Having lived long enough and seen enough in my personal and professional life, I would readily give myself to the view that most humans experience disappointment in and with life.
Just above is the recording for this Field Note for April 1, 2021, Disappointment (continued). If you want an opportunity to hear the Note that precedes this current one, you can listen to the audio file just below…
[Speaking of disappointment, I was very disappointed to find out that I had erroneously inserted the recording for last month’s Note. I have now redone the recording as noted above!]
Having lived long enough and seen enough in my personal and professional life, I would readily give myself to the view that most humans experience disappointment in and with life. Of course, some more acutely (as misery and suffering) than others (as dissatisfaction, discontent, and unhappiness). I am not alone in this view. Apparently, as Heesoon reminds me frequently, this view is the foundation upon which the Buddhist philosophy and teachings stand. The historical Buddha named it, Dukkha: standardly translated as ‘suffering,’ I hear that its meaning encompasses a whole spectrum of human existential distress, from mild but chronic discontent to deep and acute suffering. From malaise to misery.
How do humans deal with this intractable existential situation? My interest, as a psychotherapist, is primarily focused on the side of “how do I and you respond to what happens? Really, to what is?” Now that we are experiencing misery (or whatever it is that we are experiencing), then what are we going to do about that, and realistically what can be done about it? Think about your characteristic way of responding to your suffering experiences when such occurs? I note here that blaming the world—actions of care-givers, God, other people, the government, the boss, neighbours, partners, and even yourself—is a most often practiced response to personal distress. It makes total sense. Surely you did not choose to be shocked, neglected, mistreated, assaulted, abused, punished, harassed, oppressed, and so on. Instead, you may see yourself as the recipient of what the world (whoever or whatever happens to be part of the misdeed(s) did to you: how to respond as the receiver/victim of whatever did, or did not, take place?
If blaming could do the job, I would recommend it, but chances are good that it will be totally ineffective as a method for healing suffering. Most likely, it is effective in creating new animosity, inviting old grudges, and in general stirring up more conflict and trouble. Not a good method. Besides, most often, if you and I bother to find out, it is also the case that the other party that we want to blame didn’t set out to maliciously afflict us with various forms of harm, either. The “offender,” too, was a “victim” of someone else’s unintended screw-ups, mix-ups, and frustrated outbursts of one form or another. The chain reaction goes around and around, which makes the world go round and round, in violence and misery.
I must reiterate what I have said frequently: “A challenging personal history is not an excuse for ‘poor behavior’.” If a person was neglected and abused as a child, which is certainly a terrible, horrific experience, this does not entitle that person to treat others abusively. It may explain the behavior but it cannot and does not justify such behavior. Wrong-doings and harming others must be stopped. This is particularly the job of our legal system and its action-taking. On a personal level, you and I, can identify our harming and self-harming actions, do the inner, and the outer, work to forestall such actions. And, I hasten to add that stopping a behavior is not the end point of the process. It is the potential beginning point as this stopping will surely put you more in touch with your feelings and associated body sensations, which is the beginning point for potentially very fruitful inner work, and personal and relational transformation.
From my personal experience and also from observing others, I know that it takes time, not infrequently, a long time, for us to eventually recognize that our hurt, anger, revenge-seeking, and our attempts to control the outer world will not truly solve our problem, and in fact it will surely reinforce our felt-sense of being victims: that is, feeling helpless and powerless. Again, if taking on the victim identity could be a way for one to feel powerful and helpful so that one can initiate desired changes, then, sure, by all means, let’s go for that. But it doesn’t work like that. Taking on the role of victim means that one feels helpless and powerless. It is indeed bad enough to be victimized: that is, something done to you that harms you. It is doubly unhelpful to take up the identity and role of victimhood, from the viewpoint of gaining one’s self-agency to actively protect and support oneself.
My focus here is the question of how we may identify, ‘investigate,’ and grow towards our potential as human beings (and not “human doings” as John Taylor-Gatto suggested) by moving from the existential malaise and misery that we are prone to feel as we live through our hours and days. Particularly, how to extricate ourselves from the repeating patterns of such experience? Identifying, questioning, investigating the occurrence of recurring patterns in our inner and outer worlds. What is my recommendation? Inner work that moves us skillfully ‘into the fire’ at just the right pace and in just the right ways, and that offers great opportunity and possibility for fully realized and awakened living.
Learning that our reactions reside within us, and that we may have the capacity to learn how to truly have our reactions rather than be had by them. This is a huge step in the process. This first step entails recognizing that the objects or persons that are blamed are not able to change our inner potential for our experience, even if they are willing to make changes that no longer create the circumstances that seem to be culpable. Our ultimate freedom arises from ownership—or, as I prefer at times to call it, authorship—of what is in our inner world. I am the author of my inner world publications.
In the remainder of this Fieldnote, I will give a detailed example of recognizing that blaming has not worked well and about how you may move into inner work that shifts your consciousness from blaming otherness to re/claiming your agency. I hope you will see this as a bit of a road map for transformative learning in both the inner and relational worlds. This example is a synthesis from my experience with many people, including myself. I have created a fictionalized story (the italicized parts) of a character to illustrate an inner work example. I have drawn on my own experiences, my experience with those with whom I have worked, and my general and specific reflections about life.
The first and essential step is awareness. A difficulty has to be noticed. Without awareness nothing much can happen. The next piece has to be some questioning of the experience. What is this about? What is the actual experience? What memories are associated? I will add briefly here that there is often, I believe, confusion about the idea of accepting reality. Maybe I have even contributed to this confusion. What I am recommending acceptance of, is the truth of a situation. As I have said before, ‘this does not mean liking what is true.’ The point is that acknowledging what is, and what is true, supports creating the ground from which you have the best opportunity to facilitate a meaningful change. As is true for all things in life, nothing is guaranteed.
It is perhaps important to note that what follows details a particular experience, and that what I am attempting to convey is a paradigm and process for inner work and transformational change personally and relationally. So, while the specific details may resonate with you, I encourage you to see the big picture paradigm of awareness, reflection, inner work, and potential transformation that it represents.
~ An example begins here~
Julianna: I noticed increasingly that I was often unhappy and at times shutdown in my relationship with my partner. I was subtly and not so subtly holding him responsible for my somewhat closed-off state. I would at times point to things he was, or was not, doing with an explicit and implicit implication that he should do something about this. To his credit he did at times take my comments seriously and work with them.
One day I had a flash of memory of my Father coming home when I would be upstairs in my room. I would hear him come in and say, in a loud, and somewhat cheery voice: “Where’s Julianna?” Hearing him, strangely, I would feel very angry, and I did not want to see him or have anything to do with him. I recalled this experience taking place over many years. As a teenager and as a young adult, I did not question this experience of mine at all! At this point in time something was triggered in me and I was beginning to wonder what was my anger about? It began to dawn on me that perhaps there was a deeper truth here…
Julianna the Inner Worker (JIW): I have both specific and general memories of this experience as it had unfolded. I also have a general memory of a troubled and troubling relationship with my father.
I go “inside” and notice feelings of anger and, surprisingly to me, fear. My body is tight, particularly in the area of my chest; I could say, ‘my heart.’ I feel very lonely, and my fear accompanies this feeling. I am aware of my vital energy being compressed, as if it is pushing ‘up’ against a powerful blockade. This intersection is most uncomfortable.
I have a flash of insight that this feeling that I have is very common in my interaction with my partner, and, indeed my previous partners, and even some of my friends; particularly those whom I considered to be my ‘best’ friends.’ I am aware of what he does that triggers this feeling in me, and I am also aware that I invariably blame him for this experience. I say inwardly, and at times to him, “if you would not speak to me in such a tone, and you would be friendlier and more loving, then I would feel much better!”
It starts to be a bit clearer that I am disappointed with my partner, and what is most significantly seeping into my awareness is that this feeling and experience of disappointment has been with me for a very long time, and most definitely the experience here precedes his existence in my life. I have some glimpses of missing pieces in my life; not getting what I wanted and needed and not being old enough, big enough, capable of stating what I needed, and also knowing that those who were looking after me were mostly functioning at the limits of their ability. They were indeed doing the best they could.
This shortfall had an effect on me in me as an infant and as a child, and continued without any awareness on my part up to the present; at least until this moment….
Avraham: Notice how Julianna is wanting a change in her partner so she can feel better. And, of course, this may even seem very reasonable. It is most common in the culture to want the other, the world, the government, a friend, and on and on, to be different in order for us to not have a certain feeling-thought experience. I think it is fair to say that this very common and usual view is also very unrealistic. Governments, for example, are comprised of elected officials who are elected by majority vote. This is simple democracy. A famous quote that is attributed to a number of people with apparently no evidence of the source is that “democracy is a form of government where 51% of the people can oppress 49%. The process of shifting from other-orientation to self-orientation is an important part of the whole process, including learning very specifically how you approach this and your own resistance to it.
JIW: Whenever my partner says something to me I immediately feel my body tightening up. It is so insidious and so familiar that I often barely notice. For some unknown reason on this occasion something is different! I have a sudden realization that this is indeed a very familiar feeling. In fact, I have a sudden awareness of a memory. My Mother is approaching me. She seems quite happy. She says something that seems nice, friendly, and even affirming, and I recall feeling quite angry and literally physically backing away from her outstretched arms that are seeking to hug me. Further I now recall this being my experience with her for years. Apparently my early memory of my experience with my Father was readily transferred to my Mother, many others, and most particularly to my partner.
I also recall acting as if her words and hugs were fine and responding in ways that looked good, and feeling my guts twisting and turning even as I smiled and hugged her back. I was very upset when I began to reflect on the effect of such internal conflict on and within me, my body, and my life force energy.
I also had a somewhat murky realization that what I was getting from my partner was in fact to a great extent a response to my inner distress and conflict that was very long-standing; my tendency to draw back from those who disappoint me. I realize that beneath my deep disappointment was a profound sense of loss, loss of the heart to heart connection for which I had seemingly always longed. In other words I was in some ways actually inviting without awareness, and behaving as if the disappointment had already occurred, which had a sufficiently strong effect on my partner and brought out of him the very behaviors for which I had an allergy. It’s fair to say that my partner was quite reasonably a little anxious about approaching me affectionately given the ‘training’ I had supplied that his chances of getting a receptive and warm response were not the greatest.
I realize of course that my partner was also doing things that were not so great, and that perhaps he could also work on, but I started to realize my partner working on himself did not alleviate or remove the need for me to work on myself to alleviate the inner and relational damage.
JIW: Now what? I notice my body sensation and my emotions. I feel a sqeezing sensation in my chest that is centralized in the area of my heart. My breathing is very shallow. I resist the temptation and my impulse to breath more deeply. I am going for something more sustainable and deeper than the band-aid that bigger breaths might provide.
I feel suffocated. I am bound up by something very heavy and barely moveable. I feel frightened. I am thinking, “I am trapped! I can’t get out!” An image of my Mother flashes, and is quickly followed by a memory. She is telling me in strong terms: “Tone down. Be quiet. If you are so rowdy and excited, people will not like you. You won’t have any friends. You must learn to show a happy friendly face so people will like you.”
I am aware that this personality that I have developed as an outcome of my mother’s ‘good’ intention to help me to succeed, at least in her terms, has ‘worked’ for me. People like me. I often wonder why I feel very tired after spending time with a friend; a friend that seeks out my company and tells me how much they like me and how they love spending time with me.
I am aware that my constructed and cultivated sunny personality also attracted my partner. At times he mournfully asks, “What happened to the person I first knew? Where did she go?” Indeed, I am also wondering, “where did she go?” The problem is that this ‘me’ was built in the service of suppressing my natural joyfulness, my exuberance. No wonder my contacts with people that love being with me is often exhausting for me. I am suppressing my life force. Strangely, I show up much like the person that I more truly am. However, at this time there is clearly a gap between this personality and my authentic nature and my life force.
This inauthentic approval-seeking self is still powerfully there and still shows up unbidden, and unconsciously, and in my way of being. I am suddenly weighted down by the enormity of what I have unconsciously ‘learned’ to do, not for my self, rather to myself. A sudden and large shot of cortisol courses through my body as I am thinking about the enormity of what has happened to me and my great fear that healing myself of this imposed and false way of being is impossible. I suddenly have a glimpse of an insight about everyone I know, and indeed most everyone, being afflicted by their own circumstances in the same way to varying degrees.
I have a further insight. I am the microcosm of the macrocosm… My experience is the experience of most of humanity, and their experience is the large expression of me.
I suddenly have a deep knowing that human beings need to be more awake, which will surely open up their capacity for being increasingly human.
Avraham: Julianna has had a dramatic realization, that there is something that she and all human beings have in common. It could be called ignorance; or not knowing. Freud, Jung, and the early psychoanalysts referenced the unconscious, Fritz Perls, along with his rarely credited wife, Lore, Perls, the founders of Gestalt Therapy, designated what is in awareness, and in contrast to what is not. The Buddha did refer to reaching a level of knowing, called, “enlightened.” This shift in consciousness might be ever so slight. Yet such a shift would move an individual into a zone that would put the person outside of consensus knowing and reality. That person would be ‘strange’ within the community of most gathering places of human beings.
JIW: I am aware of two parts of me that are in a polarized relationship within my consciousness. One part is able to see a bigger picture. I will call it Panoramic Vision (PV). Another part sees a very small pinpoint of experience. I will call it the Pin Point Vision (PPV).
PPV: I am afraid that I will not get the stuff I need. I am scared. I think I have always been scared. I can feel a trembling in my stomach. I think everyone is out for themselves and I must be ready to fight for my survival, or run away and hide.
PV: I know that I am resourceful. I also am aware of PPV and her fearfulness. Things can be dangerous for her. I feel for her. I will talk to her.
Hey, PPV what are you doing? Listen! I will be your friend, Okay? I will make sure that you get what you need, that I will get what I need, and I want us to work together. What do you say?
PPV: I don’t trust you. Why would I?
Avraham: These last two statements are, of course, the potential beginning of an inner dialogue between the identified consciousness and the associated egoic selves.
Yet another possibility is for Julianna to identify with, that is become her partner; feel herself as that projection, establish the inner dialogue between that inner egoic self and her own reified identity, and see what is possible about growing the inner connection, and then possibly the outer relational field. As H.E. Davey said, most wisely in my view, in his book, which I do recommend to you, The Japanese Way of the Artist, “The purpose of the art is the perfection of the artist.” In other words, whatever you engage with and rub up against, has the great potential to show you your own blindnesses, and you ability to do inner work will help you to become more whole and free as a human being. In this example with Julianna, she is bumping up against her partner and is beginning to see her own limitations.
~End of example~
I shall now wrap up this Fieldnote. My strong suggestion to you is that we take our ‘disappointments’ as signals to look for a re/joining with ourselves and with the inner and outer otherness. I am not going into details that are along the lines of what I have talked about in previous Field Notes. I hope you now might have a different view as to the meaning of disappointments, your own and those of others.
In the next Fieldnote, I will offer you some ways related to the Edge; the point in our experience and identity beyond which lies unknown territory. Most of us often do not recognize the possibility that there is anything, a way of being, beyond where and how we currently are and that we are convinced is who we are. We certainly do not recognize what is involved in getting to this further territory, and who we are in that place. I will also offer some specific practice for moving toward and living into this new ground.
Finally I offer a small poem from my book, Becoming Fully Human in Educational Environments: Inner Life, Relationship, & Learning:
The Fine Line
On one side of the edge or another
Each person resides.
From one side everything is known
And taken for granted.
On the edge
Feelings are troubling, vision unclear.
On the far side
Another person emerges
And the unseen world
As always many bows to Heesoon for her support with this Field Note, and particularly the reference to Buddhist philosophy and teachings.