The start of term 3, with the continuation of the MCO, sees us returning not to campus but to the virtual learning environments set up at the end of last term. While we all continue to deal with the uncertainty that the current situation brings Dan, our Primary Counsellor, returns to the blog with his ‘Thought for the day’.
Our appointment with disappointment need not be miserable… - Duncan Moss
The ironically comforting words of the British psychologist, writer and contemplative, Duncan Moss, gently draw us towards the oft-maligned but inevitable place of ‘disappointment’ in our human lives. Moss, in his true contemplative spirit, offers us a way into and through disappointment that both holds life dear and honours suffering simultaneously.
A contemplative view of things holds that the value in each being is in being what it is, and not in what it does or has. Put simply, life is an end in itself. It does not need to be connected to some vertical or horizontal axis of progress or success. To intentionally remain with disappointment is to work at cutting through the idea that ‘enlightenment’ is a calm or settled state; Like Nature, the psyche is never static. The contemplative in us is wary also of an enlightenment equated with a full bucket of success or feelings of happiness. The emptying of contemplative practice, like wearing a hole into the bottom of the fantasy-bucket of our lives, is blessedly non-discriminatory; In contemplative practice, disappointment falls out of the developing hole at the bottom of our cognitive and emotional bucket - along with ‘everything’ else.
The lens of psychoanalysis has long seen into the importance of a sensation of going-on-being in children. Indeed, attentional or hyperactive issues are often thought, at least partially, as connected to the child’s need to confirm his/her own sense of existing in the moment, especially where the early environment has been unpredictable. This is somewhat true of all of us. The rise of social media and success of the psychologically savvy mechanisms of notifications and ‘likes’, keep us collectively from the gnawing anxiety of dropping into feelings of emptiness or into the void in ourselves. Tragically, along with much of modern psychological systems, it also reinforces the pathologising of less understood or uncomfortable emotional movements in us all.
The contemplative movement in life encourages us to move from a state of an unnatural to a natural flow of emotional life rather than the contemporary psychological obsession with a movement from ‘abnormal’ (eg. disappointment) to ‘normal’ (eg. happy) states. The monastics have long known that to form an alliance with disappointment - and the ecosystem of melancholy at large - is to slow down the movement to qualify, justify or evaluate feelings in favour of observation of how they rise and fall in relation to each other. It is much like the slow and careful study of nature when on a long walk. We are reminded, when there is less pressure on ‘knowing’, how our small minds are inherently limited in understanding the interconnected wisdom of things.
To be contemplative is to not be infatuated with the aesthetic in things as much as the throbbing energy of life within. The contemplative is therefore not so much ‘primitive’ as ‘primordial’ in his/her non-limiting of life to the rational, social, aesthetic agreed realities, in favour of the vital metabolism of things. This, of course, inevitably invites some conflict or discomfort with the way of things in the contemporary world, and with the current vectors of societal success. But an honest encounter with disappointment might just reconnect us back into our safe keeping and help us to see-through our personal and collectively conditioned ego-parameters of success. After a period of disappointment we are often ripe to rediscover our enormous thirst for living, temporarily free of the constrictions of our egoic demands. I believe many are crying out for such relief.
We advance in contemplation and holiness by losing self-certainty as much as by gaining it. Not defending against disappointment, loss, melancholy or even some depressive states, we eventually discover that this felt-lack or emotional abyss is intimately related to other experiences in life of abundance or fullness. As human beings, we do not have much choice in the matter. Existential writers such as Irvin Yalom, warn against living in a ‘state of forgetfulness of being’ when one denies disappointment or melancholy. One might instead choose to dwell in the disappointments of human life and live more fully. A daily contemplative practice is integral to the developing capacity for this clear discernment.
Seen contemplatively, to be in good enough spiritual and psychological health is to live in an even tension between feeling significant and insignificant. In that spirit, we might also agree with Moss elsewhere in his writings on disappointment of ‘a sense of relief in an acknowledgement that our lives, that life itself, does not add up, that we do not arrive’.
What place might disappointment have in your life right now?
Make time to sit with whatever disappointment remains in you or presses upon you right now. Stay there for a moment, even if it is a little uncomfortable. Breathe out a long sweet breath. Repeat.
The Unthought Known is a short daily writing reflective of a contemplative perspective on life. It is the fruit of many years of reflective note taking on a range of spiritual texts and in that spirit no inherent originality is claimed. If it offers comfort amidst adversity, read the text and call whatever resonates to mind when needed (even if just a short phrase from the larger text), allowing it to soak into the marrow of your bones and merge with your breath. Remember, we are all in this together.
Take good care, Dan