Staying Grounded in a Chaotic World

When we are not distracted by all of the world’s busyness, this connection to a world beyond what we usually view as “our world” informs and colors everything else.

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Upside down view of New York City with reflection on water

I met up with some friends recently and not surprisingly, the primary concerns and topics of conversation were “the virus,” politics, and climate change. There were also conversations of inequality, nuclear weapons, and the stock market. Someone asked me, “How do you manage to stay grounded and even hopeful in the midst of the current challenges and chaos?”

I immediately thought of a few lines from an ancient Zen text that say:

If you can get upside down with this world,
then you can practice discernment and clear seeing,
and be responsive, as well as provide comfort.

Anytime I read these lines I have the image of being at the births of my son and my daughter. As they were born into this world, I watched as they arrived, upside down. Yet, there was a part of them that was still connected to the world before birth, a mysterious place beyond words and beyond form. In many ways this connection to another world felt just as vital as our mutual existence on Earth. When we are not distracted by all of the world’s busyness, this connection to a world beyond what we usually view as “our world” informs and colors everything else.

These lines also remind me of being with my mother as she was dying, many years ago, lying on my living room couch. I was breathing with her slowly, seeing how completely present she was with each breath and at the same time I could feel her body and mind begin to travel, begin to pass through from the world of life to another world. Her last exhale was deep, full and strong, and then not another inhale. Again, I felt this deep connection to the world beyond, outside of this world. Again, the world of cell phones and social media dropped away.

So, how can we stay grounded amidst the chaos? Practice! To practice is to realize and do our best to engage with birth and death, to see our lives beyond ideas and labels of success and failure, to live our lives beyond fear, beyond greed and relentless distractions. The practice is to “get upside down with this world” – that is, see yourself and the world from the perspective of birth and death, from the perspective of awe and wonder; right here and right now. Perhaps our usual world, of constant striving, is actually upside down?

In mindfulness practice we aspire to be aware, to be alert and alive to what is happening in our bodies and minds. Sometimes we are just upside down – confused, flailing, worrying, stressed – caught in the issues of this chaotic world. And sometimes we find ourselves grounded, generous, alive, here.

Mindfulness practice includes letting go of wanting the world to be a certain way. It’s the practice of seeing more clearly, and with this clear presence, we can help others to be more comfortable in this upside down world.

It’s strange and paradoxical that when we are turned upside down we can we see more clearly and take care of others. How do we take care of ourselves, and our family, community, and country, particularly in times of great difficulty and change, when our government is acting in a way that is impossible to understand and threatens the peace and well-being of the planet?

These few words from the Zen tradition point to finding real freedom, seeing and acting beyond our usual conditioning and habits, beyond our fears and paranoia.

Through being comfortable with being upside down, we open the possibility of understanding, compassion, and freedom.

Giving comfort means to express our gratitude and love, even in this crazy, mixed up world. It’s our world. Our job is to show up, stay open, and live with as much wonder as we can.

Here is a poem by 13th century Persian poet Hafiz, about staying sane in the midst of a chaotic world:

Someone Should Start Laughing

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
How are you?

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
What is God?

If you think that the Truth can be known
From words,
If you think that the Sun and the Ocean
Can pass through that tiny opening
Called the mouth,

O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly laughing—

To practice: Next time you feel surrounded by chaos, allow yourself to be upside down, right-side up, confused, and in a state of appreciation and wonder, all at once.
When the time is right, laugh, cry, dance, connect.
See if you can be a comfort for others who may be struggling also.

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