How to Build Mental Strength by Understanding Chaos & Complexity
If management can be defined as the process of reaching a state of equilibrium with a task or responsibility, then life as a whole is a management challenge! It is management because, in order to succeed or at the least survive, we are required to achieve an equilibrium with the many things and people that form our environment. It is a challenge because, regardless of how well we may have managed one issue, change creates a disequilibrium requiring another effort at success or survival. In order, therefore, to be successful at any aspect of life – career, health, or relationships – we must first accept the responsibility as managers of our own lives. Then we must look at how this can be achieved most effectively in the highly volatile conditions we face today.
To fully understand management in a complex state, we first must examine management in a simple form and then expand to the more complex stages. In a simple model, there are two conditions that must first must be met. One is that the thing to be managed must be defined. The other is that the resources of the manager must be appropriate. First we will look at the thing to be managed. After that, we will examine the resources of the manager. Only then can we effectively design a management approach that can identify and use our resources proactively instead of one that simply reacts to the effects or fear of failure.
The concept of Structure
In life, structure is seen as the most measurable and stable existent, precise within certain limitations. In physics, structure is seen to be the result of motion. Therefore, in physics, structure is an illusion. Let us examine what this means.
Imagine a small particle moving in a circular path in space. If that small particle moves so rapidly that we cannot examine it at any single point in its motion, we would no longer see a particle travelling in a circular path. We would see a ring. The faster the particle moves within that circle, the more solid that ring appears to be. Let us continue by making that particle move in a three-dimensional plane. The ring will now take the form of a sphere. As the particle moves so fast, let us say at the speed of light, the sphere begins to appear to be more solid. In fact, what we seem to see is a solid spherical object. What we have, however, is an illusion. Yet, we can “prove” that the sphere is solid simply by attempting to force another particle through it. Because the particle is moving so fast, it can appear to be occupying all areas of the sphere`s surface at any time. Therefore, the second particle will always be repelled by the “surface” of the sphere, “proving” that it is solid.
If we can do this experiment, we will also notice something of great significance. The impinging particle will be repelled in unpredictably different directions each time it is directed at the sphere. We know that this is because the sphere is actually a particle moving so rapidly that it is approaching any location from a different angle at any time. Thus, the impinging particle will be repelled at a different angle each time it is directed at the sphere. Because the movement is so fast, the angle of reflection is almost impossible to predict. It is highly unlikely, therefore, for two successive impacts to give two exact reflections. When we calculate this on the infinite range of positions the particle can be coming from at the point of impact, we can arrive at an infinite range of responses, none being predictable. When we further consider that even the object reflected is also a particle in motion, the unpredictability of response is further compounded.
Now, when we consider that we typically deal with structures that are complex composites of even these complex spheres, we can see that predictability in its true sense is an impossible objective. What saves us is that we measure in crude terms. We do not, for example, examine a quantum of light being reflected off a proton. Instead, we contemplate the response of a ray of light reflected off a surface. Of course, that ray of light is a complex composite of quantum particles. The surface is a very complex composite of these illusionary spheres. Therefore, in fact, the reflection of the light is in highly varying and unpredictable directions. Since we know that the total effect is a composite of each unpredictably varying response, we must acknowledge that it too is truly unpredictably varying, but within a coarsely acceptable range. Nonetheless, we focus only on the crude response of the major part of that ray. We dismiss the subtle nuances of reflective responses and consider only the total or average effect. Yet, these variations can accumulate allowing the total effect to become perceptibly changed in the long term. Thus, although we may have learned to expect or even predict the general outcome of an encounter in the short term, we inevitably will discover that, in the long term, our predictions and expectations will be flawed. The Newtonian law of equal response has been redefined by quantum physics.
How does this apply to Life?
This model of a particle in motion applies as much to life as it does to the physics lab. True, it is of scientific interest in weather predictions and falls within the range of Chaos theory. Yet it can also be seen to apply to all material transactions or impactions. Any encounter between a person and any material object is affected by the fact that either the object or the medium used in the transaction responds to this law of physics. Thus, even if we consider thought a spiritual or metaphysical activity, the medium of communication uses physical tools, e.g., sound, action, and thus will fall into that element of unpredictability discussed above. We can say, therefore, that events and expectations as they occur within a physical model are unpredictable and uncontrollable. Or as Heraclitus put it around 500 BC.: “No man swims the same river twice, for it is never the same river and never the same man.”
Applied to all conditions outside ourselves, we can see that events, the behaviour of another person, or even the state of health of our bodies are compound responses of complex activities we can neither control nor predict. Each will reflect a response to our presence as the impacting force. Each will also reflect responses within their own dimensions as they interact with each other or within themselves as compound elements. Thus, the response of the world to our presence can never be predictable nor manageable. In fact, these events exist, not only as a response to us, but as their own lives. This is reality. Yet, this is not what we want.
The Reactive Response
We want the safety and security of predictability and control. So we ignore the elements of independent motility at the base level and focus only on the crude or compound level. We focus on the reality of the illusion. At least at this level, events and existences seem stable and predictable. We do not allow ourselves to anticipate change and are threatened when an undesirable response is radiated from the physical structures, our bodies, or the actions and inaction of the people we meet.
We may attempt to control these elements, accepting our apparent successes when, in the short term, the crude responses appear to be the way we want them. We may attempt to accommodate them, persistently adjusting our approach so that the response appears to be constant and predictable. We may attempt to choose the more stable elements and avoid those encounters that appear to be less manageable or more painful, basing our assessment on the initial coarse response. If we can visualize these behaviours within the simple model of elemental physics, we will begin to see how our approach to management inevitably sets us up for failure.
We know that, in the simple model, we cannot control the position of the base particle and so control the response. How then can we presume that we can control the compound and complex response from a material object, our body`s health, or another person`s behaviour?
In the simple model, we cannot predict where the base particle is at any moment and so determine the response by adjusting the direction of our approach. How then can we presume that we can accommodate an event, our health needs, or the needs of another person and so affect their responses to us?
Lastly, since all the factors that affect us are themselves affected by the instability of the physical elements, it is impossible to choose the predictably safe encounters or effectively avoid those that are unpredictable or unsafe.
When we succeed, therefore, is it not only at the crude level and only in the short term? Aren`t our successes determined, not by us but by the volatility of the many factors affecting the situation? Even in the poem Ozymandias by Shelley, Ozymandias was shown to be foolish in his pride as he says, “Look upon my works ye mighty and despair” and yet, “Nothing beside remains. Near the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The result of this phenomenon is that, no matter how well we attempt to manage by controlling our world, decay and disruption will stymie our efforts. No matter how carefully we tread, we will always be challenged by responses or initiated activities that are foreign to our needs and expectations. We have to accept that stability is an illusion. Instability is the norm. Let us now examine the resources of the person for managing in this highly volatile world.
The Resources of The Manager
In a mechanical model, an object, say a box, maintains its wholeness (integrity) because internal forces are balanced against external pressures. In the case of a box, the internal forces are the tensile strengths of the fibres (wood or paper). The external pressures are the weights, humidity, temperature etc. that are imposed on the structure of the box. The box is designed with sufficient tensile strengths to withstand the pressures consistent with its use. This internal resource of tensile strength is common to all inanimate objects. It provides a significant resistance to external pressures. However, this resistance is fixed.
If a weight greater than the box is designed to bear is placed on the box, the internal fibres become stretched, distorted, or even broken. In other words, the box is `stressed`. Such stress can occur whether the external pressure is an increase of weight, humidity, or temperature. Sometimes the distorted tensile fibres manifest externally as a distortion of the box. Sometimes, the box appears undisturbed, only to fall apart with the least added pressure. This is its manifestation of failure.
The argument is not very different for the human being. We too have an internal strength. In our bodies it is provided by the biochemical and physiological activities that maintain the integrity of the organ systems. In our psyche, it is provided by the courage and wisdom that define our integrity and individuality as a person.
The body responds to variations from the external elements through the release of the hormone, adrenaline. This provides some variability to the internal strengths, and so resourcefulness. This, however, though allowing more flexibility, also has limitations. The body, therefore, can be challenged by external events that extend its biochemical or physiological resources.
The mind responds to external challenges with the strength of wisdom. In fact, it is a common experience to view a challenge which is poorly understood as large or oppressive. When understood, the same challenge can appear to shrink. Yet, it does not shrink. It is the relative increase of wisdom that creates the equilibrium. This provides the mind with even greater flexibility than has the body. But it is a flexibility that depends on the degree of development of a person`s understanding. Thus, the mind can be `stressed` by external events that exceed the developed strengths of wisdom and courage. So an event that arises from activities that are beyond present experience can stress the psychological strength of wisdom. On the other hand, events like rejection, criticism, or uncertainty can erode the strength of courage and cause similar psychological stress.
Manifestations of Failure
In the body, an internal distortion of organ systems can lead to illness or pain. When even one organ system is over stimulated, it not only experiences its own distortion; it distorts its relationship to others. Then, prolonged strain can lead to disease in adjacent organs or in the smooth function of the body as a whole. Sometimes this is manifested as an identifiable disease. Sometimes it not manifested visibly (e.g. headaches, backaches).
The mind manifests its stress internally with emotional pain, and externally as behavioural maladaptations. Emotional pain is a distortion of self-perception. It can range from feelings of insecurity to perceptions of worthlessness. It can be demonstrated visibly in a show of distress or in a cry for help. It can be manifested as a behaviour seen to be abnormal by an outside observer but rationalized to be necessary by the person in an attempt to reduce or destroy the offending condition.
Of course, just as with the box or the body, the mind can be internally stressed without this stress being externally manifested. Then a simple pressure may be all that is needed to have a total breakdown. In a world of such immensity that is so easily reached with modern technology, it is hardly surprising, therefore, that anyone`s wisdom can be exceeded by events that could not possibly be experienced earlier by that person. Similarly, in these times of change, the pressures of uncertainty, rejection and criticism, can so easily arise that even the most resilient person can easily be weakened.
Thus, our first observation is that the internal disturbance that is a stress on the integrity of the psyche can affect anyone any time. Even the therapist is not immune to these stresses. The healer can, at times, be more wounded than the sufferer.
Our second observation is that the disturbance can be prevented through strengthening the internal forces of courage and wisdom. Then, just as healing the body aims at restoring biochemical and physiological balance, not simply removing the pain, so must psychotherapy be the restoration of the internal strengths of wisdom and courage, not just pacifying the emotions or redirecting the behaviour.
When new events or new twists to old events affect us, our safety, security, or survival is threatened. If we cannot address the response because it is not what we expect, we remain threatened, scared and unhappy. The more a person presumes he can exist within the safety of crude stability, the more distressed he becomes when that stability is threatened or disrupted. This disruption can occur in all three composites (the elemental composite of our physical world, the biochemical composite of our body, or the media through which we conduct our social relationships). As a result, distress, and ultimately depression can be reactively, biochemically, or socially induced.
The Dangers of Intervention
The greatest danger of intervention comes from being unwittingly confirmed in our unreal expectations of stability. When we seek and receive empathy on the unfairness of an event, an illness or another person`s behaviour, are we not being affirmed in our right to a stability that is unrealistic? When we seek treatment or advice which blindly promises to stabilize these situations, are we not doing the same and setting ourselves up for a fall when the relentless progression of life makes even these well-intended solutions ineffective?
Therefore, the traditional approach to fixing` the wounded psyche through healing the emotional pain and measuring success through observation of behaviour changes can be self-limiting, misleading or ineffective. Remember, Freud once thought cocaine to be the wonder drug. Heroin was once included in some over the counter remedies. Diazepam and now serotonin enhancers are claiming this position. Yet, we can see from past experience that the psychological distortion ‘apparently` returns after seeming to respond to our treatment of the illness or our suppression of the emotional pain. When we nonchalantly apply another person`s different approach because it promises a faster route to the “bottom line” in achieving an unrealistic objective, are we not confirming our stupidity in the short term and their limited vision in the long run?
We must remember, however, that the human psyche is closely associated with the human body. A distressed psyche will attempt to compensate for its weakness by straining the resources of the body. Anyone can attest to the biochemical or physiological distortions that can arise from worry, anger, or fear. As a result, a psychological distortion can so strain the resources of the body to compensate for its weakness that a biochemical distortion is evoked. Therefore, we must not be fooled into believing that, when we treat a secondary biochemical disorder, we have also healed the distressed psyche. Similarly, when we suppress an irrational behaviour, it does not mean that the person is better. True external manifestations may be subdued by fear, punishment, or drugs. But we can see that the internal distortions still exist. Thus, forced abstinence does not cure the weakness of an addiction. Incarceration does not make an irrational person mend his ways. Behaviour modification by exploration of consequences does not strengthen the weakness that led to an irrational behaviour in the first place.
True management effectiveness must result from an attempt to strengthen both wisdom and courage. This is an education. Traditional concerns directed at reaching success or restoring wellness by suppressing the problem can be self defeating and dangerous. This is because it is based on a presumption that disruption is both undesirable and unnatural. To effect this, we have been taught to focus on what went wrong. As a result, we often steer ourselves down the wrong path. If instead of looking for the cause of the disturbance or imposition, we look for the experience that was not developed or could have been gained, we will have a better handle on what we need.
By approaching life from this position of understanding, (accepting disruption to be the unpredictable norm), we will learn and ultimately demonstrate that disruptions and disturbances within our world are intended to stimulate us. They are not meant to judge and thus reward or punish us. With this understanding, we will accept that these disruptions occur purely as their own independent activities, either responding to our presence or occurring in spite of it. We will accept that our duty is neither to seek stability nor measure our worth by how stable the response of the world is to our presence. We will accept instead that our duty is to embrace change, explore this vast array of activities that constantly arises within our world, and learn from its challenges. A different or painful event will then be seen as an opportunity for our growth, not just a threat to our survival. In fact, the stability we crave, when we think of it, becomes a state of boredom and stagnancy we cannot endure for more than a short retreat. We learn that it is not our duty to form or shape our world to our limitations. Instead, it is to use the challenges from the world to form and shape ourselves to expand our limitations. Change can then become less a threat and more a calling.
For people to learn this and benefit from it, the responsibility falls on those of us who can influence others (as parents or educators, administrators or colleagues, or simply as friends or lovers) to understand this perspective and advocate it in our charges.
Let us learn, therefore, to treat the psychological distortion for what it is – a stress of the psychological integrity caused by external events that are natural but larger than the internal strengths possessed by the individual at that time. Of course, every measure is relative. The event may be unfairly large relative to a highly developed wisdom. Similarly, wisdom may be inappropriate relative to a naturally evolved event, and therefore, relatively small. We cannot provide wisdom to another. People must be directed and encouraged to procure it themselves. We cannot provide courage. The person must be taught how to develop it within the conditions in which they function. It is these challenges that make the process of intervention, not only difficult for the well-intentioned counsellor, but fair game for those with delusions of being able to provide the better answer. In fact, no one can create the ideal solution for another. There are no seven easy answers to being a better manager of any of the pressures, whether from life, business, or relationships. The person must create his/ her own answers. The only help we can give is to guide the person, assuming that they are not chronically disturbed, but simply made unwell by the pressures from an external event they do not have the internal strengths to manage.
First, however, as the person in the more responsible position we must truly understand the nature of chaos. Then we must understand the nature of survival. We must understand that, in a world of chaos and change, survival cannot be the preservation of form. Form and structure are illusions. Survival is the existence of self, and self cannot be a physical entity or else self would also be an illusion. Self, and thus consciousness, must be an entity that is not limited to the particular nature of matter. Thus it must be unattached to but generated in the body. Consciousness is the soul, immortal, indestructible, and designed for growth.
Of course, there are people whose depth of perception is so limited that the development of their conscious capabilities is still rudimentary. They cannot see beyond the crude level. To them survival is the maintenance of structure. They see themselves as bodies with self limited life spans. They see and want only the preservation of form for the periods their limited visions will allow them. As a result, they are content to do little and stay within the safety provided by another person, a state, or a dream. These people can only be invited to grow. Some will accept. Some will resist, content to exist as long as that existence is furnished. Survival, to these people, is passive existence. To expect that they can be made responsible for exploring activities of great import after they had stagnated for much of their lives is as cavalier as it would be to deny insight to those who seek it. To these people, I would say that our focus on providing a form of stability, albeit superficial and short-lived, may be all they can manage. In time, they will slowly evolve to take on more responsibility, but with significant limitations.
In the specific area of management within the home or at work, however, we will not often see this extreme. We usually will be required to relate to people who have accepted the responsibility for exploring change at least in part of their lives, either in distribution or degree. For instance, they may do it in their careers but not in their interpersonal relationships; they may do it in one type of relationship but not in another. They may do it in all areas but only to a certain point. Beyond that point or outside their chosen areas, they are as vulnerable to usual disruptions as would be anyone else. We are aware however, that regardless of how apparently unrelated the unmanaged aspect may be to the conditions we share with them, their inability to manage effectively in any area of life will eventually affect how they manage in other areas. This can be a negative state if we only see how the bad areas can permeate the good. It can, however, be a positive state if we can see how the successful area can be used to infiltrate the unsuccessful one. Therefore, at the level where many of us are called upon to help, we are fortunate to be able to draw on experiences from another part of our protege`s lives to show them how to deal with other undesirable events. It is not irrelevant to explore in apparently unnecessary detail another event a person had already conquered and which gives pleasure now just to get them to explore one that is presently threatening. For example, a detailed discussion on the art of riding a bicycle or reading a book can set the stage for reminding them of how unpleasant these challenges once were and for suggesting that the impositions they resent now could also be experiences that would give pleasure when they begin to accept and explore them.
Thus, intervention aimed at teaching a person to strengthen their true self-esteem does not have as its prerequisite a healthy therapist or a manager programmed with a multitude of applicable solutions. In fact it really does not require a trained professional. It simply requires a person with true self esteem and the courage to nurture the same in the other. This can be a boss as well as an employee. It can be the husband as well as the wife.
The aim is to empower the other to find their own answers, not be their source of inspiration or enlightenment. This does not require long sessions or great brilliance. It requires, however, the belief that our real objective in life is not to form and shape the world but to be formed and shaped by its challenges as growing minds, not fragile bodies. Intervention can then truly reach its objective of modifying behaviour through healing the stressed mind, the generator of all behaviour. Intervention can thus also go the extra step of minimizing future stress by strengthening the internal forces of wisdom and courage through the practice of self accountability and self determination. It is only through a proper understanding of the inevitability and unpredictability of change that we can address ourselves at using our greatest asset, our creativity, to explore new challenges and to keep doing so by truly UNDERSTANDING CHANGE.
Teaching insight as the basis for management makes the contract more difficult for both the mentor and the protege. Nonetheless, it offers true long term success as it empowers the person, not only to overcome the stress of the existing event, but to be able to rise above those that will inevitably arise in the future. The end stage is not the success of the mentor but the evolution of the protege. A mentor must be able, therefore, to refuse credit for success and give that to the protege whenever the opportunity arises. This method is not a technique that can be applied blindly. It is an insight based on a different focus. The focus shows that our purpose is not to survive or conquer – an impossible dream. Instead, it shows that we are here to explore and grow – a realistic objective in a world that exists because of chaos. In our approach to our own responsibilities and those of our charges, therefore, we must not simply look for the failures or stresses that were imposed. We must examine the areas in which we or they are resisting or unwilling to accept the invitation to grow and evolve, and attempt to refocus on grasping that opportunity.
The pursuit of Mental Strength does not aim at relieving emotional pain or simplifying a complex society. Rather, it is directed by the understanding that the world will always change of its own accord. That change is the energy we use to stimulate and develop ourselves.
From this, we may be able to paraphrase the prayer of St. Francis to say, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the me I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”