Discipline: From Pain to Joy
Everyone knows that discipline is required to achieve great success, and also that we all probably need more of it.
It’s the secret ingredient that is usually comprised of bitterness and self-loathing. We push ourselves by decrying our flesh as weak and our brains as stupid. We bully ourselves to force our bodies into a certain shape. We read self-help articles about how to whip our lives into shape. Self-love is seen as a character flaw and an impediment to success.
That is the entirely wrong way to look at it and is setting yourself up for a hard fall.
From the ages of 16 to 23 I sacrificed most of a life so that I could sit in front of my computer and churn out stories while listening to industrial drone and being miserable in a very self-righteous and erudite way. I didn’t even kiss a boy until I was almost 20, and when I did so I was buried inside my head, imagining how the scene would look if I’d written it down. By the time I was 23 and had finished my book, We are Wormwood, I was so burnt out that just looking at a blank word document gave me a headache. I had punished, bullied, brow-beaten, and berated myself to finish that book. Which I did. But I was also suicidal and my life was falling apart around me. I was a mobile designer at the time and had to request medical leave from work.
It took me years to rebuild myself. So I’m writing this in the hopes you don’t have to.
Discipline is one of the core values at my martial arts gym. At many classes, the instructors will try to encourage the students, mostly teenagers, to instill discipline into their routine. They are correct that the way that they become instructors was by pushing themselves and practicing over and over again, but they don’t seem to understand that discipline is merely a vehicle.
I’ve heard the instructors say things like, “Do you want to be a martial artist, or a partial artist?” Or that discipline is “Doing what you don’t want to do.”
They describe discipline as something that you need to push yourself into. According to them, it’s a pain mechanism. According to most people. It’s a grueling battle.
Most people I talk to be better versions of themselves. They want to eat better, quit smoking, do more work, drink less, start exercising. And they will usually say “Oh, I really should…” drift off, and remain inert.
But they don’t understand WHY they want to do these things. Not really. They just know that it’d be better for them, in some abstract way. And that’s why they’ve immediately set themselves up for failure.
The first thing you have to do, in order to be disciplined, is to understand what you want. And I’m not talking about what you “should” do. I’m not talking about what society, your parents, or your spouse tells you is important. I’m not talking about what you’ve deluded yourself into thinking that you want because it’s the path of least resistance. I’m talking about what you truly want to do. This is no easy task to figure it out, and it requires a lot of self reflection.
Discipline in itself isn’t a worthy thing to have. If you have the discipline to stare at a wall for 8 hours, you aren’t accomplishing much of anything. Like I said earlier, it’s a vehicle. It’s a vehicle to accomplish what you want.
So what do you want? And how are you going to get there?
You take what you need, and discard the rest.
And the clearer the picture in your mind of how what you’re doing right there in that moment correlates to what you want out of life, the easier it will get to do those things without so much resistance.
For me personally – writing is the primary, and I’m continually working to structure my life around writing.
When I clean my kitchen, I realize that I’m clearing out mental space. We are profoundly affected by our environment, and can’t just block out the sensate data of living in filth.
When I eat to my diet, it frees me of anxiety and gives me the mental clarity to write.
When I stopped drinking alcohol except on special occasions, it made me less sluggish and tired and evened out my emotions, which was more conducive to writing.
When I stay after class to work on my forms, or lift weights and go for a run and then do kicking drills – I don’t do it because I’m trying to show everyone how much I can grit my teeth and push through. It’s because I enjoy it. I enjoy it because I see how the mind-body connection makes me open to seeing reality, and as thus improves my clarity and focus, which affects my writing.
And when you enjoy something, you cease to have an impossible resistance. I’m not saying it’ll be easy every day, because it won’t be. But what won’t happen is that a few years will pass and you’ll spiral into despair because you don’t even know if what you were working for matters to you.
And the way to enjoy the things that you feel like you need to do is to understand how they impact your life
That spark of joy is important, because without it you are simply ramming your head into the wall over and over again. And eventually the wall is going to win out.