The History of Disapointment

And a practice to find direction from within it.

Let’s face it — none of us are where we want to be. My floors are all scratched up. When I run, I hear a weird clicking noise in my knee. I should read more books. I’m going to have to forage in retirement. The list goes on, and it has been going on for thousands of years.

In the 4th century BC, Plato wrote that truth, beauty, and perfection exist only as ideas and that this world, which we know through our senses, is a fallen, shadow version of reality. Plato is credited with setting the stage for later Judeo-Christian views that praised a higher, more satisfying world elsewhere. (He also laid the groundwork for countless Batman comic books that open with a dark and rainy night in Gotham.)

Elsewhere on earth, and just a few decades before Plato, the historical Buddha delivered his first sermon at a deer sanctuary in Sarnath, India. “The Four Noble Truths,” as those teachings are known, offer a striking starting point for a spiritual conversation that has been going on for 2,500 years since. At the time, the Buddha was speaking to just five poor, spiritual aspirants though his message resonates with 21st century tech-inundated Westerners as well.

The gist is that you aren’t crazy — suffering is real. We try to protect ourselves from the constant stream of change and interdependence with the rest of the world, but we can’t. Illness, envy, and planetary stress are here. As the first step of sanity, we must acknowledge that, yes, we are dissatisfied and no, our current strategy isn’t working.

In her own way, the 20th-century modern dancer, Martha Graham, found creativity within the zone of disappointment.

“There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

And, of course, Mick, in 1965, railed against mass-market fantasies:

“When I’m watchin’ my TV and a man comes on and tells me
How white my shirts can be
But, he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me

I can’t get no satisfaction
’Cause I try and I try and I try and I try…”

I wanted to start with this concession, this truth, because if we only absorb certain American beliefs, you might believe the whopper that anything in life is achievable — or avoidable — if you try hard enough. As if you could be careful or skilled enough to drive around disappointment. Of course, we do have agency and we can make wise or foolish choices. However, if we don’t acknowledge that disappointment and constant change are a feature of life, we tend to internalize a heavy sense of blame.

I must tell you that nearly every person I encounter with chronic pain or illness carries some version of, “This is my fault.” (Even if they can’t quite articulate how this was their fault.) In a practical sense, this thick smog of shame we often feel about ourselves leaves us isolated and unable to move forward because we aren’t seeing clearly. We walk around thinking we made a cosmic mistake and are forever being punished. If we had only tried harder in school; done our Pilates; if we hadn’t had the parents we did.

Where I’ve landed is that dissatisfaction is nothing to be ashamed of. For thousands of years, great (and admittedly not so great) thinkers have tried to understand why disappointment is such a central feature of human existence. Plato wanted to fuse his mind with the Eternal, the Forms, as he called them. It would be glorious. Perfect. The Buddha, in contrast, when he became enlightened was said to express his realization by simply touching the earth he was sitting on. He had struggled for years to gain enlightenment — he had starved himself and practiced harsh ascetic rituals in the forest. He thought he could change everything about himself and purify. He was all alone for so long.

And what did he do, in the end, when some kind of enlightenment occurred? He rejoined the planet. He was not going to be teleported into the celestial realm. He was going to stay here. And if he felt disappointment, he also might have felt relief. He could stop searching all over the place to make his problems go away. And he didn’t have to hurt himself anymore.

Disappointment is natural and eternal. We don’t have to let it define us. What would it be like to imagine that our enlightenment might be found inside our disappointment, not elsewhere?

One practice you can try is this:

  • When you’re disappointed (which usually happens more than we realize), feel your body. Your chest, heart, throat, jaw and face muscles. You can always put a hand on your body both as reassurance and as a way to connect with feeling.
  • Remind yourself that there’s nothing wrong with what you’re experiencing, even if it feels incompatible with hunky-dory small talk. Forget about that.
  • Take 3 deep breaths and appreciate this. Appreciate the complexity of being a person.
  • Lastly, make an intention that you will be there for yourself.

So in closing, let’s sing in solidarity,

“We can’t get no satisfaction… we try and we try and we try and we try…”

In health,


Photo Credit:

Mick Jagger Photo

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Buddha Photo,_Patan_Museum,_Patan_Durbar_Square.jpg

Originally published at on November 3, 2020.

Meditation + Alexander Technique teacher. Author of “Don’t Get Better,” forthcoming guide to sanity, humor, and wisdom during illness.

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