Chaos vs Stillness – Writers' Habits

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said “One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.” Well, that‘s a poetic and hopeful concept for those of us who come from chaotic backgrounds. However, I’m not convinced that the life of such a tumult-born star can be sustained and nurtured in the same environment. Certainly, as a writer and someone who wants to extend my 14 years of sobriety, chaos — either external or internal — is no longer my friend.

My younger years were highly chaotic and sometimes dangerous times, fueled by alcohol, irritability, restlessness and discontent. I found it hard to stay anywhere or with anything or anyone for very long. This was largely because that sort of stillness resulted in having the occupying landscape or activity lose its newness and shine, and therefore its ability to distract me from my deeper self, or what Jung calls The Shadow Side — which, according to Carl Jung, is the part of the personality one chooses not to see.

“Beneath the social mask we wear every day, we have a hidden shadow side: an impulsive, wounded, sad, or isolated part that we generally try to ignore. The Shadow can be a source of emotional richness and vitality, and acknowledging it can be a pathway to healing and an authentic life. We meet our dark side, accept it for what it is, and we learn to use its powerful energies in productive ways.” -“Romancing the Shadow,” by Connie Zwieg, PhD., and Steve Wolf, PhD.

Unacknowledged and ignored, The Shadow can pop up in all sorts of unpleasant ways, and psychoanalysts theorize it is responsible for all sorts of behavior we’d rather not exhibit, as well as depression’s black-crow swoop and the malaise which seems to arise for no apparent reason.

For me, twitch and run as I might, I inevitably came face to face with myself and that, being a highly uncomfortable reflection, meant I was on the run again. Eventually, however, when I became so exhausted I could run no longer and that old Shadow caught up with me. I see that now as a moment of grace, even if at the time it felt horrible.

I could no longer deny that my life wasn’t working. I was addicted to alcohol, I was depressed and I had writer’s block. Lovely. Left with no alternative I faced that old Shadow and, in the parlance of Alcoholics Anonymous — admitted I had a problem. (I find much of the language and symbolism of AA is compatible with that of Jungian psychology and, as it happens, Carl Jung corresponded with Bill Wilson, the founder of AA.)

It wasn’t an easy path, nor was progress made overnight, but progress was made, and continues to be made. Still, even after all these years, sometimes The Shadow pops up again, albeit in a new way, at a new level, and I have to sit down and make friends with it all over again.

So, the question is — how does, exactly, one do that? Well, running away from discomfort doesn’t work, so it will come as no surprise that sitting still and not avoiding it just might. Perhaps it sounds too simple, too unsophisticated, but I can’t tell you how much the gentle ebb and flow of regular habits and routines can comfort you during a rough time, and return you to your healthy, creative and productive self. When life-on-life’s-terms piles up round your door and makes it difficult to go on, the simple, uncomplicated, quiet things can be incredibly healing.

“Our task is the opposite of distraction. Our task is to help people concentrate on the real but often hidden event of God’s active presence.” – Henri J.M. Nouwen

There are times when a retreat from the jagged edges of the world is required, when it behooves us to pay attention to the day we’re in, and sometimes the pain we’re in. There’s quite a good book called “A 12-Step Approach to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius” geared to those in recovery, obviously, that provides meditations for staying focused on simplicity and The Sacred. I suggest you don’t need to be “in recovery” to benefit from it. I also like “Saint Benedict on the Freeway – a Rule of Life for the 21st Century.” This book helps us formulate a “rule” for our days – which is to say a daily pattern of life arranged so that there are particular moment in the day when certain things are done.

“Typically, we rule ourselves with habits of serial behavior that make our lives flow more easily, and follow sequences that help us to remember what comes next.” – Corinne Ware (Saint Benedict on the Freeway)

It doesn’t matter so much, in my mind, whether you believe in any particular form of Higher Power or not; what matters is that you find a way to live safely and peacefully within the world in such a way that you maintain your creativity and your health, both mentally and physically.

I used to think drama and chaos were the twin muses of creativity. Now I try to keep them out of my life, for when my life is in chaos it’s very hard to focus on the writing, which is my form of spiritual practice, and my most healing activity. And so I try to keep regular habits of sleep, food, exercise and solitude etc. I lead a very quiet life, for I’ve found that’s best for me.
It’s not easy sometimes, since my thoughts can sometimes get quite snarled and tumultuous. When that happens I try naps, going for a walk, or, if it’s really out of control, I watch a film called, “Into Great Silence,” about a Carthusian monastery in
Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps, considered one of the world’s most ascetic monasteries. (In fact, that’s not a bad metaphor for my creative journey — beginning with Nietzsche and ending with a contemplative monastery!) It never fails that after watching these men leading their quiet, simple, peaceful lives, I slip back into peace myself.

I have a coffee mug that reads: Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. I agree, but sometimes I need a little help getting there.

In case you do as well, I’ll leave you with this clip:


  1. Vivian De Winter on October 22, 2009 at 11:39 am

    i Lauren,
    We've become so conditioned to be "multi-taskers" at home, at work, and during our leisure time, most of us don't know how to truly be serene, not even with our own thoughts.

    Being able to multi-task is supposed to be a good thing? I don't think so. We'd never get anything accomplished, just jump around from this to that!

    I gave up my corporate job a year ago, and it has taken me a long time to 'decompress' from the stress of that environment.

    Thank you for the insight…

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