For most of my life, the word discipline instilled one of two images in my mind: a catholic school teacher beating students knuckles with a ruler for looking out the window during catechism, or my professor of Buddhist Philosophy in college whose militancy could make a West Point sergeant cry. Needless to say, for most of my life, I have lived a very undisciplined existence, until the day came when I no longer had a choice.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, discipline is “training that makes people more willing to obey or more able to control themselves, often in the form of rules, and punishments if these are broken, or the behavior produced by this training”. There is still a part of me that cringes when I read that definition. Words like “obey” and “punishment” make me want to do exactly the opposite - rebel, run wild, yell “fuck the patriarchy”, and then dance like a hooligan. Sounds like way more fun right?
Well dear reader, as with all things in life, I am here to say that discipline is not so dualistic. If we can strip away the centuries of oppression, shame, and punitive dogma that often get tied up in its connotation, then we might see the essence of discipline: a creative and authentic expression of self through passion, dedication, and consistency.
So why, then, is it so hard to be disciplined?
At no time in human history has it been more difficult to be disciplined than it is today. We have 24/7 access to unlimited amounts of information on our phones, smart watches, and computers. Social media has created an entire universe of falsely advertised lives, and our news channels prioritize inflammatory, and often misleading, information over truth.
We are bombarded with different versions of life; unlimited options of who we could be, what we might believe, or how we might want to act. And it is never-ending.
If discipline is an expression of self, then in order to build discipline you will need to be able to first answer the following two questions:
Who are you?
And As Mary Oliver asks,
What is it you want to do with this one wild and precious life?
In order to answer these questions with any kind of authority, you will have to get quiet, find stillness in your mind and body, and learn how to listen - not to anything external, but to your own truth. And if you have ever experienced any kind of trauma, your truth may be hidden behind stories that once kept you alive, but that now need to be released so that YOU can arrive.
It is from here, the present moment, that the real you can begin to create a discipline; your own way of being each day that allows your fullest self to show up, and gives you the most opportunity to live the life that YOU want.
Despite what the institution may have led you to believe, discipline does not have to be rigid. It can evolve and grow as you do. Your discipline is yours alone, and it is a tool for living the life you want.
What is life like without discipline?
As I mentioned before, for most of my life I avoided discipline as much as I could, believing that in doing so I was giving myself as much freedom as possible. It is clear to me now that this was an illusion. In reality I was a slave to impulse, and impulse is a trickster, a bamboozler of the highest order. Impulse doesn’t care about tomorrow and it doesn’t really understand the past. It's just a momentary driver that is under a heavy influence of unfiltered external stimuli.
The twin sister of impulse is intuition. Intuition is our highest truth and arguably our most important guiding force. But as twins, intuition and impulse are often hard to distinguish from one another. Impulse knows all the thoughts to flood your mind to make you believe that your intuition is speaking.
Impulse says, “Hit the snooze button, I need sleep more than a morning practice”.
Intuition says, “Good morning, let’s make this a great day”.
Impulse says, “I need a stiff drink (or 5) after this awful day at work”.
Intuition says, “Damn that was a tough day, what can I do now to recover so that tomorrow is better”?
Impulse says, “Buy those weight loss pill you saw on Instagram, they alone will finally give you the beach bod of your dreams”.
Intuition says, “Let’s go for a walk and leave our phones at home”.
A life led by impulse, is a life of instant gratification, often at the expense of health, happiness, and meaning.
It took me almost three decades of living into impulse before Addison’s Disease stopped the show. It is a rare disease that most doctors don’t understand, and as such, the treatment is rarely well managed by healthcare professionals. It became clear early on that if I was going to continue living, discipline would have to be a non-negotiable part of my daily life. Impulse no longer has a seat at my table, and each day I have to use my intuition to guide my treatment, because a failure to do so could quickly land me in the hospital.
To be clear, I am not saying that having a lack of discipline will give you Addison’s. I’m simply sharing my story as an example of how living into impulse is an illusion of freedom. For me, this disease is a gift (maybe like getting underwear for Christmas); it forced me to get hyper focused on answering the questions: “Who am I, and What do I want to do with this precious life”. From there, the discipline came naturally, and today I don’t see it as oppressive or dogmatic but rather as a path to freedom.
Intuition tells us how to care for our mind and body in a way that aligns with our highest truth, discipline then takes intuition and turns it into a life well lived.
No one can tell you what your discipline should be, this is something you will need to discover for yourself. In doing so, you will unlock a deeply meaningful life where you are free to be exactly who YOU are. It is hard work to have discipline, made even harder by the illusions and distractions of the 21st century. It is the ultimate act of rebellion to step away from the noise, tune into yourself, and build a life that is yours.
This is yoga.