Freedom Through Discipline

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You see, when I followed my program, I was in charge of me. I acted as I wanted to, when I decided I would. I had the willpower to enact my choices against intervening circumstances. People thought I was slave to my obsessions, but in reality I was the master of myself. Since letting my actions become dictated by my whims and emotions, I have found myself slave to circumstances. This is because emotions and whims tend to be very susceptible to influence by random circumstances; being stressed out leads to an unmistakable craving for ice cream. "So eat ice cream!" you say. "Why restrict yourself if that's what you want?" Honestly, it's not what I want. It's what my stress wants, or seen another way, it's what my stressful day wants.

Discipline is a practice, just like any other habit. It is not something that can be done one day and not another. The whole point of discipline is that it is ongoing. By practicing discipline, you strengthen your willpower, giving you the ability to assert your desires against the capricious currents of life.

The Perfect Moment...Will Never Arrive

Life's circumstances will never align perfectly. At no point in life will everything you've ever wanted exist at the same time. Maybe you have the perfect family and job, but you're living somewhere you hate. Maybe you've finally got the body you've always dreamed of, but you have no time to share it with anyone. There will always be something missing. And so, if you are in the habit of waiting for circumstances to line up for you to undertake whatever projects you have waiting, you'll never start, much less finish.

Meditation is a good example of this kind of practice. One of the key tenets of Zen meditation is to sit regularly, no matter how you feel. If you are sleepy, sit. If you are distracted, sit. If you are uncomfortable in the zazen posture, sit. It isn't so much about the meditation itself as the act of sitting and meditating despite circumstance. This is where much of the benefit of meditation comes from: simply committing to the practice.

Pointless Ritual

In many circles of higher learning (like the ones I frequented), there is a distinct tendency to belittle religious rituals that have no apparent practical purpose. In fact, this trend can be seen in the larger context of American society. Oriental Martial Arts, so long associated with tradition-bound movements and rituals that had nothing to do with fighting, have been supplanted with Mixed Martial Arts. The new styles have no time for anything but fighting technique and conditioning.

Of course, the older styles have been around of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years, and I've learned that there is often a good reason for even the most obscure rituals. The purpose is often not apparent until many years down the line. In many cases, the purpose of the rituals is simply to enforce attention to seemingly pointless details. In the case of Martial Arts, taking the time to give heed to these little routines leads to the development of discipline and attention to detail in the more important movements. The result of dropping these rituals has been a loss of discipline in a large number of practitioners of MMA.

Many of the rituals I find myself ignoring are those we are taught as chores when young, and which we become exempt from when we are older. It is only later that we realize why mother was so insistent that we make our bed every morning. The discipline of making my bed, tidying my room, and folding my clothes leads to a freedom from clutter. By taking the time to clean myself and my space, I am asserting to the world that I value my person and my space above random circumstances. Being too tired to clean my room, but doing it anyway, reminds me that looking after myself is a priority above indulging my whims. There is a lot of respect paid to people that are well-dressed and tidy at all times of day, and under a wide variety of circumstances. There is something awe-inspiring about the guy who shows up clean-shaven, day after day, in the midst of a medical or political emergency. We respect them because they seem immune to the difficulty of the situation, and therefore stronger than the chaos that is unfolding. They become a steady rock in a raging flood, something to hold on to for others and for themselves.

In developing the habit of discipline still requires acknowledging your own needs and limitations. But there is a temptation to overestimate these limitations and use them as excuses to undermine your own routines and disciplines. It takes practice to learn when you need to give yourself a break and when you should just suck it up. Trusting your own experience and being in touch with yourself can help you make the right call. But the best way to gain this sort of insight into yourself is to hold yourself accountable to your practice and your discipline.

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