I recently received a master class in disorientation. My colleagues and I in the Mindfulness Teacher Training Alliance just brought our first Level 2 MBSR teacher training to a close. As we took our trainees on a deep, 9-day dive into the art form of teaching MBSR, we ourselves got up close and intimate with the discomfort of being at the edge of growth. Having never taught this training before, and never taught together, we were beginners again, experiencing along with the trainees the moments of vulnerability, confusion, and not knowing that comes with heading into new territory—in a word: disorientation.
Do you, too, know something about disorientation? That feeling that arises, perhaps, when you take on a new challenge or project, or risk expressing something difficult to a friend or loved one? Or maybe it’s the confusing swirl the comes with loss—aging, or the death of someone dear, a diagnosis, divorce. Or you fall in love, or retire, or move to a new town or country, and familiar reference points dissolve. Or a global pandemic persists… The variations on the theme are endless.
Things change, and, whether the change delights or devastates, disorientation often follows. Education theorist Jack Mezirow has written about “disorienting dilemmas” as an inherent part of transformational learning. His theory offers that while change itself can be disorienting, not all disorientation leads to transformative growth. This kind of growth requires that we recognize and reflect deeply on our taken-for-granted assumptions, coming to a new perspective, understanding of ourselves, and behavior.
His theory asserts what you may already know from your own experience: within the discomfort of disorientation lies an opportunity. Disorientation offers a crack in the seemingly airtight veneer of self-view—the stories I tell myself about ‘I, me, and mine.’ And with any such opening, painful as it may be, there’s the possibility of uncovering who we really are, at our deepest and most expansive.
During the recent training, as I offered guidance and teaching to not only the trainees but also to my peers, I experienced the vulnerability of old doubts, self-criticism, and fear of not being good enough. Noticing that I could have been more precise in my language during a certain practice went straight to “they’ll see that I don’t belong here” and the anticipated sting of rejection. I experienced afresh that the more I care, the riskier it feels to be seen as I really am, warts and all.
Thankfully, the container of the training included practicing mindfulness together for hours each day. Practice supported stability and the space to recognize these old patterns emerging as I leaned into my growing edge. It supported bringing gentle, friendly awareness to these tender places rather than heaping on more layers of judgement. The warmth and integrity of my dear colleagues enabled me to speak with them about my vulnerabilities, and for them to share theirs, and for us to deepen in honoring one another in our wholeness, inclusive of our strengths and areas for development.
My experience, uncomfortable as it was, affirms Mezirow’s theory: disorientation is an essential ingredient for growth. If we attempt to avoid it, we stagnate. Such an attempt is impossible anyway; it’s like standing on a beach as the tide comes in. Refuse to move long enough and the sand will disappear right under our feet.
So, as an experiment, when disorientation arises next, how about noticing what happens if you turn toward it, investigate, and reflect. Try lingering here with the discomfort, and see if you aren’t, already, exploring your own edges of transformation into greater degrees of wholeness and ease.