MAY 2003
A Natural Discipline






How many times have you wagged your finger at yourself for a self-inflicted disappointment or broken promise? How often have you set your jaw with firm resolve, concluding that all you need is “a little more discipline”? It’s a worthy intention, yet one fraught with booby traps. Too often the quest for discipline can keep us bouncing between the poles of complying or defying what may be our deepest desires.

One of the first words we learned was “no” as we tested the limits of life. As young children we were fascinated with breaking boundaries and crashing through the fences of restriction our caretakers imposed. Yet in doing so we often came up against chastisement or restraint. Faced with the threat of displeasing caring adults we learned to give in and try harder to do as told. Or, if we sensed a loophole, putting even more gusto into breaking the rules felt irresistible. From these natural impulses of childhood discovery we learned discipline.

I was raised middle child in a family of nine and the topic of discipline always seemed to be of dire importance to my parents. My older sisters were continually entangled in some dramatic adventure, and my brothers were off pioneering unknown territories, returning home hours past curfew. Learning the "fine print" of discipline's rules were daily lessons. I was lucky enough to escape most lectures and punishments. With relief I figured out that discipline was to be avoided.

Such a naive logic did not help when it came to learning something I truly loved. I will never forget my patient piano teacher, Mrs. Kennedy, with flaming red hair. Though I did not practice as much as she hoped, I relished our time together at the piano. She loved music and the intimate connection between hands, ear, soul and instrument. With her encouragement I learned the gift of discipline as a guide to creating beautiful sound.

Then one summer I was sent to a formal music school where the rigor, critique, and competition felt unbearable. I could not hear the soul of the piano in the classes or in drills that were strictly about following rules.

As a doorway to personal discovery, discipline can be a natural response. But as a set of rules and standards imposed from without, discipline dampens desire and curiosity, all the more so if not measuring up to external standards brings punishment.

If we conceive of discipline as authority that restrains, dominates and controls us, we turn away from our trustworthy inner compass. Or, if we see discipline as something outside ourselves to be acquired, it's perceived to be in limited supply. We end up being “disciplined” by our should’s and supposed to’s. And we never quite match up to their expectations.

By measuring ourselves against a distant standard, sometimes reaching it, often falling short, we’re not likely to discover the art of disciplined passion.. If we first let go of outside standards and explore our hidden self, we’re startled to notice how much resistance we have toward ourselves. When I ask a client, "What do YOU want? What do you truly wish to commit to?" there are often long silences as they scan their inner landscape. It's as if they walk toward a patch of light and come up against a barbed wire fence, hung with “No Trespass” signs.

Yet what we long for usually isn’t something we shouldn’t want or need. We think we must deny ourselves, when in fact what we want is essential to who we are. Moving beyond self reproach, we discover a limitless vista of what it means to be alive and what feels most compelling to pursue. When we follow a vision of life’s fullness rather than life's restrictions, we gain a new understanding of freedom. It enlists us as disciples of the life we want to live—a life we respect that’s worth investing in, one that gives back a hundredfold to an ounce of effort and commitment.

”Discipline” and “disciple” come from the same Latin root meaning "pupil. How stunning a difference it would make in our sense of discipline to imagine being a pupil or disciple to a full and balanced life—one of our own choosing. Then from our inner longings we naturally learn, staying open to what the moment reveals to us. We ease into the discipline of stopping the monkey mind and fasting from negative self judgment. In this free, disciplined space we awake to our unlimited capacities.