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Introduction: A quest for self-discipline

When we stop to consider it, there are no two less likely pairings than ‘compassion’ and ‘self-discipline’. Together, they border on being oxymoronic. Compassion evokes kindness, empathy, appreciation and caring, while self-discipline evokes the opposite: rigidity, harshness, disdain, and judgement.

For many, self-discipline would be a rather dreary and uninspiring topic, but if we reframe self-discipline as self-mastery, the tone and focus changes. Suddenly, we are in the lofty world of Rumi, Lao Tzu, the Bhagavad Gita and Buddha! Here is what they have to say on the subject.

Be victorious over yourself and not over others. When you attain
victory over yourself, not even the gods can turn it into defeat.

Those who have conquered themselves…
live in peace, alike in cold and heat, pleasure and pain, praise and blame…
To such people a clod of dirt, a stone, and gold are the same…
Because they are impartial, they rise to great heights
The Bhagavad Gita

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power
Lao Tzu

Let’s ask God to help us in self-control,
for one who lacks it lacks His grace. 

The quest for self-discipline is actually a quest for mastery. We seek to transcend what keeps us from fulfilling our heart’s desire. It is a journey of love, a return to a joyful and authentic state of being, an orientation towards living that stems from a long-forgotten kindness, compassion and ease. It is the cultivation of a lifelong practice of presence. As Dancer and choreographer extraordinaire Martha Graham once said, “Whether it means to learn to dance by practising dancing or to learn to live by practising living, the principles are the same. One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God.”

When we consider discipline in the light of mastery, we are approaching it through the lens of its roots in knowledge, teaching, learning, practice, and training as opposed to its conventional meaning of self-control through criticism and punishment. Let us examine the beliefs we hold around the conventional meaning of discipline. This will assist us in moving to a different paradigm of discipline, one that is based on self-mastery through compassion.

Conventional self-discipline

The dictionary defines self-discipline as training ourselves to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.

We could say there are several assumptions hidden behind this definition.

  1. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ are fixed standards against which an offense is being committed.
  2. There is something wrong with the thinking or behavior of the person that needs to be fixed.
  3. Inflicting punishment, pain or suffering is the way to correct the person. Left unchecked, they will continue to be ‘bad’.
  4. Worse, without the imposition and enforcement of a code of conduct, deviation from which needs to be punished, no one can be trusted to do the right thing.

It is no wonder that self-discipline is not more popular. It is one of those things we all aspire to, wish we had, admire when we see it in someone else, and feel we should cultivate but are singularly unenthusiastic about committing to.

Let’s look next at the outcome of the old model of self-discipline, which involves imposing a code of conduct, monitoring for compliance, and penalizing for non-compliance. Does it actually produce the behavior change we are going for? What does it really accomplish?

» The problem with conventional self-discipline

Rhea can’t remember a time when she has not struggled with weight. She recalls clearly an incident from her childhood when an aunt remarked how chubby she had become and laughingly recommended that she should stop eating sweets. Her mother subsequently put her on a diet. She remembers sitting disconsolately at the dinner table, watching her brother gorge on sweets, while she ate her rice and vegetables. She remembers her mother yelling at her when she discovered Rhea sneaking sweets on the sly. She remembers her father’s disappointed face, her grandmother rolling her eyes, her sisters pained expression. “Do you want to be fat? We are trying to help you. Don’t you have any self-control? What’s wrong with you? You are so undisciplined!”

Rhea is 34 now and a veteran of several weight loss programs and still carries on that struggle. “I lack self-discipline,” she confesses. “If only I could make myself exercise every day, if only I could trust myself to ignore the siren call of a greasy samosa! But I can’t. No will power! No matter how hard I try, I can never keep my commitment. I am so weak, I hate myself sometimes. I feel like such a loser. There’s just something seriously wrong with me!”

We can all relate to Rhea’s experience. Perhaps the subject is not weight loss but a desire to sleep more, spend more time with family, play fewer video games, meditate daily, stop drinking coffee, eat on time etc. But the common denominator, when we are trying to change a behavior, is that it always seems to come back to “I just can’t do it. I lack discipline. I feel bad. There is something wrong with me.”

We can see, therefore, that the conventional model of self-discipline serves to reinforce the belief that who I am is the problem and needs to be fixed—usually through punishment. It does not produce the outcome we were going for, be it weight loss, decreased caffeine consumption, a better night’s sleep, or anything else we want for ourselves.

Said another way, the identity [something wrong with me] reinforces the model [I need to be punished because there is something wrong with me] and the model [I deserve to be punished] reinforces the identity [there is something wrong with me]. In this closed system, there is no room to actually change behavior.

» The self that resists self-discipline

The reason self-discipline as a process fails to produce the desired outcome—keeping a commitment—is because the ‘self’ that says it wants to keep the commitment is actually that self who ‘wants to keep a commitment but always fails’. I am not ‘someone who wants to lose weight,’ I am ‘someone who wants to lose weight but can’t’. This is how the identity as a ‘someone with whom something is wrong’ is maintained! In other words, when we decide we want to make a change for good, what kicks in is the very identity that is most invested in not making the change.

The ‘self’ that we need to master, then, is the identity that believes there is something wrong with ‘me’.

» The creation of the ‘something wrong with me’ identity

“We are born charming, fresh and spontaneous and must be civilized before we are fit to participate in society.” — Judith Martin [Miss Manners]

We encounter discipline at a very young age. In our families and schools, disciplining a child is an acceptable part of socialization. Unfortunately, as children we internalize our caregiver’s discipline not as information that assists us to change behavior but as feedback that I am bad and I need to be punished. We develop an identity, a sense of self, based on the erroneous conclusion that there is ‘something wrong with me’.

Another regrettable by-product of socialization is the development of an inner critic—our internal source of self-discipline—that we tend to model on our perceptions of the most traumatic encounters of our childhood. This slave driver/drill sergeant/schoolmaster stays with us as a harsh, critical, often hateful voice in our head from which we receive constant messages along the lines of: “You shouldn’t have done that”, “What’s wrong with you?”, “You’re hopeless”, “They hate you”, “You’re fat”, “You’ll never amount to anything”.

Man frustrated with his inner voice
Battling the voices that tell you that something is wrong with you, is the first step towards self-discipline

The inner critic’s constant yammering keeps alive the self that believes there really is something wrong with me. If it is not criticizing self, it is criticizing someone else. Check in for a moment to see if you can hear this voice. Perhaps it is saying something like “I don’t get this, this doesn’t make any sense, or this theory is just more psycho babble.”

If we pay attention to that voice in the head, we start to notice something really interesting. The voice is always focused on what is wrong. The inevitable conclusion of listening to that voice is to feel bad. I feel bad because I did not do X well, I failed to meet Y standard, I should have done Z differently. Or, I said something mean about her and that makes me a bad person. We are so used to the voice that we believe it is who we are and that it speaks for us, and we—unconsciously and without question—claim for ourselves its negative opinions.

The unconscious, unexamined belief that there is something wrong with ‘me’, reinforced by the voice of the disciplinarian in our head, makes self-discipline the automatic and only way to keep ‘me’ in line.

Let’s look at the process of failing to follow through with keeping commitments to see the truth of this statement.

» How the identity of ‘something wrong with me’ maintains itself

Most of us have a history of deciding that there’s something we want to do. We begin with great inspiration and enthusiasm. After a few days, the enthusiasm starts to wane and the commitment falls away as daily life, work, and the to-do list start getting in the way. We feel the familiar discouragement, taste the sourness of failure, and touch yet again that depressing malaise of feeling bad. We give up and conclude we have failed again—a person who lacks willpower and self-discipline!

If we pay close attention to this process, we notice a couple of things.

First, as soon as the commitment is made, we find ourselves actively engaged—not in the process of keeping the commitment but in the process of not keeping it. Have you ever had the experience of just lacing up those shoes and heading to the track without engaging in some conversation that is designed to prevent you from doing just that? There are always a dozen reasons not to exercise—too tired, too much work, kids need to be fed, do it tomorrow, curtains need to be fixed, don’t have the right equipment, it’s raining… If we keep paying attention to the ‘how’ of not keeping commitments, we become aware of listening to a constant conversation talking us out of doing what we want to do. Distraction, procrastination, avoidance, and plain old resistance in the language of “I don’t want to, I don’t feel like it, I can’t!” is our actual experience of how we keep commitments.

Second, we see that feeling bad about not keeping commitments is an integral part of the process. In fact, we are deeply conditioned to believe that ‘trying hard and feeling bad’ is a good, right-person way to be. And, the erroneous belief continues—the worse we feel and the more self-flagellation we indulge in, the greater the possibility we will be successful the next time around.

The truth of the matter is that feeling bad does not assist us in keeping commitments. Quite the opposite. All feeling bad accomplishes is to distract us from examining what is really going on, keeping in place the age-old belief that ‘there really is something wrong with me’.

The bottom-line: if you look closely you will see that ‘keeping commitments by being disciplined’ is not a process designed to keep commitments or be disciplined. The process we’ve been taught to believe will enable us to keep commitments is actually in place to keep an ego identity intact.

Which ego identity?

The identity of ‘there is something wrong with me.’

» Indulging in self-sabotage

As confusing as this seems at first look, what we’re up against is that the self that ‘needs to be improved’ or ‘needs to acquire self-discipline’ but is actually not interested in either.

Because it doesn’t occur to us to stop and examine the process, we don’t realize that the real aim of the self that is attempting to engage in self-improvement is to fail at the task.

At this point, many reading this are likely hearing scoffing, derisive voices. “Oh, please! Are you saying that I want to fail? Come on, isn’t this a bit disingenuous? Sounds like ducking responsibility to me.” But our experience of failing to keep commitments must at least open us to the possibility that there is a force thwarting our efforts to follow through on the very things that we want to do, primarily things that take care of our hearts.

Transcending this obstructive force and dismantling the identity that is wedded to ‘there is something wrong with me’ is our challenge.

Even if we don’t feel ready to accept that this identity is controlling us, ensuring the exact opposite outcome of our heart’s desire, and that it is what we engage when we want to make changes that are good for us, we must be open to exploring this alternate possibility if we are to be free to have the life we want.

Compassionate self-discipline

We accept the necessity of punitive self-discipline because we believe we cannot be trusted to do the right thing. Not trusting ourselves is another unfortunate result of childhood conditioning. The good news is that we can unlearn that distrust. Even if we succumb to the habit of listening to the harsh critic inside of us, we have not lost our access to compassion, joy, curiosity, kindness and caring as a way of being in the world. It is, after all, our natural state.

Most of us have had experiences of being mentored, assisted, supported and nurtured—that one teacher who sparked our imagination and made a particular subject come alive, the aunt who made learning fun, the colleague who helped us find our way around the job, the friend who is unfailingly encouraging and on our side no matter what. We know and understand the process of receiving and giving, the intimacy of safety that confers trust, of a loving kindness that can inspire us to achievement where no amount of conventional self-discipline could.

Learning to trust ourselves, learning to trust the intelligence that eggs us on to make good choices is the practice we call compassionate self-discipline.

Compassionate self-discipline is simply allowing the intelligence and generosity that is our authentic nature to guide us in every moment. It has nothing to do with discipline and everything to do with being present. Instead of being engaged in distracted, unfocused, addictive behaviors that are based in an ‘I-need-to-fix-myself’ mentality, we train ourselves to pay attention, focusing on what is here to do in this moment, bringing compassion to all aspects of daily life.

We don’t lack self-discipline, we lack presence. So the question is not “How do I become more disciplined?”

The question is: “How do I learn to live in the present?”

Before we address that question, there is another one that arises: Why would we continue to use a loaded word like “self-discipline” to describe this different approach? Clearly, we are not using the word in its conventional sense. We use it to convey the principles of training and vigilance required to re-program the process of keeping commitments to ourselves. Training the attention requires discipline, but it is the discipline of learning a skill or a focus. It is not disciplining the ‘person’. This is an essential distinction to understand.

» The how of being present

Meditation is a time-honored way of learning to pay attention. We can use an exploration of the process of meditation to explore the components of compassionate self-discipline.

Here are the instructions for beginning a meditation practice

  • Decide on a time and frequency to meditate
  • Set a device, such as a kitchen timer, to signal the end of meditation
  • Find a posture on the cushion that is most comfortable
  • Focus your attention on the breath
  • Count your breath as a way to focus your attention. At the bottom of the first exhalation count one; at the bottom of the second, count two. Continue for 10 breaths, and then begin counting again at one
  • If you find your attention wandering, gently bring it back to the breath and restart the counting at one
  • When the timer signals the end of the meditation period, bow and get up.
Man meditating
Meditation can help us explore and experience the components of compassionate self-discipline

As we look at these instructions, several things jump out.

  • There is a recommended schedule and frequency of meditation
  • You are not asked to debate whether or not to meditate.
  • There is no standard of performance
  • There are no criteria to assess a period of meditation as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
  • There is no information about what makes you a good or bad meditator
  • There is nothing to indicate whether you are a good or bad person for having kept the commitment to meditate.
  • There is an expectation that the attention will wander. That does not make for a bad meditation nor does it make you a bad meditator
  • There is instruction to gently redirect the attention when the attention strays; no punishment meted
  • There is no instruction to stop meditation; the implication is that it’s a practice and you will become more proficient in the process as you practise
  • You have to learn how to notice that the attention is wandering
  • You have to learn how to bring the attention back
  • You have to practise to keep the commitment to meditate.

The above criteria define compassionate self-discipline.

To summarize:

  • This requires a commitment to practice
  • It’s a process of learning a skill
  • There are no standards or evaluations
  • There are no consequences if we don’t excel out of the gate—or ever.

» The how of the compassionate way

Jana tells this story:

“When a two-year relationship ended, it took me a very long time to get over the pain of being dumped. I would try not to think about him and obsess on what went wrong. In my mind, the self-talk was about how wonderful he was, how happy I was with him, how much I’d lost, etc. I knew it wasn’t helpful to dwell on the loss, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t help myself. There was a voice that would berate me for being weak and needy. It called me pathetic for clinging to the past. This process went on for a long time, trying not to think about him, indulging in thinking about him, then getting beaten up for thinking about him.

“Because I have an awareness practice, I practiced noticing the whole process. Could I stop listening to the voice that said I was needy? Could I be with the pain of loss without concluding that I was at fault for being jilted? Could I feel compassion for the person [me] who was in pain but not punish her or try to discipline her into not engaging in ‘weak’ behaviors?

“One morning during meditation, the usual mind chatter started up about missing him. But almost simultaneously, another possibility was there. A compassionate presence was there alongside the sad and longing voices. It invited me to be present with it, to let go of the process of longing and then being beaten up for longing, and drop into unconditional love and acceptance of the whole process. In that moment, I was willing to drop the sad old stories and be with my heart.

“In the months to come, old stories that previously plunged me into loneliness and longing would arise. I practiced choosing the experience of being with compassion, being with the person in pain. Over time I learned to accept that I did not need to believe the stories that I was pathetic. I realized that the person who missed him really did not want to get over him and was really not the person I wanted to be. I compassionately let go of the identity of being a pathetic loser who would rather stay in suffering. And through compassionate self-acceptance, trained myself out of the behaviors [emails, Facebook, fantasies] that kept alive the story of ‘missing him’ but really being a ‘pathetic loser’.”

» Getting over how we feel

The most difficult challenge in the compassionate approach to keeping commitments is going up against the identity of ‘there is something wrong with me’—the one that makes us feel bad when we fail to keep commitments, but which has its very existence in stopping us from keeping commitments!

Here’s the rub: We have been trained not to keep commitments when “I don’t feel like it,” and we need to learn how to keep commitments regardless of how ‘I’ feels. Therefore, the training we embark on really amounts to ceasing to be interested in and controlled by ‘I don’t feel like it.’

» Noticing how we avoid keeping commitments

We start with something small—flossing before bedtime or drinking a glass of water when we wake up. If we pay attention to how we get talked out of doing something so seemingly insignificant, we begin to understand the ways we are talked out of keeping more important commitments.

We have seen that if we approach keeping commitments in the way we always have, we will always fail. This new approach—paying attention to the how of not keeping commitments—allows us to understand that the process of failure is the same, no matter what our commitment.

In watching the process of not keeping commitments, we start to step back from that identity of “there is something wrong with me.” We cannot be the person watching how failure happens and the person failing at the same time!

» Going beyond self-flagellation

Man looking to himself through the glass window
To stop taking failure personally is to embark upon the journey of compassionate self-discipline

As we watch in this dispassionate, stepped-back way, we begin to develop compassion for the person who has been caught in that loop of suffering and self-flagellation. As we see clearly the trap the person has struggled in—sincerely trying, tricked into failing, feeling bad and hopeless—we find a desire to assist rather than judge and condemn. As that quiet resolve to assist builds, we notice a movement away from the harsh, critical internal dialogue to a conversation that is kinder, more caring and supportive. We begin to recognize that making a person who is sincerely trying to keep a commitment feel bad is not only unhelpful, it doesn’t work.

Our resolve then extends to no longer being willing to indulge feeling bad. We stop the self-flagellation. We wean ourselves from the childish belief that we are bad because we did something ‘wrong.’ We no longer believe that punishment makes people good. We start to engage in the process of encouragement and stop taking ‘failure’ personally. We begin to see that our inherent and authentic goodness is not conditional. If I did not keep a commitment, it simply means that I did not keep a commitment. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad/wrong person. This shift in perspective allows us to move from a contracted, defensive position to a place of openness, curiosity, encouragement and support.

» Turning to support

Anyone who has engaged in an exercise program knows there is a ramp up to skill building. But even before any skills are built, there’s the resistance to getting started that has to be overcome. If we can get ourselves past that, we have to move through the often painful process of getting in shape enough for the body to enjoy the process of getting in shape! Our initial efforts consist of continuing until we have built sufficient momentum to overcome the inertia of the status quo. At this time it is critical to have someone on our side who has faith in our adequacy and who can beat the inner critic that is working to get us to fail one more time.

Having an internal Mentor in our corner offering encouragement and wisdom is an essential part of compassionate self-discipline. The self-sabotaging voices in the head will whine that they don’t know what that means and that it sounds too hard, but here’s what we need to remember: We developed a cruel inner critic to keep us on the straight and narrow, and we can develop a compassionate inner Mentor to be the guardian of our heart. Instead of continuing a destructive habit of tuning in to the voices of discouragement in our head, we can develop a supportive habit of listening to a voice of encouragement and kindness.

In our practice, we use a digital recorder to record and listen to a constant stream of reassurances and truths about who and what we are. We record successes and triumphs, and the joy, kindness, generosity, and beauty of life. We do this as a way of keeping the attention away from the critical, self-hating voices and to cultivate an experience of the heart orientation we want to live in.

If we train the attention on life as it is, rather than on a conversation about how wrong everything is [especially what’s wrong with ‘me’], we can move from the grim prognostications and constant criticisms of the slave driver to a joyful life of loving kindness, compassionate support, and encouragement. And if punishment is not what awaits us if we don’t succeed in following through, if our attempts are met instead with understanding, helpful coaching, motivation and inspiration, there is every reason to keep practising. A puppy being trained is rewarded for following through on an instruction, not punished for ‘failing.’ Why would we do less for ourselves?

» Growing up

What we’re doing through this progression is moving from struggling to be successful at designed-to-fail self-discipline to being disciples of compassionate choice. In this movement, we become aware that what is falling away is a child’s orientation to life.

The practice of compassionate self-discipline is the process of becoming a grown-up who is present and able to take responsibility. When we are not governed by conditioned emotional reactions, when we don’t take anything personally, when we stop feeling bad, and when we learn to trust the process of living, we are finally able to turn our lives over to our heart’s wisdom and find the wellbeing we’ve always known is possible for us.

» Achieving mastery

Over time, this practice becomes joyful. We come back to the moment over and over. We return again and again until being here becomes not second nature, but what it truly is: first nature. We move from effort to ease, as we gain the confidence to trust ourselves. Our practice gains momentum and successes strengthen the motivation to continue. We delight in the mental fitness that results from this training. We are able to listen to the heart’s wisdom, the intelligence can orchestrate the keeping of any commitment. We become spontaneous, clear, awake, aware, efficient, appropriate, respectful, grateful, kind, honest, sincere, expressive, steady, dependable, responsible, joyful, peaceful, and satisfied. We reclaim our natural state of being present to our lives.

The truth of this Rumi poem becomes our experience:

Submit to a daily practice
Your loyalty to that
Is a ring on the door

Keep knocking and the joy inside
Will eventually open a window
And look out to see who is there

A version of this was first published in the January 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.


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