Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Discipline of Being Disciplined

"It's easy to rule while it's peaceful, it's easy to plan before it arrives, it's easy to break while it's fragile, it's easy to disperse while it's small, act before it exists, govern before it rebels,
A giant tree grows from the tiniest shoot, a great tower rises from a basket of dirt, a thousand mile journey begins at your feet" - Daoist Sage LaoZi (~6th Century BC), DaoDeJing (Red Pine translation, 1996), 64.1-64.3.
"...if you make your best effort just to continue your practice with your whole mind and body, without gaining ideas, then whatever you do will be true practice. Just to continue should be your purpose. When you do something, just to do it should be your purpose." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p43.
"By sustained effort, earnestness, discipline, and self-control let the wise man make for himself an island, which no flood overwhelms." - The Buddha, Dharmapada Sutra (Narada Translation, 1959), Verse 25.
"When a snake becomes a dragon, it doesn’t change its scales. And when a mortal becomes a sage, he doesn’t change his face. He knows his mind through internal wisdom and takes care of his body through external discipline." - The First Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), Wake-up Sermon (Red Pine translation, 1987).
"The only discipline involved was regular and frequent practice." Professor Mark Williams, Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p103.
"Without a daily embodiment in practice, lofty ideals tend to succumb to self-interest." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994), p218.

In China, if one mentions that one practices taiji or meditation, one will often be met by the reaction, "Every day?." There is an apparent understanding in China - the birthplace of Zen - that without daily discipline, the pursuit of a difficult goal is relatively worthless.

The Oxford Dictionary Online defines the word 'discipline' as follows:
" noun
    1 [mass noun] the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience...
        2 a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education

        train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience
      All of the above definitions are apparently intimately linked in the way that studying a discipline in itself requires great discipline.

      When it comes to the discipline of living, we can easily feel what is right and wrong - so we have knowledge, and yet, like a smoker who admits they need to quit but lights up another cigarette, we can do what is wrong for us all the same. In this sense, discipline is a matter of habit - what we actually do on a regular basis. We can see ourselves as the 'work of art' our habits create day in, day out - the product we witness right here, right now, after all these years, months, days, and hours of repeating the same behaviours.

      Often, it appears that we take our ability to detect what is healthy and unhealthy as a representation of our actual existence - we pronounce our lives as masterpieces of intelligent reflection, but in reality we have often had no practice - no discipline aimed at mastery - to allow such a life to actually manifest. This provides the conditions for a lot of unhappiness to emerge, and as people discover this dislocation between their ideals and their actions, they look to external agents promising to help them put things right, even though there is no clear evidence that such a thing will happen. When these promises do not deliver, such a person descends further into depression, as American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p49:
      "Every unhappy person I’ve ever seen has been caught in a belief system that holds out some promise, a promise that has not been kept."
      Scientific studies have been showing that mindfulness practice - as a discipline - allows people to begin digging themselves out of such self-defeating belief systems by simply becoming aware of the underlying patterns, and allowing the body to reflexively rebalance itself. Joko Beck continues:
      "Persons who have practiced well for some time are different only in the fact that they recognize this mechanism that generates unhappiness and are learning to maintain awareness of it — which is very different from trying to change it or fix it. In itself, the process is as simple as it can be; yet we human beings find it extremely difficult. We have absolutely no interest in maintaining our awareness. We want to be thinking about something else, anything else. And so our lives give us endless discouragement, the perfect gift. When people hear this, they want to get up and leave."
      This behaviour is understandable, of course, because we are only human, and mindfulness is famously the most difficult thing in the world to practice. Theravada Buddhist monk Ven. Henepola Gunaratana outlines this in his book Mindfulness in Plain English (2011) thus, p1:
      "MEDITATION IS NOT EASY. It takes time and it takes energy. It also takes grit, determination, and discipline."
      And the author of Mindfulness for Dummies (2010) also highlights this fact, with additional mention of the need to be able to trust in the process, p284:
      "Mindfulness is simple but not easy. The simple bit is that mindfulness is about being aware and paying attention. The not-so-easy bit is having the discipline to practise regularly and the ability to trust in the process, no matter how wild your mind appears to be."
      Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn states in Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994) that  discipline is required due to our habitual tendency to do things on autopilot, p8:
      "While it may be simple to practice mindfulness, it is not necessarily easy. Mindfulness requires effort and discipline for the simple reason that the forces that work against our being mindful, namely, our habitual unawareness and automaticity, are exceedingly tenacious. They are so strong and so much out of our consciousness that an inner commitment and a certain kind of work are necessary just to keep up our attempts to capture our moments in awareness and sustain mindfulness."
      In addition to this, our relationship to the word 'discipline' does not tend to get us off to a good start when trying to practice mindfulness daily. Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen (1997), however, that for those who have tasted the fruits of such discipline, it is something which intrinsically motivates one to the point that negative associations easily fall away, p140:
      "Discipline has a connotation for some of us of forcing ourselves to do something. But discipline is simply bringing all the light we can summon to bear on our practice, so that we can see a little bit more. Discipline can be formal, as in the zendo, or informal, as in our daily life. Disciplined students are those who in their everyday activities constantly try to find means of waking themselves up."
      This practice has been kept alive by such students and their teachers for thousands of years. Scholar and translator Red Pine explains the traditional Buddhist angle on discipline in The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain (1983) as a journey from one shore to another, p40:
      "Buddhists liken spiritual discipline to a raft one uses for crossing the Sea of Suffering."
      Buddhist teachers often write of aspirations to practice mindfulness daily as being the necessary discipline to make one's spiritual journey effective in one's life. For example, Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book Fidelity (2011), p87:
      "When your aspiration is to fill yourself with great mindfulness and love, that aspiration is called bodhicitta, beginner’s mind, the mind of love. It is the desire to help relieve the suffering of others and help others to become awakened. We should live in such a way that this aspiration becomes more solid every day. If our aspiration erodes and weakens, we will not succeed on our path of practice. We need to practice mindfulness daily in order to fulfill our aspiration. We need to patiently pursue our aspiration, but we don’t lose the present moment — we enjoy the present moment and we use it to realize our deepest desire."
      This aspiration to practice daily is also often referred to as a 'path' one walks through life. The discipline of remaining on the path of mindfulness and not wandering off becomes the 'way' or method one embeds within one's life as a habit. Kabat-Zinn points out, in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), that such a view has traditionally not been particularly strong in the West, p440:
      "In our culture we are not so familiar with the notion of ways or paths. It is a concept that comes from China, the notion of a universal law of being, called the Tao, or simply "the way." The Tao is the world unfolding according to its own laws. Nothing is done or forced, everything just comes about. To live in accord with the Tao is to understand non-doing and non-striving. Your life is already doing itself. The challenge is whether you can see in this way and live in accordance with the way things are, to come into harmony with all things and all moments. This is the path of insight, of wisdom, and of healing. It is the path of acceptance and peace. It is the path of the mind-body looking deeply into itself and knowing itself. It is the art of conscious living, of knowing your inner resources and your outer resources and knowing also that, fundamentally, there is neither inner nor outer."
      This 'Way' of living is referred to by the Daoist Sage LaoZi (~6th Century BC) in his book  DaoDeJing (Red Pine translation, 1996), as follows, 41.1-41.2:
      "When a great person hears of the Way he follows it with devotion, when an average person hears of the Way he doesn't know if it's real or not.
      when a small person hears of the Way he laughs out loud, if he didn't laugh it wouldn't be the Way"
      This social situation adds to the difficulty of embedding such discipline in one's life - the pressures society places on individuals can dampen spirits before a spark is even attempted to be struck. Some people do arrive at the challenge of lifelong mindfulness meditation with deep motivation, however, and we can use their reports and tips to help us forward - beyond the preconceptions we scare ourselves with, as Ven. Gunaratana writes in Mindfulness in Plain English, p80:
      ""Discipline" is a difficult word for most of us. It conjures up images of somebody standing over you with a stick, telling you that you're wrong. But self-discipline is different. It's the skill of seeing through the hollow shouting of your own impulses and piercing their secret. They have no power over you. It's all a show, a deception. Your urges scream and bluster at you; they cajole; they coax; they threaten; but they really carry no stick at all. You give in out of habit. You give in because you never really bother to look beyond the threat. It is all empty back there. There is only one way to learn this lesson, though. The words on this page won't do it. But look within and watch the stuff coming up; restlessness, anxiety, impatience, pain; just watch it come up and don't get involved. Much to your surprise, it will simply go away. It rises, it passes away. As simple as that. There is another word for self-discipline. It is patience."
      This patience and the acceptance it requires is the path and goal all wrapped into one - there is nowhere to go and nothing to do; there is just being. Such constant mindful rooting in the present moment is what keeps a person sane, as the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa writes in The Path is The Goal (2010), p5:
      "Meditation is a way of realizing the fundamental truth, the basic truth, that we can discover ourselves, we can work on ourselves. The goal is the path and the path is the goal. There is no other way of attaining basic sanity than the practice of meditation. Absolutely none."
      In this sense, with the path and goal being one, one must transcend notions of living a disciplined life over time - of some sort of travelling, and move out of time in general, and into the moment - every moment in which one finds oneself. Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki speaks of this in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p39:
      "Zen is not some fancy, special art of living. Our teaching is just to live, always in reality, in its exact sense. To make our effort, moment after moment, is our way. In an exact sense, the only thing we actually can study in our life is that on which we are working in each moment."
      Kabat-Zinn echoes Suzuki in Full Catastrophe Living, p11:
      "This "work" involves above all the regular, disciplined practice of moment-to-moment awareness or mindfulness, the complete "owning" of each moment of your experience, good, bad, or ugly."
      And in Wherever You Go, There You Are, he highlights the essential need for integrating this practice into one's life through intentional discipline, p34:
      " stay at it for even five minutes requires intentionality. To make it part of your life requires some discipline. So when people say they can't meditate, what they really mean is that they won't make time for it, or that when they try, they don't like what happens. It isn't what they are looking for or hoping for. It doesn't fulfill their expectations."
      This open-minded integration of the practice needes to be a life-long change - if it is only dabbled in, the same as a smoker only intending to give up smoking for a week, one will be back to the old unhealthy habits to the same degree as before. Ven. Gunaratana highlights the misconception people often have about mindfulness being a short-term practice in Mindfulness in Plain English, p22:

      Sorry, meditation is not a quick cure-all. You will start seeing changes right away, but really profound effects are years down the line. That is just the way the universe is constructed. Nothing worthwhile is achieved overnight. Meditation is tough in some respects, requiring a long discipline and a sometimes painful process of practice. At each sitting you gain some results, but they are often very subtle. They occur deep within the mind, and only manifest much later. And if you are sitting there constantly looking for huge, instantaneous changes, you will miss the subtle shifts altogether. You will get discouraged, give up, and swear that no such changes could ever occur. Patience is the key. Patience. If you learn nothing else from meditation, you will learn patience. Patience is essential for any profound change."
      And most of the patient practice needs to be done within one's regular, daily life - not on meditation retreats, as Joko Beck emphasises in Everyday Zen, p197:
      "I don’t care how many enlightenment experiences you cling to. There’s nothing but daily life. This table is the dharma. Yesterday it was dusty; today, it’s been dusted. We’re coming to the end of sesshin. But don’t fool yourself: the hard sesshin begins as you reenter your normal schedule."
      The practice is not a long hard battle against one's ego, however, as Kabat-Zinn writes in the foreword to Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p.x:
      "...because it is a practice rather than merely a good idea, its cultivation is a process, one that of necessity unfolds and deepens over time. It is most beneficial if you take it on as a strong commitment to yourself, one that requires a degree of stick-to-it-ness and discipline, while at the same time, being playful and bringing to each moment, as best you can, a certain ease and lightness of touch – a gesture of kindness and self-compassion really. This lightness of touch, coupled with a steadfast and wholehearted engagement, is really a signature of mindfulness training and practice in all its various forms."
      By identifying this self-caring dimension to the discipline, one can tap into a natural, instinctive subconscious intention to cleanse and maintain one's body and mind - along the lines of taking a daily shower or brushing one's teeth. In this way one can include formal mindfulness meditation in with other daily self-care habits which tend to take place at the same time every day, as the author of Mindfulness for Dummies writes, p262:
      "Practise at the same time and place every day. This way the mindfulness discipline becomes a routine like brushing your teeth and you don’t have to think about it."
      Without this focus on daily repetition, one will feel like the process is an enormous battle, as Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p56:
      "If you lose the spirit of repetition it will become quite difficult..."
      Social psychologist Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught a very popular positive psychology course at Harvard, writes in his book Happier: Learn the Secrets of Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (2007), that one should actively ritualise mindfulness meditation in one's life, p29:
      "Make meditation a ritual. Set aside between ten minutes and an hour each day for meditation—in the morning when you wake up, during your lunch hour, or sometime in the afternoon."
      He states that such ritualisation is most often a necessary factor in successfully installing new habits, p10:
      "People are sometimes resistant to the idea of introducing rituals because they believe that ritualistic behavior may detract from spontaneity or creativity—especially when it comes to interpersonal rituals such as a regular date with one’s spouse, or artistic rituals such as painting. However, if we do not ritualize activities — whether working out in the gym, spending time with our family, or reading for pleasure — we often don’t get to them, and rather than being spontaneous, we become reactive (to others’ demands on our time and energy)."
      While installing such habits, however, the propaganda of old unhealthy appetites will continue to appear, and that needs to be worked with, as Kabat-Zinn states in Full Catastrophe Living, p43:
      "Once you make the commitment to yourself to practice in this way, the self-discipline comes in carrying it out. Committing yourself to goals that are in your own self-interest is easy. But keeping to the path you have chosen when you run into obstacles and may not see "results" right away is the real measure of your commitment. This is where conscious intentionality comes in, the intention to practice whether you feel like it or not on a particular day, whether it is convenient or not, with the determination of an athlete. Regular practice is not as hard as you might think once you make up your mind to do it and pick an appropriate time. Most people are inwardly disciplined already to a certain extent. Getting dinner on the table every night requires discipline. Getting up in the morning and going to work requires discipline. And taking time for yourself certainly does too"
      Thich Nhat Hanh relates how one of his teachers began orienting his mind towards mindfulness practice as soon as he woke up in the morning by harnessing his altruistic dimension, in The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), p6:
      "When he woke up in the morning, his first thought was, "Just awakened, I hope that every person will attain great awareness and see in complete clarity.""
      Kabat-Zinn also finds the morning an ideal time for mindfulness practice to begin, writing in Wherever You Go, There You Are, p180:
      "I find early morning a wondrous time for formal meditation. No one else is up. The world's rush hasn't launched itself yet. I get out of bed and usually devote about an hour to being, without doing anything. After twenty-eight years, it hasn't lost its allure. On occasion it is difficult to wake up and either my mind or my body resists. But part of the value is in doing it anyway, even if I don't feel like it. One of the principal virtues of a daily discipline is an acquired transparency toward the appeals of transitory mood states. A commitment to getting up early to meditate becomes independent of wanting or not wanting to do so on any particular morning. The practice calls us to a higher standard — that of remembering the importance of wakefulness and the ease with which we can slip into a pattern of automatic living which lacks awareness and sensitivity. Just waking up early to practice non-doing is itself a tempering process. It generates enough heat to rearrange our atoms, gives us a new and stronger crystal lattice of mind and body, a lattice that keeps us honest and reminds us that there is far more to life than getting things done. Discipline provides a constancy which is independent of what kind of a day you had yesterday and what kind of a day you anticipate today. "
      This getting out of bed to face one's life head-on is famously a lot more easily said than done, though of course. It requires deep intentionality, as he goes on to say:
      "To overcome... totally predictable opposition from other corners of the mind, you need to decide the night before that you are going to wake up, no matter what your thinking comes up with. This is the flavor of true intentionality and inner discipline. You do it simply because you committed to yourself to do it, and you do it at the appointed time, whether part of the mind feels like it or not."
      Shunryu Suzuki also speaks on the difficulty and merits of getting up to meditate first thing in the morning in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, thus p36:
      "When the alarm rings early in the morning, and you get up, I think you do not feel so good. It is not easy to go and sit, and even after you arrive at the zendo and begin zazen you have to encourage yourself to sit well. These are just waves of your mind. In pure zazen there should not be any waves in your mind. While you are sitting these waves will become smaller and smaller, and your effort will change into some subtle feeling."
      He discusses this process in more depth as a dialogue with a student in Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (1999), p80:
      "Student: When I am fully awake I have, maybe, a little control
      over my desires, but in the morning—
      Suzuki Roshi: In the morning you have trouble. I know that.
      So that is why I say, “Get up!” [Knocks on the table.]
      Student: How do you do that?
      Suzuki Roshi: Just do it. Or else someone will come and hit
      you! [Makes a sort of humorous growl.]
      Student: I did just get up a couple of times—I jumped out of
      bed. But it was such a big thing!
      Suzuki Roshi:Yes. A big thing. So if you can get up pretty well,
      I think your practice is almost okay. That is a very good chance
      to practice our way. Just get up. Okay? That is the most important
      Practicing in a community such as a Buddhist Sangha can help a lot when trying to practice formal mindfulness meditation more regularly, as Ven. Gunaratana writes in Mindfulness in Plain English, p76:
      "The discipline of regular practice is essential, and most people find it easier to sit regularly if they are bolstered by a commitment to a group sitting schedule."
      Kabat-Zinn agrees on this point in Full Catastrophe Living, p42:
      "This feeling of being engaged in a common pursuit makes it a lot easier for everyone to keep up the discipline of the daily practice."
      Of course disciplines will break down from time to time - allowing us to gain a different perspective on what we have been practicing, and whether it had been worth the effort of making the changes that were necessary to continue the practice. Most often one inevitably returns to the practice at some point with renewed enthusiasm, as described in Mindfulness for Dummies, p280-281:
      "Coming and going to and from meditation is part of the natural process, but in the end you come to realise that without a daily discipline, your life is a bit of a rollercoaster. The meditation makes the ride that little bit smoother."
      In this way life has it's own method of making us face up to the truth and disciplining ourselves whether we like it or not. As Joko Beck states in Nothing Special, Living Zen, necessary events themselves kick us into submission if we try to go against the grain and not take responsibility for our own existence, p96:
      "No matter what the discipline — art, music, physics, philosophy — we can pervert it and use it to avoid practice. But if we don’t do it, life gives us kick after kick after kick, until we learn what we need to learn. No one can do this practice for us; we have to do it by ourselves. The only test of whether we are doing it is our lives."
      And, p49:
      "We want to hold onto our belief systems; but if we do, we suffer. In a sense, everything works perfectly. I never care whether anyone leaves practice or enters practice, it doesn’t make any difference; inevitably, the process goes on. It’s true that some people in their entire lifetime never seem to learn anything about this process. We all know some people like this. Still, the process goes on, even when they ignore it. Practice lessens our ability to ignore it; after a certain amount of practice, even if we say, “Well, I’m not going to do this practice, it’s too hard,” we can’t avoid it. After a while we just practice. Once the awareness is awakened, we can’t stuff it back in the box."
      Kabat-Zinn reflects this sentiment in Full Catastrophe Living, p61:
      "...once you see the critical need to nourish your being, once you see the need to calm your heart and your mind and to find an inner balance with which to face the storms of life, your commitment to make that time a priority and the requisite discipline to make it a reality develop naturally. Making time to meditate becomes easier. After all, if you discover for yourself that it really does nourish what is deepest in you, you will certainly find a way."
      Even as a raw habit, a formal mindfulness practice discipline can be installed within a month, as Ben Shahar states in Happier, p10:
      "New rituals may be difficult to initiate; but over time, usually within as little as thirty days, performing these rituals will become as natural as brushing your teeth" 
      In Wherever You Go, There You Are, Kabat-Zinn relates that this natural occurrence of mindfulness becomes the new way of being, p181:
      "After a while, the discipline becomes a part of you. It's simply the new way you choose to live. It is not a "should," it doesn't involve forcing yourself. Your values and your actions have simply shifted."
      Eventually, when lapses occur in practice, not having the discipline of formal mindfulness meditation in one's life just feels wrong - akin to not washing one's body or brushing one's teeth, as the author of Mindfulness for Dummies states, p44-45:
      "Cast your mind back to when you first learnt to brush your teeth. It was probably a real chore. Yes, it’s good for your teeth, but you weren’t interested – you wanted to play a game or watch TV, not waste your time brushing your teeth. But now, if you don’t brush your teeth for any reason, it just doesn’t feel right. As you regularly practise meditation, you eventually find the same. You become nourished by the practice itself, and what may at times have felt difficult to do, now feels strange not to do. This is the sign that you’ve created a wonderful, positive way to uplift your health and wellbeing. Of course, at times you feel reluctant to practise, such as when you’re reluctant to brush your teeth if you’re really tired, but on the whole, you’re now a keen meditator. Your informal practice, which involves being mindfully aware of your day-to-day activities, will happen almost naturally if you regularly practise meditation for a set amount of time every day."
      And from this point onwards, the journey towards the tranquility of 24/7 mindfulness really begins, as Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, p42:
      "Ultimately... we are asking even more than daily practice... for it is only by making the meditation a "way of being" that its power can be put to practical use."

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