Chaos Consciousness

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Chaotic Consciousness

Chaos Consciousness in Psychotherapy: An Experienial Approach to Healing & Creativity

by Iona Miller & Graywolf Fred Swinney, M.A.

Asklepia Foundation, Grants Pass, Oregon

Prepared for the Proceedings of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology.  Presented at Saybrook Institute, Summer, 1991.

ABSTRACT:  Experiential therapy sessions and mysticism demonstrate that as we journey deeper and deeper into the psyche we eventually encounter a state characterized either as "chaotic" or void of images.  In a therapeutic context, chaos is experienced as a consciousness state--the ground state.  This state is related to healing, dreams, and creativity.  Shamanic approaches to healing involve co-consciousness states which lead to restructuring both physical and emotional-mental senses of self.

Dreams, creativity, and healing arise from this undifferentiated "chaotic consciousness."  Dreamhealing uses images as portals for consciousness journeys to facilitate transformations ranging from mood alteration to profound physiological changes.  Imagery (virtual experience) affects the immune system, activating psychosomatic forces, such as the placebo effect.  Chaos-oriented consciousness journeys suggest these states reflect complex phase space, fractal patterns, strange attractors, "the butterfly effect," sensitivity, complex feedback loops, intermittency, and other general dynamical aspects suggested by chaos theory.  More than an experiential process, this is a philosophy of treatment--"Chaosophy."


"I'm just asking you to hear yourself.  Listen to what you're really saying and to what you think you're saying.  Control, control, control.  When are you going to realize that nothing can be controlled?"

"We live in chaos; it's the central issue in everyone's life.  Mack, look around you.  Everyone in this parking lot is struggling for control.  And you know what it is they're trying to control, each and everyone of them?  Fear--they're trying to control their fear."

                                           --Steve Martin character in the film, GRAND CANYON

Creative Chaos

We all instantly recognize the fundamental nature of chaos in our lives.  The archetypal creation myth posits that all originates in Chaos.  We all "get it," intuitively.  But generally we are enculturated to fear chaos, to hold it at bay through so-called "control."  Chaos is a very personal experience.  We relate to it viscerally as well as emotionally and intellectually.  When chaos intrudes on our lives, we feel pain, and defend against that pain with fear, rather than embracing the chaotic dynamic.

In psychology, we have had the idea that we need a "strong ego," that we need a stable structure in order to function and cope.  But nothing exists in complete order or complete randomness.  We live in a chaotic universe.  When we are "far from equilibrium" change becomes inevitable.  Like a bifurcation point in chaos theory, the old system either falls apart or emerges with a higher degree of order.  Our bifurcations state changes are personal crossroads, decision points, initiated by perturbations of our systems.

Chaos theory applied to experiential psychotherapy shows us we actually need to cooperate with chaotic dynamics, to enter a less-rigid process of flow, submitting outworn aspects of the ego to dissolution, which increases our adaptability, helping us evolve.

The phase space of non-linear dynamics is analogous to psychic space--our psychophysical construct of our experience of reality.  This complex inner landscape can be mapped and has all the features of phase space: stability, chaos, bifurcation points, and catastrophic changes.

This virtual reality is the world of virtual experience.  The landscape of information is richly structured with attractor basins, valleys, and mountains with peaks, saddles, and passes.  And it is also hyperdimensional containing a vast amount of implicate or enfolded information.

This landscape (self-scape) can be explored with experiential psychotherapy by faithfully sticking to the imagery emerging from the autonomous imaginal flow.  It is a dynamic "ocean of active information" in wave form, with which we can commune, transcending conventional boundaries.  The inner journey is one of movement without motion--stretching and folding spacetime.

Imagination is the voice of creativity.  It is the primary way we experience soul.  Creativity expressed in imagination means experiencing multiple states of consciousness.  There is an infinity of realities and states of consciousness.  Imagination embodies it's own reality.  It is self-revelatory.  Meaning dwells in the image like consciousness dwells in the body.

We are learning from chaos theory that physically and mentally we need chaotic disorder to function smoothly.  Dipping into that disorder shakes everything loose and allows creative restructuring to occur.  Self-organizing systems, both organic and inorganic, naturally evolve toward the "edge of chaos."  Many natural systems develop their own dynamic stabilities.  Dynamic stability applies to development in chaos theory, and research shows that living systems are naturally self-correcting.

Strength is a measure of what force it takes to destroy or break a rigid structure.  True power, on the other hand, is a measure of readily-available energy for immediate use.  Strength is rigid, while power is flowing.  Empowerment flows forth naturally when we come into intimate therapeutic contact with our stream of consciousness.  This stream is most easily observed as our dreams, and manifests in our symptoms.

Water is a natural metaphor of consciousness.  The turbulent stream of consciousness flows through the labyrinth of the psyche.  It is the source of dis-ease and our healing as indicated by its importance in the cult of Asklepios, the god of dreams and healing.  In Greece, the springs of his shrine were channeled into circular labyrinths, forming a concrete metaphor of the healing process.  Healing "springs" from deep within.  However, first the old rigid images must be dissolved, and the "universal solvent" is chaos.

Dreams bridge the gap between the spiritual and scientific worldviews.  Most would agree that dreams are a truly chaotic phenomenon.  Object of scientific inquiry and healing tool of the psychotherapist, they are firmly entrenched in the scientific worldview, although on the fringe. On the mystical side, most religions teach that God, or the nature of the transpersonal Source is revealed through dreams and visionary experience.

Chaos theory provides a comprehensive metaphor for uniting physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realities.  Supreme insights are always metaphorical in expression. But the relationship of chaos and psychotherapeutic effects may be more than metaphorical and subjective.  The empirical connection may lie in the mystery of the true nature of consciousness and creativity.


One of the authors, Graywolf, discovered a way to journey and guide others into the deepest layers of the psyche while practicing Gestalt dreamwork and shamanism.  Therapy at its very best is a matter of changing consciousness and so is shamanism.  In dream guiding, all the action lies in going just beyond the boundary from the known and comfortable toward the fear and challenge.

Following the images below the ego deeper into more fundamental consciousness states, he found that clients could easily be guided to the level of chaotic consciousness with therapeutic results.  Mapping these levels below behavior, emotional-mental process, belief systems, and mythic zones of imagery, he refined the technique and directions for guidance.

This process (Dreamhealing or Creative Consciousness Process) was not originally based on chaos theory, but observed directly in working with dreams, symptoms, feelings, and healing.  The theory came later as an analogy for describing the observations.  But chaotic dynamics may be the actual mechanism of its action, rather than merely a metaphor of the transformative process, as were the hydraulic and cybernetic models.

Dreamhealing is not an interpretive or analytical way of understanding a dream, but is a non-linear consciousnesness journey into its healing heart.  Dreamhealing  is not guided imagery.  The guide follows the autonomous flow of psychic imagery, while guiding the focus to deeper, more primal imagery.  Then letting go of  that form, and entering a yet deeper one, much like entering deeper into a fractal image to find yet deeper images.

In dreamhealing one "becomes" the image which leads to sensing, identifying, empathizing with the essence of a color, shape, form, or pattern--then letting go of form.  It is a process of initiation--becoming, sharing, feeling, releasing, yielding, accepting, deepening, intensifying, surrendering, healing, and integrating.

Everything in the dreamtime occurs in the present tense--it is happening.  But it is linked in a non-linear fashion--through association--with the past and the future.  Becoming the image creates the experience of a new state of consciousness, new sensations, awarenesses, feelings, visceral and kinesthetic reactions, responses, acceptances.

Dreams are chaotic by nature and so is much of shamanic practice.  Both evoke the irrational, and of all the healing modalities, these two reflect chaos theory.  The forte of shamans is the dream journey or consciousness journey, based on the assumed ability to experience multiple consciousness states other than ordinary consensus reality.

The shaman/therapist acts as guide by entering a co-consciousness state or shared experience with the journeyer.  This virtual experience has the ability to create natural consequences or results in real-time.  The experience of multiple states of consciousness leads away from egocentricity toward a biocentric perspective.  A larger sense of participation counteracts existential alienation.

Small changes in initial conditions (sensitivity) are pumped-up into larger changes, via the "butterfly effect."  There is a complementary notion in psychotherapy that one traumatic event can shape a life, and a therapeutic event or experience can re-shape it.  Small changes can make phenomenal differences in outcome.

A dream is a stream of chaos, a river of turbulent, undifferentiated consciousness and creativity, flowing through the self-scape of the psyche.  It is shaped by the frozen states and complex feedback loops of consciousness, the existential images and patterns that define and mold the self and the reality of our perceptions.  When it finally emerges into awareness, the images and plots that are presented to our almost-waking self are reflections of these states.  They are another way of seeing the self and the reality we create that is less prejudiced by the ego.

The dream is also much like a hologram.  The passage of the consciousness stream through the psyche, and its encounter with the frozen consciousness states, causes ripples and patterns that create images of the deeper self that formed them.  Like a hologram or fractal, the whole is contained and re-iterated within any part of the dream, though details may be fuzzy.

Our primal existential image of who and what we are begins with conception (universal, undifferentiated consciousness) and is conditioned by our internal and external experiences.   But, of course, not all disease originates here.  Trauma at any point can trigger a disruption in the primal self image, setting the "butterfly effect" in motion as the consequences of that trauma permeate the life.  There may be multiple, or re-iterated trauma.  This deep existential image contains the essence of our dis-ease.

Chaos permeates our existence from the sub-atomic to universal level, and we react to it with fear and pain.  The primal image is revealed in the ongoing process of imagery:  dreams, visions, visceral reactions, symptoms, feelings, beliefs, and behavior.  Dreams are shaped by these existential images much as they also shape our lives and destinies.

Chaos Consciousness

During consciousness journeys, participants report encountering a place, after moving through the fears and pains, that is totally disorienting, chaotic.  They, for example, enter into a gray cloud, and becoming that cloud the mind goes totally blank.  Or they enter into a spiral, and giving over to the motion of that spiral, they become so totally disoriented that there is nothing to hang onto.

This experience is what we call "chaotic consciousness," observed within the therapeutic context--undifferentiated, or universal consciousness.  It is virtually a place of "all and no structure," a no-boundaries condition, pure potential, the source of creativity.  It appears paradoxically as a plenum or a void.  The plenum represents hyperarousal; the void hypoarousal.  Direct experience of the transpersonal means going back below the ego, into this infinite place, back into this basic formless consciousness--the void or chaos of pre-existence.

Chaotic consciousness is the crucible of our creative spirit.  Creativity emerges from chaos.  This negentropic, or syntropic principle is the matrix of evolution.  Infinite process is constantly creating itself and destroying itself at all levels.  Nature repeats herself at all levels of organization, and whatever it is we are that.

Dreams reflect this self-generating, self-iterating and self-organization of patterns, and so does the natural philosophy emerging from the New Sciences.  This deterministic philosophy incorporates the human condition, rather than vilifying or pushing it away.  Chaos helps us feel our way through a complex, unstable world.

Like the supercritical state of chaotic dynamics, "chaotic consciousness" may be characterized as dynamic, non-linear, paradoxical, self-generating, self-iterating, and self-organizing.  It could be likened to an infinite complex of manifolds potentially enfolding infinite information--vortices within vortices within vortices--exploding limitless detail.

There is an essential relationship between healing and irrational consciousness.  Irrational consciousness "works" the cure.  Somehow that chaotic consciousness, the giving up of the old order, the letting go of the old structure to chaos changes things fundamentally.  The next set of imagery emerging out of that chaotic consciousness is always a healing one.  So chaos, as the matrix of transformation, seems vitally important at the existential level.

The process of creativity is one of new forms emerging from the void, new forms that have not existed previously.  Not merely a juggling of existing forms or ideas into a new configuration, it is more of a quantum leap, a disruption of the old perception into new levels of consciousness and awareness.  Chaos theory provides an apt metaphor for this process.  In a nutshell, chaos theory states that in all apparent structure is hidden chaos and in chaos there are hidden forms.

We exist in a twilight zone between chaos and order.  We flow back and forth between them and that keeps us healthy.  Consciousness always strives to take on form.  We build a structure and it begins to develop flaws and rigidities.  Our illness comes when we hang onto that worn-out structure.  But when we let go, we let ourselves flow back into that primal chaos and into total freedom.  It is like a heart that periodically develops a chaotic beating pattern to renew itself.  We seem to need that within our consciousness, too.

What's New with My Subject?


The Transformative Process

Consciousness, creativity, healing, dreaming, and chaos are fundamental to the human condition.  They are crucial to our health and ability to move through life.  Creativity is also evolution.  Dis-ease may be seen as a crisis that forces the organism to expand beyond its limits and evolve.  It is part of the evolutionary action of natural selection.

Current research shows that dreams reflect an individual's strategy for survival.  Those who adapt, survive.  Those who adapt better, thrive.  Much of this has to do with our states of consciousness, which lead to creative choice-making.  All of a sudden we are free, we are flowing again, and that is the natural condition of health.

Disease, as a crisis, presents the organism with the opportunity to dissolve the old structure and evolve into a new one better adapted to survival.  Evolving into a new form, the process of recreating oneself, makes a difference in our view of the disease process.  There is no heroic search for a cure, or compulsion to "get rid of" symptoms.  The focus of transformation goes to the deepest level.

The implication is that form and rigidity need to periodically give way to non-structure and chaos for renewal and recreation.  Much as the "dance of Shiva" destroys the existing forms so that new reality can be created, we can foster the disintegration of outworn images of ourselves, even those seemingly "hard-wired" into our perceptual system.

The process creates a new primal self image, a new attractor as the core of the organism.  In chaos theory, when an attractor disappears due to sudden catastrophic change, the system becomes structureless and experiences a term of "transient chaos" before another attractor is found.  Order emerges spontaneously from chaos, and tends to degenerate into chaos when forms are obsolete.  Creative Consciousness Process follows nature's lead by amplifying and intensifying the movement toward chaos, rather than heroically defending against it.

But letting go of the old forms is frightening.  We identify with them, and to a large degree define our sense of the self by them.  To forsake them is to dissolve that part of self, to let it die.  Most of us are only comfortable in the known territory within the limits of our belief systems, which define our reality and existence.  The creative solution often exposes the limits of our beliefs by moving beyond them, thrusting us into unknown territory, which is frightening.

Typically, we try to hang on to the old limits even if it means we are destroyed or have to hang on to our problem rather than letting go to move into a broader awareness and reality.  We mark the boundaries of our belief systems with fear and discomfort to keep ourselves safe and enclosed.

To journey into undifferentiated chaos we need to go through the fear which surrounds the pain, then through and beyond the pain to the healing core.  This profound and creative state of consciousness provides our form and the core of our being.  Here, we create our healing from within.  We experience first-hand that personal power (empowerment) arises from within.

To transform we must break free and let go of the cocoon of fear and pain which has kept us prisoner of our own device.  We must pass through the discomfort and confusion and let go of what we know and are comfortable with.  We must make a quantum leap in consciousness beyond the known into chaos--into the void, like The Fool in the Tarot.

Chaos is inherent in our being and structure just as science has shown.  We've always known it intuitively, but the ego seeks to deny it by heroically, one-sidedly adhering to the principles of order and light.  Only by entering the dark, by entering chaos, yielding to it, do we allow newly evolved form to come into being--to arise spontaneously, yet deterministically, out of chaos.  It is a journey through fear to a Way in which each moment is an act of personal creation and freedom.

The primal self-image functions like an attractor.  It forms based on the organism's interaction with the "Not-I" or environment.  Under conditions which could be characterized as "far from equilibrium" this image may suddenly dissolve (bifurcation), leading to confusion, disorientation and fragmentation of the personality.

The same process, facilitated (rather than defended against) in therapy can lead through the confusion and ego death to healing, renewal, and rebirth.  The new self image is better adapted to current reality.  In chaos, the search for information is open and novel solutions emerge.

We are attractor-centered, whether we conceive of that primal attractor as divinity, the higher self, the core self, the Jungian self, the Gestalt self, or that deepest sense of self--our primal self image (including its unconscious aspects).  Its pattern appears in all the sensory and extrasensory modalities.  The attractor embodies the long-term qualitative behavior of a system.

As an attractor, it contains an infinite complex of potential forms and images which are unfolded over time in unpredictable yet characteristic ways.  The personality "revolves" around its strange attractor until a bifurcation occurs and another stable center is found.  It might be conceived as a new existential myth, or a different dominant archetype.  It is a dynamic multi-sensory image that is not different from our very essence--from ourselves.

By entering into chaotic consciousness new forms arise organically out of chaos.  Consciousness is reborn after its sojourn in the underworld of the deep psyche.  The "lost soul" is found and retrieved through the shamanic journey in the dreamtime.  In embracing chaos, we tune in to its self-directing flow.

In dreamhealing we move deeper into the images, becoming them, rather than interacting or interpreting them.  So too with other states of consciousness we encounter.  As long as the image is followed back faithfully, the connection can be made from any feeling, symptom, or dream image, old or new.  In dealing with illness there is always a specific image that underlies the ailment.  That is what to look for when guiding a dream journey.


In each dream journey we encounter a state of consciousness that is personal experience of primal chaos.  The disorienting, dizzying surrender to the tornado or whirlpool is a surrender to chaos, an experience of no-form and total confusion and disorientation.  It is like the whirling, twisting molecule of water in the chaotic world of non-laminar flow.

The experience of committing oneself to the fire and becoming it, and as the random flickering of the flames, and the torrid heat, disintegrating into pure energy.  Becoming the boiling, flowing every-changing body of molten magma at the core of the earth is felt as a visceral sensation.  These are some of the personal, subjective responses to the experience of total chaos.

The closer one is to the chaos consciousness field, the more undifferentiated the imagery is.  Archetypal states define its borders.  Visual images dissolve into impressionistic colors, visceral sensations, intuitive perceptions, vague awareness, and often culminate in total blankness or lack of any form, or an overwhelmingness of sensation.  There may be grayness or cloudiness, and paradoxical sensations of falling or falling-floating within vast emptiness.

Another perception is characterized as a spiral or vortex.  It exerts a magnetic draw on the journeyer who is drawn into it.  Sensations of spinning and being drawn deeper often cause intense dizziness and disorientation.  There may be feelings of flying apart--dismemberment in the centrifugal forces of the vortex.  Dissolution might, for example, be experienced as a deep red which leads into a magma-like flowing sensation in which intense heat melts the journeyer.

The imagery tends on one side to zero, and on the other, infinity, like the paradoxical concept of the plenum which is also a void.  It appears void because it contains a vast amount of undifferentiated information which is chaotic and overwhelms the senses.  It is invisible because it is not-yet-visible.  Reaching this state, one has the sense of transformative forces at work--a feeling of almost palpable relief.

The sense of peacefulness and security is the essence of the journey itself and what the guide brings to it.  Many other aspects of this "whole brain" state have been described, such as feelings of dimensionlessness, timelessness, and boundarylessness.  It has also been called cosmic consciousness.

Many sensations are involved, such as the experience of bubbles or effervescence and tingling in the body, often at the site of a symptom.  It may be specific or generalized.  It may be expressed as a new primal image that is seen, heard, or perceived in a deeply felt way.  Healing manifests as a new emergent order--the implicate becomes explicate as a new perception of self and one's relationship to the whole, of essence to source.

Evolution in consciousness comes with a quantum shift in awareness.  That quantum shift occurs during the period in which the evolving structure is in chaos.  So if one is in a dreamhealing process, experiencing for example, the multiple consciousness of the Earth Mother as decay, one may follow that to the point of total disintegration.

Since one is identified with that state of consciousness at the time, personal awareness dives down into the chaos, journeying to the most fundamental, primitive or primal condition--the ground state of being.  Here a shift is possible as consciousness is totally de-structured, non-linear, yet dynamic, and Here we are simultaneously everything and nothing.  We are not separate from the universe: both science (holism, holography, new physics, philosophy) and mystics (shamans, saints, and gurus) tell us so.  The whole is reflected in the part and the part is seamlessly unified with the whole.  Chaos theory is the result of unitary, iterative processes.  Chaotic systems exhibit holistic behavior.

"Solve et Coagula"

As we watch the cycles of nature, we observe that things go into life and death, and rebirth, as energy changes form.  If this is happening all around us, what is to make us think we are any different than that?

We are part of nature, unlike the "civilized" or "objective scientific" views which set us apart.  So we may, quite naturally, expect to go through the same cycle ourselves, in consciousness as well as in biology.  Further, we can trust that and embrace that evolutionary flow of life, death, and rebirth, because in this transformative change lies true stability.

Always, passing through this state, the new order of imagery, thought, emotion, sensory perception reflects a new and less dis-eased sense of being.  The deeper self image undercuts the old belief system, and begins to create a new order of being, a new way of perceiving the self and the world.

Chaos provides a new image around which to order the personality and often the physiology.  This is an application of the old alchemical maxim, "solve et coagula," dissolve and reintegrate.  One half of the process is being able to let go of the focus of attention and enter the chaos.  The other half is being able to seize the new order that arises from it.  Order is present in the most chaotic state of mind, just as chaos underlies even the most rigid and orderly intellect.

The primal images, the deep multi-sensual experiences and perceptions act like psychic magnets, attracting and ordering energies around them, which echo their shapes and forms.  Like fractal patterns displayed on a computer screen, the quantum shift comes when the attractor values are changed.  The old image that lies on one side of the chaos experience gives way to a surprising new image that arises from the chaos.  Emotions, thinking, and behavior are all affected.

Condensed from the book Dreamhealing: Chaos & the Creative Consciousness Process, by Graywolf  Swinney and Iona Miller, c1992.  For further information, contact Aesculapia, P.O. Box 301, Wilderville, OR   97543.

What's New with My Subject?


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