The beauty of being disillusioned
A few years ago I decided to become a politician. My friends teased me that other people’s mid life crises involved mountain bikes, Himalayan hikes and torrid affairs with younger partners. Mine involved sitting in extremely boring committee meetings with septuagenarians studying finance documents for parks’ budgets.
I chose not to stand for re-election. It was a very demanding thing to do with a full time job and a young family. It was also a frustrating, at times tedious role in the context of savage government cuts to local government. A little later I mentioned to my meditation teacher that I was no longer in the role and explained why. He just smiled and said, ‘perhaps you got a little disillusioned’. I’ve reflected on this phrase quite a lot since then. What is it to be disillusioned? And why the smile?
Initially when we are disillusioned we feel a loss or disappointment. There is sadness, regret or shock. To be disillusioned is to see that something we placed faith and hope in is not up to the task. It has in some way let us down. More accurately it has not been able to live up to our fantasies and projections. We may get disillusioned about a job that was not all we hoped it would be, a relationship once the glamour fades or ourselves when we see how we fall short of our most noble aspirations and ideals.
To be disillusioned is actually to be freed from a false or confused view about a situation, a person or reality itself. The job could never live up to our fantasy – life is more complex and unpredictable than that. The new lover will never fit some fantasy projection. And everyone else has long seen our flaws and limitations, even when they are a shocking new discovery to us!
Initially we tend to see this as disappointment and let down. But the gift in disillusionment is that if we can really experience the feeling of disappointment, we see clearly that what we have lost is nothing real. We have lost some faith in, or attachment to, a mental fantasy that reality has now shown to be hollow and insubstantial. The loss is not real though it certainly feels so.
Every time we are disillusioned, in the true sense of the world becoming ‘dis-illusioned’, we lose a small part of our confused view of things. We become just a little closer to reality. We have let go of some closely held concepts and ideas about a situation, and are more open to encountering the situation just as it is without preconceived hopes and fears. This feels raw, exposing and vulnerable. Nevertheless we now live just a little closer to the truth of things.
How being disillusioned helps us become wise:
I was reminded of this today after an email exchange with an old student who is also a friend and colleague. He wrote,
“I’ve been asking myself lately what’s my vision for what my life, my work, the world and, instead of the things I’d expect (equality, justice etc), I keep coming back to how our problems seem rooted in an excess of knowledge but lack of wisdom. And I don’t have a good grip on what, if anything, is being done at scale to address that gap, hence the question. If the structures for this don’t already exist, maybe they need to be created and promoted.
He is a highly intelligent, dynamic activist working in the campaigning sphere. His work has huge impact and is often high profile. He did not mentioned disillusionment, but my mind went back to this word, and to the need to see it as potentially a hugely positive and empowering experience.
He and I have spent decades working in some of the great institutions of society in service of positive change. Between us we have worked in business, education, law and government. We have invested considerable energy trying to create solutions and approaches that made things better in these spheres.
So, what could there be to be disillusioned about?
In search of wisdom: 4 levels of becoming disillusioned
My friend’s email suggests that amidst all the activity, the question of wisdom has remained hidden. Amidst projects, campaigns and courses, the question of what it is to act truly wisely got left behind. He distinguishes between knowledge and wisdom. He says we have created an excess of knowledge, but not much wisdom. The poet T S Eliot famously wrote,
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
Disillusionment here means letting go of our belief that anything other than living from a deep level of human wisdom can bring about the changes our world needs. Clever as humans have become, the problems we now need to solve cannot be solved at the level of information or knowledge however exciting, appealing or seducing such approaches are. As a simple example, knowledge of medicine and the human body does not provide us with the wisdom of how to live and die well. As we have increased medical knowledge our society has become less connected with simple wisdoms of how to live and die.
Information and knowledge about our climate crisis, has not established the wisdom of how to live well within the limits of our planet. Something known deep in the bones of so-called ‘primitive” indigenous people – how to live wisely in full relation to the natural world, has been seemingly lost amidst endless information and knowledge about the world as a separate object.
The gift of becoming disillusioned:
The sense of loss that accompanies disillusionment can be a very positive thing. It reflects the gradual wearing away of false hope and energy placed for good reasons in the wrong directions. Disillusionment helps us take a further step towards letting go of the assumptions and values that tend towards accumulation of information and knowledge. We can move towards our own innate and deeply felt need for wisdom. This is a wisdom that can only be lived. It cannot be studied objectively. It is a wisdom that arises within personal experience, however many books we read, courses we attend, or Gurus at whose feed we sit. It can only be realised from within.
But what is beyond greater information? What lies beyond political or legal change? What lies beyond technological solutions? These are mighty institutions, mighty realms of discovery and innovation? Surely to become disillusioned with such things is just to give up and accept defeat? I sense this in many activists and change agents I work with. Sensing on the one hand that current approaches are not working, but terrified of giving them up for fear of the horrors yet to unfold and the need to be doing something, at least something.
A traditional model of learning theory is helpful here. At each stage there is something to be given up, something we need to allow ourselves to be disillusioned by. Each time we give up, our insight opens up a further level of learning and change that leads to deeper possibility for change.
Level 0: Nothing Changes.
At level 0 things continue as they were. There is no change. For better or for worse, we continue to do what we do. Our groups, projects and institutions continue to manifest the same behaviours for the same reasons.
The first disillusionment, one that many activists and change makers have long experienced is the sense that with no change at all things are not going to work out well for our society and for the planet as a whole. We become disillusioned with the current direction of travel. We need to change something. This is a starting point for action.
Level 1: Doing something! Changing our actions:
At this level we see many practical expressions of change. In sustainability terms we recycle where previously we threw away. Businesses set environmental or philanthropic goals. Personally we start new habits and try new behaviours. Corporations launch new products, services or processes. Change is afoot.
The second disillusionment, experienced by many people in change projects, is when we sense that although plenty appears to be changing, on another level nothing really is changing at all. The key here is that behaviours and actions are changing, but underlying assumptions and values remain entrenched and unquestioned.
An example is the business that launches new sustainability related products while its fundamental goals of growth above all else remains the same. Another is when a family starts to recycle but the fundamental (unspoken) goal of life being about getting and buying more stuff remains the same. This is what my colleague Dr Gill Coleman called ‘sameness masked as difference’. It can feel confusing and frustrating. Politically we see this with yet another new policy on housing or homelessness which appears to create something different, but which keeps fundamental assumptions around (for example) individual property ownership, market forces in housing, housing as as investment unquestioned and undiscussable.
We need to really feel the sense of disillusionment here. We need to feel that sense of puzzlement and frustration in order to withdraw energy once we sense a lack of conviction. If we cannot allow ourselves to be properly dis-illusioned at this stage we are likely to continue in our efforts but get increasingly frustrated and consumed by doubt and futility.
Level 2: Change of Values and Underlying Assumptions:
Here we become interested in the underlying thinking, values and assumptions that have limited our change efforts thus far.
A person now starts to ask ‘where does my waste come from? What are my assumptions around shopping, consuming and owning that may be creating waste?’ The business becoming more eco efficient may begin the more uncomfortable conversation around how to reconcile continued growth and expansion with the realities of a finite planet. The government (or the pressure group or think tank) may raise questions about the purpose of housing, or the balance of forces in a society between housing as need and housing as personal investment.
At level 2 we become interested in the assumptions that underlie things as they are. The potential and promise here is that only by opening up these assumptions, making them explicit and testable, can we open up new areas of action (Level 1) previously firmly off the agenda.
There is much promise and much potential value here. Many activists are working with depth, rigour and energy on issues such as monetary reform, replacing a focus on growth with a focus on well-being and many more.
The third disillusionment at this point is more subtle and takes two forms:
First we begin to see how little we manage to live personally according to these values. So the activist organisation working on harmony, equality and justice starts to notice its own shadow. It notices forces of injustice, disharmony and inequality continuing to surface in its own team and organisation. Sometimes this is denied for a long time. More usefully it is a teaching on humility and just how difficult it is for humans to change this stuff. With grace, the potential of disillusionment at this point is to see how deeply the forces we wish to change ‘out there’ are ‘in here’. Then we can start to redirect or rebalance our change efforts to include both inner and outer dimensions.
Secondly we start to sense the sheer weight and interrelated mess of systemic forces and structures ‘out there’. When working on our particular piece of the vast puzzle – say equality for a certain group, or reduction in a certain pollutant, we sense a futility in our efforts when we see the vastness of the industrial economic system and how it has established such seemingly unchangeable structures. Neither of these insights are the whole truth of course, and certainly never a reason for giving up. But the feeling of disillusionment, often denied, if opened to and welcomed with curiosity can allow some further new inspiration can arise.
Level 3: Changing the Story of Who and What we are:
Finally, having let go of passively going on with things as they are (Level 0), gone beyond practical changes without deeper questioning (Level 1) and then even beyond a focus on changing values and goals (Level 2) we notice that the single thread running through all of these attempts at change is Identity. In other words the sense or story of who I am and who we are.
After all, it is ‘Me’ who decides to change or not. Whether the change is an inner aspect (part of me) or something in the world, it is ‘Me’ who decides to do it or not. ‘Me’ with my history, my context, my upbringing, my future, my hopes, fears and story. Likewise at group or global level it is ‘We’ who are struggling to make the world a better place, to save the planet, make money, have a good time (whatever)
But, who in fact is this Me? Who are We? What is this life I call mine and what is it we in our collective humanity think we are all about?
Until this level we have not really asked this sort of question. It has not felt relevant. Perhaps it felt indulgent or ridiculous. Instead we have embarked on change efforts at varying degrees of complexity, without noticing that the person or people doing change are a factor in what change is possible.
Until I investigate this story of ‘Me’, and ‘We’, my attempts to create change at any scale are likely to be limited, and very much located and restricted to choices and possibilities based on the world as I see it now (which of course is the world I want to change).
The disillusionment that has led to this level takes us to a Transpersonal, Existential or Spiritual Realm where questions such as, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who are We?’ become central. The intention is not to replace change or activism with passive navel gazing. It is not to replace compassionate activity in the world with some kind of idealised inner seeking.
Rather it is to consider that humanity may have vastly more access to wisdom, compassion and transformative action than our current story acknowledges. It is to consider – with humility – that should we live fully and deeply from our heart, and allow ourselves to become fully disillusioned with our culture’s current stories – of success, or meaning, of what a life is meant to be, we could well become vastly more creative, collaborative and concerned citizens.
Those of us working in any way at all for change must eventually glimpse that our very story of who we are as we act itself arises from a worldview that is implicated in so many of our problems. We must consider how we have inherited a story of Self which limits our capacity and potential as if we have been living in an invisible prison.
This fourth disillusionment is to become disillusioned with our story of who we thought we were. This opens the space for a new story of who we are, both individually and collectively, that is much more energising and effective for change. In the end we may let go of all and any story, finding ever greater freedom to simply act and do what is needed in response to the circumstances we find ourselves in.
 See Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. NB – the connection of this model to the idea of disillusionment and letting go is mine. I have no idea what Bateson would have made of it.
 I wrote this article a month or so before the stories of sexual exploitation at Oxfam began to surface. This is a good example of noticing the shadow in organisations.