It seems to me that we live in a time when we require self-discipline more than ever. We are endlessly encouraged to scroll more on our social media feeds, with no real natural end point other than our own will power. There is a proliferation of processed food, some of which is deliberately designed to be the perfect mixture of sugars and fats to drive us to not want to stop consuming it. We can buy pretty much anything, at any time, from anywhere, and expect it to arrive with relative instancy. It’s possible to binge watch what we want to view, on demand, without having to wait until next week. And there is an endless supply of emails and other notifications which could keep us hooked in indefinitely.
I could go on, but I guess you get my point. We have somehow manipulated our environment into manipulating us. As podcaster Rich Roll observed, whereas once we used to have to actively go out of our way to find stimulation, now the default is stimulation and we actively have to go out of our way to seek quiet, peace and the opportunity to be sufficiently undisturbed to go inwards. But due to the current nature of the modern world, this takes increasing amounts of discipline. Nevertheless, I believe it to be important, not least because, as Greg McKeown wrote in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less:
‘Remember that if you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will.’
And when we take pause to remind ourselves that our time here is finite, it soon becomes even more apparent to us how important it is to make choices in every moment, every day, that are aligned with how we want to live our lives.
So how do we do this? How do we find the discipline required to put in place self-imposed limits in a world that wants to drive us to be constantly plugged in and endlessly consuming?
Coming to our yoga mat and meditation cushion is a good start in building our self-discipline muscle. In yoga, discipline is one aspect of the principle referred to as ‘tapas’ and in Buddhist teachings, discipline is seen as a ‘wish fulfilling jewel’, enabling one to live a conscious life, acting appropriately and mindfully in alignment with one’s own values. And like all muscles, self-discipline gets stronger with exercise; in fact the ancient teachings tell us that if we are disciplined, we actually gain energy, we gain strength and then in turn it becomes easier and easier to be disciplined.
Each time you turn up to your yoga class, or take a seat on your meditation cushion, you are exercising self-discipline. You have overcome the urge to stay at home, or answer one last email, or watch one more episode, or whatever it is that might have been wanting to keep you hooked in. I often say that the act of coming to your mat or cushion is as much a part of the practice as what happens on the mat or cushion. You can support this aspect of discipline building by, as Rick Hanson writes, finding ‘the structures, routines and allies that help you keep going.’ That’s why finding yourself a yoga class or meditation group with a supportive teacher and student community, and booking in for a series of sessions, and/or taking the time to slowly and steadily build the habit of home practice into your daily routines, can help you to commit to your practice.
Then of course, there is what actually happens on the mat or meditation cushion. In mindfulness meditation, the practice asks of us to place our awareness on our breath, notice each and every time our awareness has left the breath and then replace our awareness back to our breath – a process we repeat over and over again, given that the nature of the mind is to be moving. Each replacement is a bicep curl for the mind, through which we gain the strength to place our awareness on something of our own choosing. And when you leave the cushion, this strength of mind goes with you, allowing you to make those conscious and mindful choices, rather than moving through life on autopilot, at the mercy of the next grab for your attention from the modern world.
On our yoga mat, as well as working with the mind, we also work with discipline of breath and body. As we become more experienced with breathwork, we learn the control of breath counts and retentions, practicing overriding more automatic impulses. As you take strengthening holds in your Hatha practice, or maintain the resolve of prolonged stillness as you experience the sensations of stretch in your Yin practice, you again build the muscle of self-discipline, learning that you can be with urges to move, that these urges are, like all things, impermanent. And again this is a knowledge that lingers with you long after you have left the mat.
Because of course, we don’t practice yoga or mindfulness meditation to get good at yoga or become the best meditator. We do it to get better at how we live our lives. This requires discipline, but the jewel it provides us with is that when the end of our time here comes, we can look back and know we lived the life we wanted to, a consciously designed life.
Feeling inspired to practice?
Consider, how can you exercise your discipline muscle this week? What is one small action or change you would like to commit to?
If you’re not sure, begin with the commitment to be kind to yourself. This is where the Buddhist teachings tell us that the practice of discipline starts. We practice ‘generous discipline’, remembering that discipline can be gentle. It is not about being perfect, but about doing one’s best and changing things slowly over time.
Whatever you choose, have regular check-ins with yourself. As Rick Hanson advises:
‘Tell the truth to yourself about what’s actually happening. Are you doing what you had intended to do? If you’re not, admit it to yourself. Then start over: re-find your wholehearted commitment, see what there is to do, and do it.’
© Catherine Rolfe 2023
Come and explore the practice of generous discipline with me in the next Yoga Circle at The Self Centre on October 6th. Click here for more details and to book.