Around the holidays, it seems both joy and sadness have great potential for becoming amplified in our daily experiences. Surrounded by gifting ideas, lights everywhere, and elven glee, our cultural attention rests on prosperity and community, and understandably so: how could excess cheer possibly be a problem? For people in the throes of excess loneliness, though, personal angst can throw shade on any celebration. Whether caused by recent loss or long-term circumstances, loneliness does not necessarily welcome the holidays and associated revelry. Rather than experience deeper depths, perhaps the soul is best protected with neutrality, avoiding the constant reminders that others seem to possess more company, more support, more whatever human need is not being met. Even for the not-so-lonely, the holiday hubbub might be followed by a letdown period, a temporary dip below the baseline. For all of us, the holidays issue reminders of reality, whether by soft whisper or blunt nudge. Excess food and drink might inspire lifestyle changes. Friction with family is evidence of unconditional (albeit irritating) love. A fun New Year’s vacation is immediately followed by the regular workday drudgery in early January.
And for some, the sense of serious isolation is reaffirmed. Emotional isolation and loneliness can bring on despair, juxtaposed by the season of light, where pleasant feelings are paramount. This is a time of love, gratitude and joy. We might feel hope for the future, a resonance in fellowship for a more peaceful world — inherently good things.
In her essay “Abandon Hope”, Pema Chödron writes that “hope and fear is a feeling with two sides”, where these are like two sides of the same coin (The Pocket Pema Chödron, Shambhala 2008). The potential problem: a sense of hope having a basis in lack is always looking for a change, something to improve, thereby keeping us out of the present moment. Hope without a clear acceptance of reality sours the intentional spirit of positive change. To release hope is positive action, assuring our awareness stays in the now. When I first shared this idea with yoga students, I had trouble understanding why a sense of hope would not always be a good thing. Isn’t hope all about a warm, fuzzy light overcoming the darkness of despair?
Subtly, hope carries a risk of staying in the future, thereby avoiding the present. As for excessive wallowing in the past after a difficult lesson, clinging to hope in the spirit of fear or denial is like wallowing in the future. This is the source of elusive “thoughts and prayers”, the hope often accompanied by inaction. Many of us have grown weary of this generously stated phrase after mass shootings, even if wishing solace for victims and their families is inherently kind and appropriate. With no intention towards meaningful action to prevent violence, “thoughts and prayers” becomes a hollow sentiment. Finding balance in hope is about having just enough to stay rooted in reality, without losing the present moment perspective.
The various imperfections in our lives are completely mirrored in nature. Examples include random errors in DNA replication and flaws in crystals, both spontaneous processes occurring without cause, their rates dictated purely by probability. More broadly, the entire universe has a tendency towards higher disorder, or entropy, and crystal flaws are one microcosmic example of nature leaning towards disorder. Crystals are highly regular arrangements of atoms—and they are mostly perfect in the sense that their positions are very, very regular, like each atom or ion has a designated row house. The gemstone sapphire is a form of aluminum oxide (corundum, or α-Al2O3), containing a few other trace ions responsible for its color. There are many types of flaws in crystals: the point defects of missing or displaced atoms are examples of crystal imperfection. A sapphire phone screen has a bunch of ions missing. The amounts vary depending on synthesis temperature and substance, but at around the melting point of sapphire (2040 °C or ≈3600 °F), where a crystal could be grown, about one in a million ions are missing or misplaced off their atomic real estate. When the crystal cools, the defects are frozen in place (and yet, the screen is not defective!). The amounts are so tiny that the structure itself is not disturbed, the scratch resistance, transparency and capacitance of the screen unaffected. A million Al2O3 formula units would fit in a cube with a 35-nanometer edge, or about 100 aluminum and oxide ions, and there are about 100,000 trillion cubes in a phone screen. This is like a single missing brick in a solid wall the size of a garden patio (say 30 x 30 sq. ft), about 3 stories high. One brick missing in a million is no big deal. Like the stability of the crystal structure, this defect doesn’t become a structural problem until many more bricks are missing.
That missing brick (or atom) creates entropy. All matter in the universe has entropy, and entropy is always positive (always), and can never be zero (never). The lowest entropies are held by defect-free single crystals approaching the temperature of absolute zero (-273 °C, or -460 °F). The colder the crystal, the lower the entropy. Further, the third law of thermodynamics says we can’t ever reach absolute zero, where entropy is goose egg, zilch, zero.
For that giant brick wall, where can the missing brick be? Any one of a million spots. Those many possible configurations, after a simple formula, become the Boltzmann definition of entropy. The same entropy exists with the single missing atom or ion. For a million atoms in a crystal, a single missing atom means a million possibilities for that vacancy. Missing 2 atoms? There are even more configurations, which grow according to probability theory and great big huge numbers: a million squared, essentially. These large numbers of possibilities generate entropy.
How might our understanding of entropy relate to hope? Entropy is impossible to avoid in nature, since zero temperature is theoretically out of reach. So, even in the depths of sadness, there’s always some “disorder towards better” in the tortured soul. In a state of despair, hope is the very thing that saves us. It is “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” (Emily Dickinson) Hope is Dickinson’s fluttering bird, that little bit of entropy in an otherwise fixed, dark space. Even in the lowest of our lows, we wake up to another day, and something – an elusive internal pilot light – is carrying us forward, ready to be lit with the fire of better days. The biological imperative towards survival is totally at play, always. Challenges merely test us, and all bets are on entropy, the forever winner in life’s thermodynamic hand. As in our consciousness, the future sits with vast possibility and outcome before collapsing into the present. That something enabling us to move forward, even with great weight and minimal aspiration, is hope, our entropic “lean-in” to the universal tendency : it “never stops at all”.
With despair, in contrast, what do we have? A single possibility, loaded with mistaken ideas that things will never change, everything is permanent, fixed, with no space for creation of entropy. With only one possibility, entropy is zero. In this dark space, there is a lot of must and should, always and never. However, zero entropy is an unphysical concept, and therefore not applicable to humans as physical beings. Therefore, despair itself, in that it might make us think there are no options, is an illusion. The hope taking us out of these depths is entirely in the present moment and most certainly accompanied by fear and anxiety, as Chödron writes. This is a deeply personal hope nestled closely to our own life force.
As the major events of life might bring out both our best and worst, on a daily basis we are creatures of nature, meant to obey the laws of physics as much as all other matter. Consciousness is included as much as our physical bodies as thermodynamic engines. It is not truly possible for us to drop to the zero entropy of static despair; even in those lows, something else carries us, promising that everything in this life is transient. What doesn’t change is our inner light, our identity outside of all the impermanence.
Constantly moving, we walk through the life timeline as a series of smaller pathways within the broader journey. Each step is a moment, with unavoidable change defined by the permanent link to time. All matter in the universe is locked into two things: physical form and the arrow of time.
As humans, we are stuck with our body vessels and have no choice but to move forward in time. And yet, so many other choices! Breakfast food. Running in the park. Meditation. Turn signals. Petting the dog. Compassion for naughty kids. Prayer. The universe offers plenty of options in the buffet.
For the life journey, there are as many metaphors as there are paths: the long walk along the fractal-like shoreline, the short and strenuous stint up the mountain, slow meanderings through a dense forest. Narrowing down these visualization to circular paths, to travel from the outside to the inside, these journeys have at least three possibilities the maze, labyrinth and spiral.
My first and most recent labyrinth experiences were at churches. At Castleton Hill Moravian, in the courtyard near bustling Victory Boulevard in Staten Island, the paver labyrinth is next to the children’s playground and peace pole. The Grove, in contrast, chose nature as its setting with an all-grass design, tucked a bit away from the main sanctuary and busy East W.T. Harris Boulevard in Hickory Grove. I’ve encountered many labyrinths in between at yoga and retreat centers, and all have one thing in common: a single, fixed journey with lots of turns. If all of life is a big conglomerate of past events, where what’s done is done, the labyrinth asks us to acknowledge that our total life journey will be ultimately fixed, given enough future. The present, however, is indubitably affected by our choices. And, though it might not feel that way, life is generally multiple choice.
Think about it: all the things we feel are required. Here are a few:
I must walk the dog. No: you choose to walk the dog because it’s good for the dog, your relationship to the dog, and the carpet.
I have to finish my degree. No: you choose to finish because of your intention to be a professional in discipline X.
I have to use turn signals. No: you choose this because it’s lawful and courteous. You choose not to be a jerk.
In the words of Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, “What man needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task”. This applies as much to the mundane chores as the existential threats. In the end, all possible outcomes, like the quantum states of small things like atoms, collapse into a single timeline of things happening, one after the other. All we do is to mind each microstep.
What about the maze? Is this path a fairer reflection of life? Maybe. We know some of the turns lead to dead ends, forcing us to turn around and begin gathering geographic data. Which way will you go? The path of scuttling, lack of clarity or direction, randomly chosen right or left turns, going backwards all the time, and then having to memorize the goddamned map? The maze is a problem to solve; perhaps we’re privileged with tools like a compass and pen/paper. But is life an unknown landscape ready to be solved like a puzzle?
The future is unknown, yes, but life goes by whether or not we’re in full problem-solving mode. Our attitude governs the management of the maze. In contrast, the labyrinth path is one foot in front of the other…oh, here’s a nice long arc!…dang this tight turn…another arc but not as long…switch directions…in essence, go where the path takes you because no decision is truly “wrong”.
The two journeys of maze and labyrinth mirror ego vs. non-ego paths. Those are the two ways to be in this life. Which will you choose? The conflicted, reactionary path, or the receptive path of intention and trust? If you’re wondering where the “gray area” lies in this labyrinth/maze binary, there is none. If you design a labyrinth and purposely introduce dead ends, what do you have? Just another maze. If, instead, you’re able to navigate a maze completely chill, kudos: you’ve converted it to a labyrinth. You either choose the path of conflict, or the path of peace. Every single choice comes down to that. Even choices considered neutral are inherently peaceful. Paraphrasing Sri Swami Satchidananda of Yogaville: since peace is our intrinsic state, a thing can either disturb peace, or not disturb peace. That is all.
Zooming out to the universe from our daily micro-choices, let’s now talk about thermodynamics. In terms of the two universal elements of energy and entropy (randomness, chaos or disorder), the maze is high energy and high entropy, where we’re scuttling about, stressed out, yearning to solve the puzzle. The labyrinth, though, is low energy and high entropy, where our journey still has plenty of turns, but we’re significantly less frazzled. The tendency for the universe, at all times, is to keep energy low, while maximizing entropy. Thus, adopting the labyrinthine attitude happens to go with the flow of the universe. In other words, by endeavoring towards a peaceful path, we’re aligning with the universe as creatures of nature.
Of course, there’s another way to get to the center of a circle: by spiral, a neat and tidy path. While low in energy, this path has extremely low entropy in terms of thermodynamics, and thus not so applicable to life. Even so, the shape of the spiral has its symbolic place in any practice asking us to channel our thought into a single prayer, mantra, or focus on breath. Taking the consciousness back to presence brings it into the singularity of the now, without the clutter of future and past. Subjects of the future or past are numerous, and layered with possibilities, analytical energy, overlap and complexity – and, indeed, pondering these can be a rich practice in practicality, valuable lessons and artistic ventures. In other words, we should still be learning lessons from the past while we thoughtfully plan for the future. However, in everyday living, these pieces should be considered sparingly if the intention is to stay in the present moment.
Life may feel like an insufferable maze. But if you zoom out, you can see the labyrinth. And channeling the spiral every once in a while clears the mind.
Circles are awesome.
Maria Gelabert, Ph.D.
Science and Mindfulness