Existential disorientation is an apt name for our diagnostic condition as a species, what’s called “the human condition.” We wake up and find ourselves here, but we don’t really know where we are. We feel lost, homeless, in exile, stranded on a remote island, alone in the middle of everything. There is some comfort in knowing that humans have been feeling this way for a long time; ever since we “woke up” to a self-conscious existence, in fact.
Each of us repeats in our individual development what our species underwent in its evolution so many millenniums ago.
To help get our bearings, all of the great cultures came up with their own versions of what is known as the Wheel of Fortune – or the Wheel of Fate, the Wheel of Destiny, or just the Wheel of Existence. It is conceived as turning, like a wheel, but also in the image of a great circle, a kaleidoscope that, when held still, “clicks” in place a visual scheme of four quadrants, each offering a distinct perspective on where we are.
The contemplation of these four quadrants in their totality, and of the Wheel through a full turn of its four phases, has long been a foundational practice of spiritual wisdom, promising to clarify our confusion, resolve our ignorance, and finally set us free.
Starting in the top-left quadrant or phase of the Wheel, our gaze is drawn outward and upward from the Ground, though the Genesis (birth or beginning) of all things, and into the vast Cosmos encompassing us in its immensity. Ground is the power of being (the be-ing, or simply Being) that generates the multitude of beings on their various scales of organizational complexity.
This Ground isn’t underneath them as a separate reality, like the literal ground under our feet, but is rather their very essence (from esse, being): the Reality informing them from deep within.
The mathematical operator that best represents this quadrant of Reality is the ‘plus’ sign: adding, connecting, growing, filling and expanding; the sum of all things. We see that nothing exists utterly on its own, but is part of a larger order and arrangement (Greek Cosmos), just as it also contains within itself (=) smaller elements in relationship with each other (+).
Moving clockwise, we enter a second quadrant of the Wheel where all of this positive (+) order starts to break apart (÷) into more stable states. Every type of organization is relatively far from equilibrium, as we learn from complexity theory, which means that it takes energy just to maintain itself. The second law of thermodynamics identifies a principle at work in Reality that is constantly pulling on the bonds and joints that hold things together, “seeking” an arrangement that is more stable and less expensive, energetically speaking.
Because humans, particularly human egos, can be so fixated on Quadrant 1 with its value-added features and positive (+) outlook on Reality, Quadrant 2 is commonly regarded as negative in a moral sense (i.e., bad or evil), when it is merely divisive (÷) in a nonmoral, energetic sense. Its principle of Entropy provides a necessary counterbalance to the Genesis principle on the other side of things, and without which there would be an unconstrained trend of inflation toward rapid exhaustion and burnout.
Since organizational complexity entails an energetic investment pushing it farther from equilibrium, we should appreciate Entropy for its counter-pull toward a more balanced, stable, and enduring arrangement. It’s not as if Entropy had to be introduced as a corrective measure at some later point. It is present and at work from the very beginning, ensuring that the emerging organization is strong and resilient enough to resist and temporarily override its disintegrative effect.
Eventually, however, Quadrant 2 reminds us that every form of organization – from atoms to galaxies, from living bodies to global communities – will weaken in its bonds, come loose at the joints, and collapse into more stable states. In some cases, the Quadrant 1 principle of Genesis will work to renew and rebuild the order, making it as strong or stronger than before.
But in most cases – and inevitably in every case – Entropy will succeed in dividing and breaking them down to nothing, where “no thing” remains. This end-state of Entropy is known as the Abyss.
Abyss is a purely empty concept. With respect to Quadrant 2 dynamics, it is the “no thing” that every existing form, organism, and organization eventually dissolves into. We can call it the abyss of extinction because it is where things come to the End and are no more. It was originally acknowledged in mythology as the The Void, Dark Gate, Grand Finale and Final End. Today’s science confirms its mystery without understanding very much about it, as a quantum field of “dark matter” into which everything in our known universe eventually disappears and dissolves away.
If Quadrant 2 looks into the Abyss from the vantage point of an individual form or organization, Quadrant 3 follows the drop into extinction by a process of subtraction (-): removal, elimination, and erasure. While Entropy divides and breaks things down to more stable states, Kenosis (Greek for emptying-out) annihilates every last vestige of discrete existence.
Like meteors (“falling stars”) dropping through the atmosphere and disintegrating into an indeterminate dust, Quadrant 3 is where nothing remains but Nothing, a formless and undifferentiated field of “dark energy” – what scientists believe is even deeper and more elementary than dark matter.
The emptiness (Kenosis) of the Abyss takes on the character of creative potential as we approach Quadrant 4 of the Wheel. Considered from the opposite side, of Cosmos, Chaos is absolute disorder: a total lack of form, organization, regularity, harmony, coherence, reason, rationality and meaning. Like the Abyss, Chaos has been widely cursed as morally antithetical to the gods and to all that is good, right, proper, and true.
What is Chaos? It is both nothing (no thing) and the essential nature of everything, the complete absence of discrete existence, yet the “stuff” that manifests in all that exists. According to the wisdom philosophy of Hinduism, it is Nirguna Brahman: ultimate reality without qualities, which manifests as Saguna Brahman in the qualified universe we sense and know. Science makes this distinction in terms of an “implicate” and “explicate” order, a hidden dimension and its outward, physical expression.
Chaos theory conceptualizes chaos as deep inside order (Cosmos), something like a sloping drop-off into increasingly random patterns of probability, approaching a state of spontaneous creativity.
Inside Quadrant 4, we are rising with the Wheel by a dynamic in polar opposition to the Entropy of Quadrant 2. Not a loosening up and coming-apart, but a fusion and magnification (×) of Energy, creating the conditions for Quadrant 1 cosmogenesis, the “birth of order.” Whereas above the Ground we can witness the actualization of this potential in the myriad forms and systems of existence, deep down inside it a principle of exponential multiplication (×) serves as the furnace and forge, the Primordial Source, the origin and wellspring of all things.
In mythology once again, this is the creator goddess whose body and womb give birth to the Cosmos, the creator god whose breath and word call it into existence. In science, it is the Singularity that broke open to form our universe fourteen billion years ago, and continues to break open in a New Genesis even now.