Disorientation: Learning as Transformation

When we think about how we learn and grow, we might initially consider the process to be additive or accumulative: building and expanding our body of knowledge so we become informed about a new topic, skillful in a technique, or expert in a particular field. Learning in this manner, for the most part, increases our knowledge in a way that fits within (and usually reinforces) our particular frame of understanding about our selves and the world – our belief systems and worldviews.

When we have experiences that do not fit into our familiar intellectual and emotional frameworks – that disrupt our normal patterns of thinking and being – we can find ourselves destabilized and unable to make sense of what has happened. Sometimes these moments come as the result of dramatic and unexpected events such as illnesses, accidents, natural disasters, changes in relationship or work status, or the death of a loved one. However, they may also arise when we encounter others with strongly divergent worldviews and experiential realities that are fundamentally different from our own. This is especially true when such an experience confronts and challenges our sense of self, our identity, values, and much of what we have thought to be true and good.

Ironically, it is these disruptive experiences that can hold the greatest potential for our learning and growth and become transformative. If we can navigate the impact of the experience; if we can stay in contact with ourselves and with each other in a process of reflective inquiry; if we are willing to unlearn old patterns of thought and behavior that in part define and can thereby constrict us; then the framework through which we understand ourselves and the world can become expanded and inclusive. Our sense of who we are and our place in the world may be dramatically revised. Our minds may be, quite literally, changed and we become more awake to a fuller experience of our own humanity and that of others.

When we experience these transformative moments, almost inevitably we experience some degree of disorientation. Our view of the world, and our understanding of what we consider to be ‘reality,’ undergoes a powerful change and we are no longer quite the same person we were before the experience. We ask, “Who am I?” We may well feel unable to find our bearings or to know where to turn for clarity. This brings about what learning theorist, Jack Mezirow describes as a “disorienting dilemma.” This feeling of disorientation may contain a sense of loss – a death of sorts. As in the grieving process outlined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, we can anticipate a number of different responses as we go through this death/rebirth moment. By staying aware and engaged with our selves in the process, and recognizing any strategies that could stop our learning, we can move through disorientation and integrate a larger perspective into daily life.

The following responses, identified by Mezirow, can frequently arise during the experience of disorientation. (This is not intended as a prescriptive list, but may be helpful in understanding and staying connected to one’s self in a natural process of integration.)

  • Self-examination – with resulting emotions such as guilt, shame, anger.
  • Critical evaluation and assessment of assumptions.
  • Understanding that this awareness is shared.
  • Exploration of new ways of learning.
  • Figuring out what to do.
  • Learning how to do it.
  • Trying on new roles.
  • Building skills and self-confidence.
  • Integrating into daily life.

Staying open and connected to one’s self during a destabilizing or disorienting encounter and a sustained process of personal or shared inquiry can be difficult, especially over time as we may find habitual patterns of thought and behavior trying to reassert themselves. Here are a few suggestions of ways to keep the inquiry alive and to support the integration and further unfolding of the process:

Self care within the disorientation:

  • Take time and space for ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ – in natural settings and quiet environments, if that is an
  • Feeling more open and vulnerable than usual is to be expected. It can be helpful not forcingone’s self to be with other people, or to share the experience
  • Sleeping patterns may be different and there may be a need for more or less sleep for a while. Try eating lightly and drinking plenty of fluids. Watch any tendency to numb feelings with food, alcohol, or media.
  • Bodywork may be beneficial, but ensure that the therapist is comfortable and capable of being with any emotions that may arise during the session.
  • It is common to feel a bit ‘spacey’, so be attentive, especially when driving.

Bring intention to integration:

  • Meditation, or other methods of reflection such as listening to music; physical activities like walking or swimming;or drawing or writing all offer ways to deepen one’s understanding of what can be learned.
  • Seeking out others’ experiences and looking for resources can inform the meaning one derives from the
  • When one is ready, it may be helpful to talk about what one is Being thoughtful in the choice of who to talk with and being clear about what one needs or expects from this person will support this process.
  • It is important to take time to understand one’s experience and not focus too narrowly as one makes meaning – asking one’s self what it is that is trying to change or emerge. It may take several months or longer for the process of understanding to unfold, and to sense the deeper meaning of what has taken place.

– Adapted from the work of Jack Mezirow

Co-authored by Marianne Murray