The place of chaos in our lives

January 29, 2016

Napoleon Bonaparte was an advocate for confusion: “The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies’.”

How easy is it, I wonder, for the rest of us to accept chaos as a condition not to be worried or stressed by? We seem instinctively to enjoy controlling our environments as much as possible. Yet if we are not open to new energy and events, however uncomfortable, then we may never truly know ourselves, or reach our full potential.

Look at the families in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the subject of a much lauded BBC TV adaptation. It is set during Napoleon’s 1814 French invasion of Russia, and the accompanying breakdown of traditional Russian aristocratic society. The Rostovs and Bezukhovs are able to find happiness only after they have experienced almost indescribable levels of physical and emotional despair.

Outside their family stories, war raged at its most destructive. It was cruel, and as chaotic as Napoleon preferred. Russia was in flames. And yet, the outcome was not as the French Emperor had hoped. His roll of the dice – betting on chaos leading to victory – failed.

So what triumphed? It certainly wasn’t the notion of order that won the day. If we listen to Napoleon again, then I think we can understand how Russia survived the mayhem imposed upon it. He said: “There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run, the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.”

So the winners were those who found – in the chaos of wartime – their deepest sense of self. And this gave them the desire to fight and win, so that a new order (itself temporary) could emerge.

There is a path here to how we can use moments of confusion in our own lives to best advantage. Certainly we can learn from Buddhism that chaos is present in everything, but that we can continue to strive with diligence nonetheless, to find our honest path.

And we can learn from Tolstoy, too, that wars all end in peace sooner or later.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation