How to Be Disciplined

We often try to discipline ourselves by force. But this doesn't always work. What is discipline then, if it's not making yourself do all the stuff you know you're supposed to do?
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There are some things I'm good at, if I do say so myself. I know about generosity. I know from patience. I know how to try really, really hard. I'm devoted to the search for wisdom. However there is one skill that I truly suck at and, without it, all these other good qualities are considerably weaker than they could be. That skill?


Readers of my blog may be aware of an experiment I conducted about a year or so ago called "The Great Discipline Experiment" or GDE, in which I took all the things I KNOW I want to (and should) do -- meditate, journal, write, exercise, drink a lot of water, answer all my emails, eat healthy, take vitamins, spend time focused on those I love -- and tried to do them. Every day. Period. For a month. I had become sick of being all "I need to take better care of myself" and "I must write Every Single Day" and "Susan, you are WASTING YOUR LIFE. Get with it."

I should have been able to do this, right? I mean, these are things I want to do, should do, must do in this life. They are non-negotiable.

However, the experiment was a bust. I became very anxious and completely freaked out. I woke up worried that I would fail. I lost patience with myself throughout the day. If I was 15 minutes late for anything on my schedule, I felt a wave of self-loathing. I was so angry with myself all day. And when I did manage to accomplish my tasks, rather than relaxing, I cracked the whip harder. Faster. More. Better. Every time I approached the finish line, I moved it further away. Hey, I told myself, if you're not super hard on yourself, you will fail. It's happened before.

This -- doing everything you're supposed to do on schedule -- can't be what is meant by discipline, which is one of the six paramitas or transcendent actions in Buddhism. These six are the actions of a bodhisattva: generosity, patience, exertion, discipline, mindfulness, and wisdom. I sort of get generosity and so on, but my view of discipline hardly seems likely to turn me into a compassionate person who wishes to be of benefit to all sentient beings. My view did the opposite -- it made me cranky, impatient, and judgmental.

Time for a do-over.

What is discipline then, if it's not making yourself do all the stuff you know you're supposed to do?

The practice of sitting meditation begins to shed some light on the Buddhist view of discipline. In meditation (instruction here), you cultivate focus and awareness by placing your attention on your breath rather than your thoughts. PS It has nothing to do with emptying the mind of thought!! Almost impossible!! Stop trying!! Big hoax!! Instead, you take a different view of your thoughts by seeing them as passing phenomena while your primary allegiance, attention-wise, is to your breath as it flows in and out through your nose. When you forget to do this and become wholly absorbed in thought again, you simply come back, with kindness toward yourself.

This gentle coming back is our first clue as to what true discipline is. It has nothing to do with bullying yourself. It has nothing do with being "good" or "bad." In fact, it has nothing to do with anything other than simply coming back. There is no narrative attached to this action, it is what it is. Coming back is always possible -- whether to your breath in meditation, the taste of your dinner, the ache of your heart which needs attention, or the beauty of the flowers in your garden.

To come back, you have to have a sense of what it means to be gone, to be able to recognize where you are altogether. In meditation, something happens to let you know that you are "gone," i.e. absorbed primarily in thought rather than breath. That something is very, very interesting. You're sitting on your cushion, following breath, following breath, following breath, thinking about dinner, worrying you're too fat, admonishing yourself to eat more vegetables, remembering that time you ate vegetables with that person you used to go out with, hey whatever happened to him/her, I really loved him/her, what an asshole s/he was for breaking up with me, no one will ever love me, hey, I'm really getting hungry now, is that a stain on the carpet? ... and so on. (This is how mind works.) Suddenly in mid-longing, mid-kvetching, or mid-meandering, a voice comes in from, well, somewhere. It says, "Thinking. You are thinking. Time to go back to breath." And so you do.

Have you ever wondered where that voice comes from? I have. A lot. I don't really know the answer, but I do know what it feels like when this voice re-arises to point out to me my whereabouts.

  • She cuts discursiveness.
  • She is like a breath of fresh air.
  • She is extremely precise and aware.
  • I love her.
  • She leads me back to where I want to be, over and over again.

With her, I can remember that I'm supposed to be writing or practicing or thinking of others. Then I am free to act on what I know is right. She cuts into the stream of laziness I so easily get swept away by, not by shaming me, not at all, but by reminding me of who I am and where my devotion lies. She is the key player when it comes to discipline.

Meditation practice introduces me to her, over and over. When she is extremely active, it is easy to stay on task. She brings me back to whatever I am doing. And I don't have to tell you what it feels like at the end of a day where you have honored your commitments to yourself, to others, and to your very life -- you feel complete, unadulterated joy. All is right with the world. You feel tremendously heartened. Inspired. Lighthearted.

Whether or not things have gone well or poorly, when you stand right in the middle of your life, honoring your true priorities, the day ends with a kind of delicious fatigue. You are in the game. You are living your authentic life. You feel like you can fly. You can't wait to get up in the morning and begin again.

The buzz killer when it comes to this sort of right action is laziness, which, whether from a Western or Eastern perspective, is the opposite of discipline. Laziness is never good. (I'm not saying that relaxing isn't good, it IS. But you can be lazy about relaxing. They're not the same thing.)

The Buddhist view of laziness gives interesting insight into what its opposite -- discipline -- must be. There are three kinds of laziness:

  1. Regular. This is the kind we all understand, the kind that means lying around, procrastinating, becoming drowsier and drowsier.

  • Being too busy. Yes, this is considered a form of laziness. Because when you're too busy to pay attention to your true priorities, something has gone wrong. You've slacked on what is important for the sake of less essential (for you) activities.
  • Becoming disheartened. I love that this is considered a form of laziness. Rather than being an indication of a psychological problem, disheartenment is simply thought of as a kind of forgetfulness: you've forgotten that, for good reason, you actually do believe in yourself and your path. You have seen proof of your own basic goodness, otherwise you wouldn't be so invested in creating a great life. So becoming discouraged means you've let your commitments slip because you've let life, other people, TV commercials, and whatnot be the judge of your worth rather than your inner knowing.
  • So let's look at the opposites of these traits to discover what is at the heart of true discipline.

    At the other end of the spectrum from regular laziness is exertion. Sometimes this exertion looks like pure grunt work (which is simply necessary, there is just no way around it -- believe me, I've looked) but sometimes, like a runner's high, it looks like effortlessness. And just like a runner's high, it comes from practice, commitment, and, ultimately, letting go. So rather than tightening your grip on your actions, you can let go into the natural flow of your own goodness and commitment and let this be your fuel. In this sense, trust is the opposite of inertia.

    The opposite of being too busy is, well, not being too busy. But trying to be less busy by yelling at yourself for being too busy doesn't usually work. Instead, you could remember that at some point you recognized that, in a very deep sense, meditation or yoga or mastering Spanish or being an incredible parent was where your true destiny lay. When you remember this and place your efforts in service of what you know is your higher calling, something interesting happens. Whether things are going well or poorly on a particular day, you relax. When you're on the right path, you don't waiver -- not because you have superhuman will, but because you're simply in the right place and you know it. So the opposite of being too busy is to relax into your sense of inner knowing.

    And the opposite of disheartenment? Well, it's not pep-talking your way back into the driver's seat by chanting "You can do it! Show me what you've got! Don't be a wuss! YOU MUST CRUSH IT!" (with apologies to Gary V, whom I looove). And so on. Instead, the opposite of disheartenment could be recalling that you know yoga is good for you or the pleasure you get from teaching your child how to live and love, and the natural aspiration that arises from that. It's not based on motivating yourself through the promise of future goodies, but more through the recollection of the joy you have already experienced when you live your passion, no matter what anyone says. It's like when you finally convince yourself to start exercising again after a few weeks (or months or years): the moment you begin, you think, holy crap. This is great. This is the best. How could I have let this go?? And right there, your heart becomes full again and the laziness of self-doubt is banished for the meantime.

    So rather than using aggressive means to get back on the good foot, try relying on trust, relaxation, and your deepest inner knowing of what an awesome, glorious, unique, and completely precious being you are. These are far more motivating (and true) than shame and disappointment. They bring the qualities of authentic inspiration and tremendous life force.

    To do all this, all you have to do is remember to come back. That's it. At its heart, discipline is simply coming back. (Here is a link to a story that illustrates this interpretation.) The Practice of Tranquility (Shamatha meditation) teaches this skill, exactly.

    Phew. I'm so happy to have written this. I've honored my intention to be disciplined about writing. It feels crazy good.

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