Whether you are focused primarily on conditioning your body through yoga asana, or you are embarking on a spiritual journey of self discovery, discipline is required to meet the moment and move forward with consistency to manifest your intentions.
One problem that stands in the way of personal growth is the common belief in our culture is that discipline means control and punishment- something negative and unpleasant. Not exactly the most inspiring and pleasurable motivation, is it? It is true that one of the many definitions of discipline is punishment. When we apply this one definition of discipline to all of our endeavors the forcefulness that comes forward to progress through challenging distractions, sickness, and all the chaos that life inevitably brings, feels like self-punishment. It can feel demanding, like you are trying to place yourself into a set of rules that aren’t helping you feel connected to yourself. This is a big reason that we give up on ourselves when it comes to having a steady workout routine or meditation practice.
For better results, we can consider alternative ways of thinking about discipline that are much more helpful for bolstering healing and transformation. Discipline comes from the Latin word for teaching or guidance. Think of discipline simply as another kind of teaching or a training that can mold and perfect our mental faculties, moral character and physical bodies.
When we move forward in our actions with this definition in mind, considering that we are embarking on a field of study, rather that being confined by a set of commandments, there are more opportunities for choice and freedom. With careful and extended consideration, attention and examination, new ways of thinking and responding to the external inputs of the world are available – leaving us with room to feel happier and become stronger.
For instance, say you’ve been having a hard time with a housemate, spouse or child. You see yourself acting badly, because of old habitual patterns that have been deeply embedded in you after repeated years of use. You know that there is a better way to be, but every time you mess up and slip back into your old habits you feel bad about yourself and punish yourself with negative self-talk – ending up sad and depressed. You may believe that this self-shaming is the way to gain self-control. If your only definition of discipline is punishment and enforcing control, then you don’t have much else you can do.
On the other hand, if you make each difficult situation into an opportunity to learn more about yourself, then a whole world of choice and freedom can start to emerge. The discipline to move in the direction of your highest intention (sadhana) could mean self-understanding and self-compassion. This might take the form of journaling about your thoughts and feelings so you can connect more deeply with them. It could mean a clearing conversation with the housemate, spouse or child where thoughtful communication is practiced. It could mean getting some helpful perspective from a friend, therapist or teacher. What inspires you to learn and grow?
Discipline does require self-control no matter what. How we formulate and relate to the concept of self-control is of great importance. It can be helpful to understand what we are working with. According to various schools of eastern philosophy, samskaras are the subtle mental impressions left by all thoughts, intentions and actions that an individual has ever experienced. Often likened to grooves in the mind, they can be considered as psychological or emotional imprints that contribute to the formation of behavioral patterns. They can be hard to shift since samskaras are below the level of normal consciousness – the deep roots of all impulses, character traits and innate dispositions. It’s a lot, so be kind to yourself if it doesn’t happen right away. Usually it takes a lifetime to make much headway.
Never the less, when we come from a kind place, a positive place, a greater world of possibilities open up. With this compassion – mixed with some self-restraint – composure and self-possession find their way into our actions.