The Other Side of the Hedge: True Discipline

Luck aside, discipline is often what sets the successful project apart from the unsuccessful. This is common knowledge, and every book teaching us the “ten tricks of bastards who made it big,” every meme telling us to “try, try again,” and every list for success has to weigh in on discipline.

But when it comes to having discipline, it seems like there’s a moving target. Discipline means different things to different people. Like many other aspects of the self, it fits into the kind of category best defined through “I know it when I see it.”

True discipline comes from neither rule nor iron rod. It is not something we learn, but something that we must grow within ourselves. True discipline is the counterpart to the true will. It is a necessary, and often neglected part of the deeper mysteries of magic and the Great Work.

Monkey Cage ©2010 by Polly Peterson [used with permission]
Monkey Cage ©2010 by Polly Peterson [used with permission]

Discipline, as an idea and category of behavior, is complicated. While some aspects are visible in the everyday world, other aspects that exists in invisible — and sometimes indescribable — places. In order to make some sense of this, we need to take this meta-category called “discipline” apart.

ProTip: If you’ve read this far, you probably have some interest in growing your self-discipline. From here on out, try taking it section by section. If anything doesn’t make sense, post a question in the comment below, and I’ll see if I can straighten it out.

You’ve probably heard the old saying, “you have to spend money to make money.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m certain that it takes discipline to grow your discipline. But take heart, we all have enough discipline to move forward. We’ve all already learned a thousand things more complicated and harder to do: things like walking, or reading, or driving a car.

Understanding Discipline Where It Lives

In the first analysis, we’ll consider the idea of discipline based on the three basic Western aspects of the self: body, mind, and spirit. In this way, we can say that there are three kinds of discipline, and call them the discipline of the body or “self-control,” discipline of the mind or “focus,” and discipline of the spirit or “groundedness.”

The body’s discipline is something that we start developing long before we truly learn to think. Self-control starts with simple things like eating, walking, and evacuating. But these are simple tasks compared to the much more difficult ones we learn later.

We develop a disciplined mind through, among other things, schooling. As we strengthen and sharpen our focus, we grow in our ability to shrug off distractions and enticements. But discipline is more than strong mental walls to beat back such unwanted things. It is also the way we develop channels in our mind that are ever more easily followed.

We spend most of our lives already aware that we have minds and bodies. From a very early age, as part of Western culture, we develop some level of discipline with them. But then there’s a third kind of discipline, the spiritual kind. This isn’t something that we can have until we have become aware of our own spirits. And for a lot of people, even getting to that point takes training.

Seungmu (monk dance) ©2009 by Polly Peterson [used with permission]
Seungmu (monk dance) ©2009 by Polly Peterson [used with permission]

Developing spiritual discipline takes time and effort. Whether people might be born with it or be raised with it, it is something that each of us can develop. And it is definitely something worth cultivating.

Understanding Discipline Where It Grows

Now that we’ve looked at one way to understand discipline, let’s step back and slice it up a different way. The first way we looked at discipline was to understand what part of the self it was associated with. A second way to analyze discipline is to trace it back to where it comes from.

In other words, we ask if this particular aspect of discipline comes from outside of us, comes from within us, or is it something else? Because one of the secrets here is that there is a discipline from a place that transcends the two!

These three types of discipline have different implications, meanings, and uses. We can think of them as external, internal, and true discipline.

External discipline is what most people think of when they think of discipline. It’s the kind that’s imposed from the outside, like school discipline, military discipline, or just the discipline that we pay for when we hire a trainer.

When we do things because that’s what the group does, that’s external discipline. And external discipline can be both a good thing and a bad thing.

When it comes to exercise, I’m all about the external discipline; if I want to get in shape, the only way for me to go is a martial arts class. Convincing myself to get to the gym is impossible. But knowing that there is a teacher who will be leading and guiding me through? That’s easy for me. It’s not a matter of good and bad. It is a matter of preference and effectiveness.

Internal discipline is the promises we make to ourselves. When you were in school, were you the kind of student who could simply go do your homework? As a kid, I certainly was not. I lacked any semblance of internal discipline. It was something that I had to grow with age and experience.

Then there is true discipline. That’s the discipline that comes when we transcend the inside and outside, and simply do what we must do and become who we truly are.

When I was a kid I had a terrible time studying, but now that I am a solid middle-age I can sit down with a dry academic book for hours on end if I know that’s the path that needs to be taken. And when I was younger I needed to be led to train, but now I have learned and can make myself practice as needed.

As we delve into training, we transcend internal and external discipline. What once were timid first steps we had to be led on eventually become our own path. Just as we eventually learn that “inside” and “outside” collapse, our discipline follows the same path.

ProTip: Discipline is something so complicated that mostly we just learn it by imitating people we admire. We lean discipline simply by acting like disciplined people. As we do that over and over, we dig that pathway deeper and deeper into our mind. As with anything else, it’s the repetitions that make us stronger.

Imitation is as good a way to learn as any, but if you’re like me and want to understand what you’re doing, hopefully the analysis above will help make some sense. Even if we just know that there are spiritual, mental, and physical aspects to this art, it helps us face the challenges that come when we begin to expand our strength, power, and sense of self.

Monk Shoes ©2009 by Polly Peterson [used with permission]
Monk Shoes ©2009 by Polly Peterson [used with permission]

Putting Discipline into Action

Discipline isn’t simply doing what you’re told, or even doing what you tell yourself. It isn’t about being biddable. Instead, it’s about taking a path, and then not straying from it. In other words, it’s not insensitivity to the world, not numbness. One of the biggest aspects of disciple is follow-through, the ability to select a goal, and to then move toward that goal.

But discipline isn’t something that you just wake up one day and choose to have. Discipline is not a mental game. Discipline is a matter of character – that is to say, it is a state of the soul. If “grace” is to be in alignment with the gods outside of us, then true discipline is to live in alignment with the goals of your own sacred being.

That’s why we can’t just wake up one day and decide to be disciplined. That is why it requires training. Because it is not a state of mind – the everyday mind that is disciplined is a reflection of a deeper discipline. Some people are born with it, some people learn it at their mother’s knee, and for some people it always seems a million miles away.

No matter where we start, our deep discipline is something that we can improve. And it’s something that, as we improve, will infuse everything we do with deeper meaning and power.

True discipline isn’t merely about following rules, internal or external. True discipline is an expression of the sacred. If the true will is your sacred guide, then true discipline is your sacred ability to listen.

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