doesn’t mean that I assume there are no victims anywhere. What about mistreated animals and abused children? Is God giving them the burdens they need to bear? I’d love to have a pat formula to explain these horrors away, but I feel like it would be a self-serving disrespect of the authentic suffering on the world.
Are Shocks Good News or Bad News?
One lesson of shock is that we’re not in control of the Tao, and there are lots of unknown, unknowable variables in play that make life the unpredictable experience we all know it to be. From our limited vantage, it’s also hard for us to know if the unpredictable shocks are “good news” or “bad news.” You’ve probably heard the old Chinese story about the farmer whose neighbor asks him, “What’s new?”
“One of my horses ran away.”
“That’s bad news,” says the neighbor, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Well, actually, the mare that ran away came back with a stallion so we ended up with another horse.”
“Great news,” responds the neighbor.
“Well, actually, when my son went to train the stallion he broke his leg.”
“Oh, that’s terrible news.”
“Well, actually, the army came through to conscript young men into the draft, but because my son had a broken leg they didn’t take him.” And it keeps going like that…
Every event is so connected to a vast unknown web of antecedent and consequent events that we can’t judge the overall effect. On the other hand, we should also resist the New Age fuzzy-headedness that insists that we be nonjudgmental about everything. The warnings about being judgmental are about using bad judgment, especially to stereotype people based on religion, race, orientation, etc. We have to be judgmental. To say that it’s bad to be judgmental is a judgment! Shocks demand that we make good judgments. So although we don’t know where everything is going, and don’t presume that negative shocks may not be developmental, we also don’t surrender our judgment by adopting glib sayings like, “It’s all good” or “God only gives you…” It’s not all good, and there are things our true will may demand we make judgments about and work to change.
When in the Belly of the Beast
Finally, it’s one thing to have a philosophy of shock, it’s quite another thing to be in the belly of the beast. When I look back at my own efforts to walk the talk during my last fortnight of shock (these events, which precipitated the writing of the guide are narrated in The Path of the Numinous — Living and Working with the Creative Muse), I see cases where these principles helped me handle things well, and other times when I was on the ropes, the shocks triggering huge schema attacks, and it was a titanic struggle to regain my inner independence.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed it can be good to third person yourself for a minute, consider your situation from an outside vantage and ask yourself, “What would I advise this person given this set of circumstances?” There is an advanced martial arts technique where if you are being attacked by multiple assailants you create a remote POV, like an eyeball on the ceiling, mapping the action out from above. Writing this guide has been an exercise in remote POV for me.
Sometimes, under the acute stress of shock, it’s easier to be a warrior than in ordinary circumstances. Don Juan said, “It is much easier for warriors to fare well under conditions of maximum stress than to be impeccable under normal circumstances.” Use the shock as an opportunity, rise to the occasion. The Chinese ideogram that means crisis also means opportunity.
Although I may not have walked the talk perfectly (who ever does?), I did use this occasion of shock as an opportunity to examine and write out my “Weltanschauung” or philosophy of life. Shock can be an opportunity for you to do the same. If for no one else this is a guide for me, this perplexed Interdimensional Traveler, as I try to find my way through the labyrinth of the Babylon Matrix into greener worlds than these…