Everything is a Mix of Chaos and Order

Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.
8 min readOct 25, 2022

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CHAOS AND ORDER: THE FUNDAMENTAL BUILDING BLOCKS

Everything is a mixture of chaos and order.

Understanding this has changed the way I view everything: how the body and mind work, the evolution of species, the ways that societies either collapse or continue, the ingredients for success in business and sport, and the process of spiritual growth. In this blog post I will outline the relationship between chaos and order and describe its manifestation in multiple domains of life. I believe this framework is crucial to understanding the problems, and potential solutions, to the issues of the world today.

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YIN AND YANG

You’re probably familiar with the Yin-Yang symbol. We see it everywhere, from keychains and knick-knacks, to wall posters, to that guy Steve in yoga class who has the symbol tattooed on the back of his shoulder (very cool, Steve).

The Taoist Ying-Yang symbol fundamentally represents the balance between order and chaos. The white swirl (with the little black dot) represents order. The black swirl (with the little white dot) represents chaos. What do we mean by order and chaos?

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Order is doing. It is the realm of the known. It is effort. It is being orderly and organized. It is having a plan and adhering to it. Order is rules. It is carrying on tradition. It is not breaking or bending the status quo.

Chaos is order’s twin opposite. Chaos is non-doing. It is not-knowing. It is breaking with tradition. It is breaking down. It is creativity. It is trusting. Chaos is intuition over intellect. It is the source of all that is new; chaos is allowing death, so that something newer and more beautiful can be reborn.

The balance between order and chaos, the two primordial forces of the universe, is key to the survival of any system — whether a group of cells, an individual body, an organization, a political group, or an ecosystem.

When these forces are out of balance, we experience symptoms.

On an individual level, too much order exists when we are rigid and unable to adapt our routines, relationships, work, or other behaviors; we must allow newness (chaos) to come in when things are no longer working to continue adapting/evolving/growing (this functions as a feedback mechanism from the universe). Too much order is present when we have to know everything, or control everything, as in the case of anxiety (more on this later).

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Too much order is present in societies that rely too heavily on control and suppression, or cannot adapt their political systems over time (thereby becoming rigid and subject to breakdown). This rigidity is represented by the Old King archetype: the masculine, all-knowing, all-powerful person (or system) that cannot adapt and is bound to be overthrown and replaced with something new.

We’ve seen this throughout history and even today: too much control and suppression works for a period of time. But eventually chaos must come in, and the pathological abundance of Order will be replaced with something new. Historians of ancient societies have shown that one of the predictors of a society’s collapse is its inability to adapt its laws and norms. Too much order guarantees the emergence of chaos to balance it out.

What happens too much chaos is present? On an individual level, too much chaos manifests as disorganization. It can manifest as addiction. Too much chaos exists when we don’t approach our days with intention; intention sets the order for the day. We are in chaos when we feel lost. We are in chaos when we don’t have values to anchor in our behaviors and we feel like we’re “just wandering.” Chaos shows up when we don’t have those tough conversations in our relationships which we know will help set things straight. Chaos is not necessarily a “bad” thing; an abundance of chaos means that new order is bound to come into our life.

On a societal level, chaos exists when governments or leaders are overthrown or replaced. It shows up when new ideas are introduced into science, or the economic system, or the way we take care of the planet — these ideas dent, and twist, and dissolve the preexisting order but ultimately in the service of something new, and better, emerging.

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ORDER, CHAOS, AND MENTAL HEALTH

We each juggle the balance between chaos and order in our everyday lives. Some of us live with too much chaos, while others live with too much rrder. We typically end up falling on one side of the spectrum or the other. It’s difficult to walk the line between order and chaos. It’s difficult to walk the Middle Way. Where do you think you fall on the continuum of order and chaos?

I think that those of us who tend to be more anxious fall on the side of too much order (I include myself in this category). I generally think that the “internalizing” disorders in clinical psychology — things like anxiety (e.g., OCD, or social anxiety, panic disorder), depression, and eating disorders — stem from too much internal order. On the other hand, “externalizing” disorders — anger or impulse problems, substance use disorders, ADHD — stem from too much internal chaos. Along similar lines, I would say that introverts suffer from too much order, while extroverts suffer from too much chaos. This is likely a generalization but might provide a useful framework to determine where one stands on the spectrum of internal order/chaos.

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DANCING ON THE EDGE OF CHAOS AND ORDER

I believe the person that can walk the thin line — who can DANCE and PLAY on the edge of order and chaos — is the person who is, as the kids say, “living their best life.” In other words, the person who can balance order and chaos maintains an optimal state of psychological health and, in many cases, is the individual best suited to survive and thrive in a challenging world. Evolutionarily speaking, the individuals and species that best balanced chaos and order were the ones that evolved.

Balancing order and chaos is part of our task, or calling, and for this reason we are IN AWE every time we see it executed. The things that we value most exemplify the genius and beauty of balancing chaos and order. Let me provide a few examples.

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I am a big basketball fan. As I’ve begun noticing how this reality permeates everything in the world, I’ve started noticing it in basketball games (really, this can be applied to any sport or performance). Chaos and order are present on the court in every game. From a broader standpoint, teams have to come in with a game plan. They come in with some order — something they plan to do. Oftentimes the team with the best game plan wins. But many times, that’s not the case. Teams must be able to adapt their game plan throughout the game; they cannot be too rigid, or else they’ll fail to respond to the other team and will most likely will lose. Teams that are able to both have a game plan, and constantly either get rid of that game plan or adapt it as the game goes on, are most likely to win.

Chaos and order are present in every micro moment of the game. The players don’t know what’s going to happen each time down the court; they don’t even know what is going to happen in the next second. Players that have a rigid plan (“OK, I’m going do this this time down the court”) — might be successful here and there, but on the whole, they are not the ones that shine over the course of the game. Players that respond to each situation, moment by moment, are the ones we watch with awe. They bring order into their game with all the skill they have been acquiring outside the game — everything they’ve done to practice for this moment. Yet, it is a mix between skill and the ability to be completely present — and flexible in each and every moment — that dictates one’s performance under the spotlight.

This is what we look up to. When we see this, we are in awe because we want the same thing. Somewhere deep in our psyche we also aspire to walk this tightrope in our own lives.

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Any performance resembles this balancing act. When watching someone speak, for example, we much prefer they don’t read off a script; we want to see someone contending with the chaos and creativity of the moment. At the same time, we’d like it if they were thoroughly prepared; we don’t want someone showing up without any planning or prior experience. This is what makes a successful standup comic: the best comics have polished their material over and over again, yet are still engaged and adapting to the crowd.

The same thing happens in improv comedy. The most entertaining scenes are a perfect balance between order and chaos. At the beginning of a scene, the audience gives a suggestion; they give boundaries (order) to what will come in the ensuing moments. This allows chaos to occur within specified boundaries. The performers can then “play” within those boundaries, being graced by the gods of creativity and “not-knowing.”

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This is really a metaphor for how we can live our lives. We must have ideas, plans, and values to give our life direction (order). Yet we must also be flexible to whatever life gives back to us (chaos). We must adapt ideas about ourselves, others, and the world, such that we can continue re-building new order. Each time a system is met with chaos is an opportunity to reorganize itself into something more functional. This is true at both the individual and collective level.

Walking the line between order and chaos is The Middle Way. I think it’s relevant to our mental health, to our spiritual growth, and also to the world. The collective organism, just like the individual, is trying to grow and evolve. It, too, must walk The Middle Way to survive and thrive. Can we see the chaos of the world as a gift? Can we use our wisdom to turn these gifts into a more beautiful world?

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Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist. Clinical Assistant Professor @ USC. Founder/CEO of The Middle Way. Writing at the intersection of psychology, spirituality, and society.