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Fighting to be More Disciplined? Discipline and Spiritual Practice

Kamini leads yoga class

Many of us have a negative association with discipline. We think of discipline as something we must or should do – whether we like it or not. Like eating our Brussels sprouts or peas, we think of discipline as enduring some unwanted experience. In doing so, we take out much of the joy, creativity and benefit potentially available to us. We take this same attitude into our spiritual practices. The very idea that “I have to eat right,” “I should accept other people,” “I should do my morning meditation,” “I should go for a walk,” creates a certain division in the mind. I am in one place, yet my mind is telling me I should be different. I experience an inner fight between the part of me that wants to do the practice and the part that doesn’t. Often, as a result of this fight, I end up doing just the opposite of what I intended. If I have decided to eat moderately, for example, I end up eating twice as much as I normally would had I not engaged in this inner battle. Now, I feel so badly, I avoid my practice. The less I do my practice, the worse I feel – and the more pressure there is to “get it right.” And on it goes. Is it any wonder we end up avoiding our practices altogether – or use it as a whipping post to make ourselves feel even worse about ourselves? If discipline imposed from our own mind produces pressure, tension or fear, the spirit it was intended to reveal is lost. This is because in natural hierarchy, we are led to attend to our fears over the expression of spirit. In fact, all our higher expressions of human potential such as art, music, drama and self actualization remain a second priority to fear. So the question is, “How can I reframe my understanding of discipline in such a way that it does not elicit fear, separation, division or tension within me?” The answer lies in working with your mind. As soon as discipline is distorted in such a way that the mind considers it to be imposed, discipline plays a destructive role. I recommend experimenting with the following strategies:

  • Reframe discipline as coming from love of a certain activity rather than pressure to show up a certain way.

  • Do spiritual or other practices at such a low level that the mind will not resist. Instead of saying that you will meditate for ½ hour every day, say that you will meditate (maybe even in bed) for five minutes when you wake up in the morning. Pick a level of activity or an activity that does not trigger pressure, division or conflict in the mind.

  • Do NOT judge or engage in any conversation about whether you did or did not do your practices.

  • Instead, when you do follow your practices, notice how they make you feel – just observe. When you do not do your practices, notice how that makes you feel. Do this over and over. Keep taking inventory. Stay out of judgments of what practices you should and shouldn’t be doing.

Over time, you will find that when the “shoulds” of the mind quiet down, you will naturally begin to partake in activities that make you feel better. This is because the mind is a pleasure seeking machine. If you can really see that certain activities cause you pleasure and other activities cause you pain, those that cause you pain will naturally fall away – and those that serve you will naturally grow stronger. Now, there is a middle category in which certain activities feel good at the beginning and not so good at the end. These are the tricky ones. It is important to look at the FINAL outcome of the practice we are engaging in. Often, because we perceive pleasure in the short term and do not see that it is causing some level of conflict, pain or suffering in the long term, we engage in habits over and over that are not serving us. For example, a Margarita may feel very good in the short term – and because it feels good – you may be inspired to drink more. But when you look at how you feel the day after, it will give you a very clear signal as to how much was too much. For different people that answer will be different. Quite often we have not clearly and consistently connected this action to an unwanted outcome. That is why we are still engaging in the behavior. When we stop looking at the short term gain, and really give ourselves the chance to look at how this behavior makes me feel over the long term, these habits will naturally begin to shift of their own accord. As you stop engaging in the habit that does not serve you, you may find that there is an unmet psychological or emotional need that is underlying this habit. As the habit falls away, the depth of the real issue has an opportunity to be revealed to you. If you note that you are consistently engaging in behaviors that clearly bring about pain and suffering in your life, but seem unable to stop – it can also be an indication that it is being used to cover a deeper issue. In that case, the mind perceives that the pain that it suffers as a result of binge eating, for example, is well worth it when compared to the pain of facing the underlying issue. Discipline that serves you must come from love, not fear. Although discipline can be motivated by a fear of failure, self doubt, the need to prove or seek approval, it breeds tension and separation in the long run. In the presence of joy and total involvement in that which you are doing discipline emerges naturally. It is not something you have to force or make happen. It is something you want to return to again and again because of the way it makes you feel. The joy of creating, developing, expanding and exploring is so profound that discipline actually becomes a channel for the expression of spirit. Becoming acutely attentive and aware of everything you do and the internal state it creates is the cornerstone to making this work. This, in yoga, is called Swadyaya – self observation. It is why the great Yogi, Swami Kripalu once said, “Self Observation without judgment is the highest spiritual practice.” Published in Sacred Pathways Magazine By Kamini Desai

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