Disappointment: is there anyone, especially amongst my readers, who has not experienced disappointment? Disappointment is so pervasive that we might as well equate life, as experienced by humans, with disappointment. At least, that’s a tempting impulse, and I confess that I feel it intensely every now and then. We all hope that the degree of disappointment is not so devastating as to hollow out and crush us with a catastrophic implosion or explosion.
Basically, disappointment wells up in us when what is expected, wanted, at times desperately needed, and perhaps positively anticipated, does not happen. The greater and keener our anticipation or expectation, the more painful is our disappointment when it is not fulfilled. As my readers would know, I am prone to recommending inner work for any psychological distress, at least as a starting point. Inner work may not be a panacea, but it is at least a solid starting point that may lead to solutions to practical problems, resolution of existential problems, and wholeness, process, and progress towards an increasingly enlightened way of being. At any rate, I am going to reflect on my philosophy, psychology, theory of inner work that has grown out of my own disappointments in and with life.
The particular disappointment I am reflecting on is in the dimension of human relationships. In a recent online course, Peter Levine, the well-known expert on working with trauma experience in human beings, considers the relationship field as a site for “terror and horror.” I would suggest to you that this disappointment begins from the early days when as infants the caregiver, mother, father, whoever, did not appear and attend to us immediately while our infant self was immersed in a state of discomfort that for these tiny beings that we once were verges on terror.
Babies don’t have mediating thoughts and words that assure them that their needs would be met somehow or another, sooner or later, that things are not that dire, and that their discomfort will pass. The necessary cognitive structures that would allow for processing understanding have yet to develop. In the absence of mediating human presence and words, their needs are totally visceral and frightening to them as they are quickly brought to the survival edge. Their experience of hunger must feel like they are about to die. Anyone who has watched a tiny baby crying in a high pitch and convulsively with their little face totally scrunched up and nearly purple-red would feel and know the degree of dire urgency in their response to discomfort. For them, it is a calamity.
Sometimes even when our parents showed up, they were unable to solve our baby-sized problem. As well, they could be so unskillful in their attunement that, essentially, they cannot meet the needs of the infant. They could not find the cause of our suffering and they could not alleviate it. And some parents are in such a distressed state themselves so constantly that they are either actually physically absent, or “not there,” even if they are physically present. This is a tragic situation. Shades of this are an inevitability of human experience; the seeds of disappointment are sewn. Of course, some parents are more expert than others, some babies are more resilient, and some families intuitively know how to support children as they grow up to be skilled at prevention, recovery, and learning from experience.
Even when little babies have grown older and developed the neuroanatomy that would allow for mediating thoughts, the earlier fear response has already entrenched itself as a reaction to any situation that triggers the original fear base. The problem and its effects became greater for us over the years as multiple incidents of disappointment became part of our life experience. I think it’s important to recall how incredibly sensitive humans are as small creatures; born completely helpless and dependent, unlike almost any other mammalian creature, all of whom quite quickly have at least some ability to move about on their own soon after the birth. (I must admit I flinch when I hear an adult person referred to as ‘too sensitive.’ I think that the ability to feel and be affected is a key part of what makes me and you human in the sense of being humane, and more fully alive.)
It is also important to distinguish between being truly sensitive/sensing and being reactive. The reacting behavior could be an attempt to not feel the associated pain. And, lest we forget, the relationship field is also a sight for great pleasure, a felt sense of being known by another, knowing another, living in the interactional field of a great moment in relationship. I would also like to distinguish between an intimate moment, which literally can happen with any other person, and an intimate relationship, which means that there are multiple intimate moments over an extended period of time. A brief word about the word, intimate: I believe that every person has a great heart-felt desire, I might even say drive, to be deeply known by another, to deeply know another, to have in-the-moment experience of this being known in the interactional field, and to have this experience increasingly over time.
In the Biblical tradition, the First Male and First Female, Adam and Eve, were thrown out of the Garden of Eden for disobeying God’s command. Adam and Eve were seduced by the Snake to eat the apple, which they had been specifically forbidden by God to do. This transgression against God’s command is known as the Original Sin and is indicative of the fall from grace. Adam and Eve as the First Man and the First Woman are representative of humanity as a whole. Hence, their allowing themselves to be seduced to violate God’s command symbolizes humans’ inherent wickedness or depravity. As such, we are the cause of our own suffering. That is one interpretation.
Another interpretation might suggest that we are born innocent, which is certainly the appearance of most infants, and that in fact the world is constructed in such a way that our purity is darkened in our interaction with the world. The Dominican Priest, Father Mathew Fox, famously spoke about Original Blessing. In essence, the Doctrine of Original Blessing posits that humans are born pure and good. Father Fox’s expression of this view resulted in his expulsion from the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church. He subsequently joined and is still very active from the base of the Episcopal Church.
Fox’s perspective is not unlike the Buddhist perspective that suggests that our truest and deepest nature is Bodhicitta (enlightened mindheart) but that we are subject to the world’s effects. The Daoist perspective tells us that our aim in life is to be aligned with nature, all of nature, including the ephemeral Life Energy, chi, that pulses within us and is continuous with the universal chi.
Inner work that cultivates and develops our awareness increasingly shows us how our truest nature has been occluded by events that oppressed expression of our Life Energy (chi or ki). In keeping with the theme of this field note, I interpret this phenomenology of occlusion as the outcome of our disappointments. I offer my self as an example. At some point early in my life, having been subjected to the criticism that I was off-course and out-of-step with the world, I came to the uncritical and unconscious internalization of a notion that there was something wrong with me. Eventually in my adult life, I began to question this. One day, the light bulb in my consciousness went on and began to beam brightly. It became apparent that there was something wrong in how our culture and society was constructed and that my experience was not intrinsic to me. Rather, my experience was an outcome of the cultural and social norms that were, and in my view, continue to be, oppressive to authentic human beingness that is true to each person’s unique nature and its continuity with the natural world. This is certainly a very broad generalization, and I am not offering it as a description of what happened to you, my individual Reader! Nonetheless, from my own experience and my over five decades of close observation of human beings, I can say that, most often, the cultural norms and their strictures become insidiously entrenched in our consciousness and start to occlude or shut down ways of being that are authentic and fully capable of the whole range of emotions, sensations, thinking, which is one’s own.
The above is not to say that whatever was going on in me as I grew up, and occurring about me was perfect or wonderful. I had also developed some less that beautiful ways of being and behaving in reaction to my own internalized perception that I was a misfit. Through it all, by and by, I began to understand that being a misfit is the culmination of the early and most unfortunate disappointments that had been building up over many decades. I am indeed the outcome of human history over the millennia, as are all of you. As it turns out, being a ‘misfit’ is a good sign for me: for, what it means is that there was still a part of me that was not shut down or gone, and was waiting to be uncovered and nurtured, and to be further nurtured and developed. Taking that as a signal for self-responsibility, I began to reflect and review my life as it has been, as it is, and how it can increasingly become.
To return to our original scenario, I believe the seeds of our reaction to any disappointment are sown from our earliest days. Again, I invite you to think about the effect of being the helpless infant that you and each of us was, having a need that is felt viscerally, not being capable of doing anything directly about this ourselves, responding with crying and fussing, nobody showing up to help, or someone showing up and not being able to alleviate our discomfort. Or, think of an infant who has a problem such as an internal physical pain and complains. A care-giver perhaps shows up immediately, does their best to comfort us, find out what is wrong, but is unable to do anything about it. As infants we are not able to be reasonable. Our brains do not yet have that capability. As suffering infants, all we experience and know is life-threatening terror in the absence of the secure arms and hands of our caregivers, and of being able to hear the reassuring sound of their heartbeats and soothing voices.
Eventually, some level of disappointment and discouragement is imprinted into our consciousness. Eventually, narratives are constructed and internalized that are in the service of sense-making for events of disappointment. Without a well-developed consciousness and sound conceptual frameworks for understanding, these narratives that may have provided some form of soothing at an earlier life stage will most likely not help us to get beyond the continuation of these experiences in the same form, over and over and over. The internal structures in our consciousness that hold these narratives are seamlessly and strongly linked together in thought, feeling, body sensation, and suppressed lifeforce energy. All this is to say that these earlier patterns of inadequate and even misperceived interpretation are very difficult to change as they permeate our whole being at all levels and depths.
The recognition that such is the case is a crucial step in resolving our suffering at the hands of ‘fate’: that is, our disappointment with the world. Some people appear not to suffer this kind of experience. These individuals may have learned to be resilient from early on; or along the way. (And I am still learning.) What did they learn—not just theoretically but experientially? Through inner work, in some cases some good role-modelling, and even in spite and in reaction to what happened in early days, they come to accept life as it is, without guilting, blaming, and shaming themselves and/or others. This accepting takes tremendous courage: perhaps it is the most difficult thing to do. How do we cultivate this courage? That’s another huge topic! At any rate, accepting life allows one to see, with clear eyes, what took place and the ways that deep factors have combined to result in how things came to be. All disappointments are the current endpoint of our personal and collective history; perhaps a most daunting and frightening thought. What to do? What to do!
Knowing that the disappointments one encounters in life have deep roots, one can work on changing the elements and factors that make up one’s patterns of reaction and response in such a way as to produce different results than what has been the usual pattern. In this process, it does help to have resilience modelled for one by significant adult figures in one’s life. Modelling and coaching, combined with emotional support that goes deeply into your inner world, are the best help you can get. A key element is studying the inner elements, and most importantly, the process of how the experience unfolds, over and over, in one’s self, particularly learning responsibility for one’s part in the process, and uncovering the events/signals that preceded the emergence of the miserable feeling that has gone unnoticed, and is almost invariably there.
Here, I would like to add an important side note. In my view, there is a less than desirable way of gaining resilience, which is applying a ‘Be positive!’ ‘command.’ This is not a great method, as a lot of energy is required to deny the grief feelings of our inner infant that still resides within each of us. And just because we deny something doesn’t mean that it goes away and disappears. What’s denied is still there, possibly gaining further power from in its hiddenness. As we become better and better at denying, through our maturation and development of will and garnering resources, we may succeed with implementing this ‘be-positive command’ over sufficient time. What tends to happen, then, is that we may well have symptoms show up in other ways: body symptoms are most common.
In the next Field Note, I plan to return to the current topic with more emphasis on how to actually work with disappointments that are now deeply interwoven into one’s whole being—into the matrix of body, mind, heart, senses, spirit, and beyond this, into the cultural matrix of beliefs and practices. My intention is to give a detailed description as to how to explore the experience, including how to facilitate the transition from the pattern to a new pattern that one is initiating and that is increasingly an outgrowth of your most true and authentic being. This is a major work, as the process will have us get in touch with all the associated powerful feelings of loss that been been kept under lockdown pressure.
Many thanks as usual to Heesoon for her support with this Field Note.
Speaking of Heesoon, I would like to pass along the information that Heesoon and her colleagues are mounting the fifth cohort of the Master’s degree in Contemplative Education. For information about the program, click here: