A Field Guide to Life – Principle #5 – Rhythm

by Brad on December 4, 2012

This installment of A Field Guide to Life shows that nature creates using rhythms and cycles, sustaining life’s continual renewal. It challenges you “allow” life’s natural patterns to define the flow of your life, letting go of the need to fight or control things.


Principle #5 – Rhythm

“All rivers run to the sea, yet the sea is not full.”  – Ecclesiastes 1:7

Nature’s Principle: As is now clear, there’s order throughout the universe, here on earth included. Life sustains itself and its order because its processes of creative expression act in cycles, or rhythms, not as discrete events. In this way, nature’s process ensures the continual renewal of life, cycle upon cycle of recurring rhythms that define everything. Three crucial attributes of rhythms surface: (1) one aspect of a cycle is no better or worse than another; they’re equal partners in always becoming. High tide doesn’t fight with low; summer and winter don’t argue. (2) time is of little concern to cycles; each works according to its unique essence, not to an external schedule or plan. Day and night create a 24-hour cycle, one rotation of earth on its axis. Hummingbirds beat their wings hundreds of times per minute. Volcanoes build mountains; then rain, wind and waves wear them down, a cycle spanning millions of years. The birth and death of stars is a cycle billions of years long. None is worried about “getting done sooner” or “taking too long.” (3) meaning is found in the nature of the pattern itself, not in the events that comprise it. If trees didn’t continually refresh leaves or needles, they’d not last too long. As old stars explode, they offer material to create new ones. If the earth didn’t revolve around the sun, we’d have just “weather,” not seasons. (Perhaps we’d not even have weather.)

Nature’s rhythms and patterns happen not only at all scales of time, microseconds to eons, but also at all levels of energy. We’re used to patterns we can perceive with our five senses, but many natural rhythms can’t be perceived in this way. Birds fly in formation, and fish swim in schools, with energy patterns defining their motions; there’s simply no way all members of the group could “get the message” using only basic senses. 

The Opening Offered: As in nature, our lives are made up of overlapping cycles, naturally occurring patterns: birth/death, ebb/flow, dearth/abundance. Whether about jobs, money, relationships, health or emotions, life has rhythm. Life’s patterns are our best teachers, showing us what we need to learn. While they create both order and chaos, they’re also home to balance. In fact, we experience recurring cycles because we need repetition in order to learn; repetition happens until we do. We often fail to appreciate the impact of natural patterns in our lives because they operate with a subtlety or over time scales that preclude easy observation. Only after we have repeatedly experienced effects of life’s patterns do we become aware of their causes. By learning to recognize, accept, then join the natural flow of life’s rhythms, we align our lives with the underlying order and balance we see everywhere in nature. 

Prevailing Wisdom: Impatient as we have become for instant results, gratification and meaning, we fret more over controlling what isn’t than noticing what is. So we fragment life into pieces, leaving us with a belief that, at least at one level, we know and control life. Some corners of science and medicine collude with this thinking, suggesting that human beings are a bunch of organs and the mechanistic processes that comprise them. Nature, however, tells us when we remove anything from its context, we rob it of its source of meaning. We truly know a thing only through wholeness, its full life context. Fragmentation leads not to knowing but to judgment, which in turn leads only to false conclusions. Yet we see these conclusions as evidence, then follow their “truth.” Life isn’t that simple; our attempts to control it are futile. The energy that drives life’s patterns holds far more power than our will. We’ve come to want only the ‘good’ end point in any of life’s patterns, and have often designed our lives around avoiding the ‘bad’ ends. Life’s meaning is found in the richness of the pattern, neither in the events that comprise the pattern nor in an “undesirable” end point. Life’s highs exist only in relation to its lows. 

The Opportunity/Promise: Life’s complexity and chaos only thinly veil the majesty of the natural order below, an order sustained by rhythm. So as to find that order, and align our lives with it, the most useful tool available to us is awareness. If we approached life with a new way of seeing, that of “pattern recognition,” we’d find the balance and meaning we want, with far less effort. Once we begin to notice, the other powerful tool is acceptance. By accepting what we can’t control, we allow life’s natural rhythms to do their work on us, joining their flow, saving our precious energy for things that truly matter. 

Nature’s Story: Of all nature’s rhythms here on earth, the annual cycle of the seasons seems to have the greatest impact on us. Seasons are a combined effect of the revolution of the earth around the sun and the earth’s tilt on its axis (23.5˚). Over the course of a year, the face the earth presents to the sun changes. Varying amounts of sunlight cause the changes we experience as seasons. Seasons vary little in the tropics, where the amount of sunshine is rather constant over the course of a year. In fact, nighttime is more of a season in the tropics than is winter. In temperate latitudes, seasonal differences can be pronounced.

As seasons create a rhythm of their own, they also create openings for the cycles of life’s renewal, rhythm on top of rhythm. Plants and animals synchronize their life cycles to passage of the seasons. Hummingbirds migrate north from the tropics each spring; blossoming of plants along their entire route is timed so as to allow hummingbirds to pollinate the flowers. Which adaptation came first, bird or plant, is meaningless; the pattern is the carrier of meaning. For us, however, seasonal rhythms are more likely to evoke complaint than adaptation. Curiously, I’ve never heard a complaint about winter that delayed its arrival.

My Story: My life, too, has been marked by seasons. Each has offered me the opportunity to grow, had I been able to notice the recurring nature of the patterns. Whether with relationships, jobs, finances or new ideas, I was offered much, yet noticed little. This persisted for over 25 years of adult life. An example:

At 47, I’d been divorced three times. Although I cherished each relationship, I found myself creating a “story” about the issues and shortcomings of each. Somehow, the stories made each one feel unique, and thereby brought me some sense of peace. The peace I felt, however, came more from my story than from reality. A year after the third, and interestingly coincident with the germination of the seed my coach planted (Self-Organization section), I began to see things from a new perspective. Instead of finding what was different about each relationship, I started looking for what they had in common. The unsettling answer was all too clear: I was there. From this disquieting and somewhat scary opening, I began to see the previous 24 years as a pattern, recurring events with a message. I’d entered each relationship, in part, to ‘fill a void’ (that I should be married, that I needed to be loved). When each failed, which was part of the lesson, for I was playing out my issues instead of being in relationship, I filled the void, unaware I was creating a pattern … more of the same. Finally able to see the pattern, my feelings shifted from anger and righteousness to sadness and regret. 

After another few years of inquiry, an even broader perspective offered me the real lesson: that I needed to find love in myself if I were to share it with another, and that I could never resolve childhood issues in an adult relationship. With that, my sadness and regret gave way to acceptance and gratitude, that it all happened for a reason, that I’d finally learned. Each wife had been a teacher for me, had I only been able to be a student. Such is the journey of a narcissist. Today I can see, and even depict, the patterns at work in my life back then. In the midst of them, however, my vision had been clouded, obscured by false assumptions I was making about who I was, and about how I related to others. Thank you each for the opportunity you offered me to learn and grow. I apologize for my stubbornness and myopic sight, and how they impacted each of you.

An Invitation: Do you greet the natural cycles at work in your life with acceptance and learning, or with resistance? Where are the edges of the patterns you accept with grace, compared to ones you fight off? For anything that happens to you, can you stop and ask yourself of which pattern the event is a part? What changes would you have to make to become more accepting of the patterns, large and small, at work in your life?  

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