I’m a freedom loving guy. I like free time. I prefer ambling to planning on vacations. Anyone who knows me, knows that I like to think freely and outside the box. I’d rather begin an organization of my own than fit into anyone else’s. I am lost when I try to read the directions for a new gadget. I am uncomfortable with strict guidelines – in truth, with rules of any kind.
There’s no inherent virtue in this way of being. In fact, it’s often problematic for me. It gets me into lots of trouble, multiplies the time and effort it takes to get things done, and often leaves me confused. It slows my adaptation to certain kinds of innovations, my techno-dinosaur status a testament to that. And it’s often problematic for others.
But my love for discipline and order may be greater still. I love, I need, a disciplined life. So much so that I am miserable when I stray too far. Whenever I do, I vow to return as soon as I can.
Just to be concrete, let me describe a disciplined day. I wake in the morning, make a cup of coffee, and sit briefly with the newspaper. Then I write in my journal, trying to square up my inner and outer lives, understanding what I’m thinking and feeling so that I act as consciously as I can through the day. That’s a discipline all by itself. Then I meditate—not for long, maybe 20 – 30 minutes. You know that the regularity and ‘proper’ practice of meditation requires discipline.
Then I write. These days I’m writing essays for my blog. In days past, I would be working on a professional article or a book. Having “earned it” through all this disciplined activity, I then exercise for an hour or an hour and a half. By now it’s early afternoon and I begin to read. At this time of day, it’s usually a nonfiction book, sometimes in keeping with my writing project but often just something that interests me. I like to learn, always have, and I feel better about life if I’m actively engaged in learning. Focusing, trying to understand, keeping up…these require discipline.
Then the rest of the day—it could now be 3:00 or 4:00—is open. I rest, talk with Franny or friends or both. I read a novel. I nap, a new and delightful habit. It all feels good, in much the way that I feel deeply relaxed and free after vigorous exercise. And when I awaken in the morning, assured that this is how I’ll spend my day, I greet the morning with uncomplicated calm and pleasure. Which, I’ll admit, is part of my goal in life.
There’s more to value in a discipline than a well-scheduled day, of course. Like maintaining clear, sturdy, kind attitudes and positions with children, grandchildren, family, friends, colleagues—and strangers. But for this essay, let me try to explain why day-to-day discipline, in itself, has become my holy grail.
At the least, sustaining a disciplined approach to life gives me a sense of self-control. It makes me feel like I am the prime mover. When immersed in my various disciplines, I feel like I have chosen my activities. Nothing is just happening to me. Of equal importance, discipline, which requires a great deal of concentration on what I’m doing, deflects lots of the internal chatter and emotional winds, the currents of discontent and self-criticism, that readily push me about when I am lax. Ultimately, random or unscheduled days aren’t as calming as trustworthy regimens.
Discipline brings a rhythm into my life. You do this and then that and then this again. Movement from activity to activity becomes almost unconscious. Rhythm has a way of taking over, making every motion feel almost effortless. Think of running or dancing. When I am in rhythm my body moves and my mind flows—without thinking. I’m not fighting myself. So it is when I move from my journal to meditation, from meditation to writing to … well you get the picture. I’m dancing.
Here’s the irony about discipline, though. Just as self-discipline provides a sense of control, it simultaneously releases me from my need for control. The safety of control helps me let go. In the midst of journal writing, for instance, my mind wanders. My imagination frees up. My thoughts go to ordinary, as well as surprising, even sometimes forbidden, places. Letting go within the confined spaces of a discipline brings out a sense of spaciousness, a safe place to be out of control; and being out of control in that safe way reassures me that I am in control. Are you following?
There’s also a problem that comes with the need for discipline: it never completely succeeds. I have it and I lose it. When I’ve been disciplined for a long while, the loss sometimes feels like a relief—I can play, I can relax; I can be naughty—but it’s also a little bit like falling off the wagon. That first drink may not lure me away for long but a number of drinks will. Then I’m disappointed with myself. I berate myself. Then I exhort myself: “Get back into the rhythm, Barry.” Sometimes I succeed readily and quickly; sometimes the return takes time, even a long time. At such times, I grow irritable, impulsive, sometimes unhappy.
These rhythms of discipline and laxity, order and chaos, are inevitable for seekers of calm places like me. And I need ways to cope with the downside, the periods when I flounder. I’ve come to believe that the measure of my success and failure isn’t in the fall from grace as much as it is in two closely related activities: my ability to tolerate the chaotic times, and the persistence of my efforts to return.
I could devote an entire essay to my efforts to tolerate — the times when I lose a sense of order and purpose, when I feel unable to move forward towards whatever goals I have been seeking or towards an ability to live comfortably without goals. Over time, my tolerance seems to have grown with my ability to trust that ‘this too shall pass.’ And I don’t use the word “trust” lightly. It is, as the scholars would call it, an evidence-based conclusion that I have drawn. I’ve done my research, you see.
While writing in my journal for 50 years, and while meditating, it has been hard to miss: the disappointing times pass. I am less anxious when the chaos arrives. Its strength dissipates when I don’t fight it as hard as once I did. And my ability to return to a disciplined life grows stronger.
I am like a fish out of water when my life in unstructured for too long. I don’t breathe as well. So persistence for me isn’t so much a choice as a necessity—but no longer an onerous necessity nor even a way to return. Persistence, itself, has grown into one of my most important disciplines.