Check out my to-do list:
- I want to lose about 25 pounds.
- I want to learn to play the bass guitar (and, for that matter, the regular guitar, but first things first).
- I want to de-clutter the garage (ay yi yi) — and come to think of it, there’s plenty of clutter inside the house that needs dealing with as well.
- I want to complete two new book proposals, and edit one of my out-of-print books for the publication of a new/revised edition.
- I want to improve my daily fidelity to contemplative prayer and the Liturgy of the Hours.
- I want to save enough money to purchase a vacation/retirement home in the not too distant future (I’m almost 49 and my wife is 51, so now’s the time to be making those kinds of decisions).
What do all of these goals have in common? They require discipline.
It’s one thing to say “I want to visit Spain some day.” You find the money (even if, God forbid, that means using a credit card), you book the flight, you get there and rent a car and off you go. Nothing to it (except figuring out how to pay off those credit cards once you get home).
But my goals are different. None of them can be achieved in a day, or a month. They all require small actions done repeatedly, over time. They are goals that are manifested as the result of cumulative choices. This is really what discipline is all about.
I have a confession to make. In many ways, I’m an old hippie, and the word “discipline” frightens me. It conjures up notions of obsessive compulsive behavior, rigidity and inflexible personality traits, a general killjoy approach to life. “Can’t eat that candy bar, it will ruin my discipline.” So I’ve become pretty disciplined at being indisciplined.
Of course, I shouldn’t be too harsh on myself. A decade ago, I had credit card debt that was close to a year’s salary (ah, the foolishness of youth); I finally paid the last bill off earlier this year. Writing ten and a half books requires no little discipline, and even keeping this blog going is a matter of making small choices every day. So I’m no stranger to discipline. But still, every time I try to take on a new discipline, the old teenager in me gets riled up once again.
I recently read an article about “calorie cycling” — the idea that one way to burn off fat is to trick the body into keeping metabolism high, by varying the amount of food eaten from day to day. Have enough “normal eating” days to keet the metabolism revved up, but then insert days of more restricted intake, where the body will start to break down fat to keep the motors running at the accustomed speed. I don’t know if it’s good science, but it seems reasonable on a common-sense level, so I’m thinking I’ll try it.
I think discipline works somewhat the same way. We have to trick ourselves into taking it on. Perhaps the best way to do this involves fun. I have a friend who is a professional musician, and he jokes about how, when his mom and dad gave him a guitar at age 12, his social life tanked — because he was spending four or five hours a day playing the guitar, rather than hanging out with his friends. Another guitarist I know jokes about how, when he was a teenager, the two most common sentences out of his mother’s mouth were “Put away your guitar and do your homework” and “Put away your guitar and go to bed!” These guys became accomplished musicians because playing the guitar was so much fun. They didn’t sit down and say “Okay, if I ever want to play like Jimmy Page I’ll have to devote at least an hour a day, every day, for the next ten years” or some such silliness. Heh. An hour a day, for them, was just getting started. Their discipline was their joy.
I’ve mentioned more than once on this blog my friends Shipp and Judith Webb, who are successful jewelers. They have a wonderful home and studio nestled in the woods of Lost Cove, Tennessee, where they make simple but lovely handcrafted silver earrings. In their studio, they used to (I haven’t been there in years, maybe it’s still there) have a sign hanging up that said, simply, “Discipline is knowing what you want.”
This remains the most beautiful, simple and elegant definition of discipline I’ve ever found. It’s about making small choices, every day, one day at a time, in alignment with what I want. And it’s about having fun doing this.
For me, this is a work in progress. I haven’t figured out how to have fun de-cluttering the garage yet. But it is fun to visualize the garage neat, clean and orderly. It’s fun to play a simple tune like “Amazing Grace” on the bass. It’s fun to transfer money into savings every week after I deposit my paycheck. My goal is to make discipline so much fun that I forget it’s discipline.
So… what does all this have to do with the contemplative life, the life of exploring the Christian mysteries?
Here’s where I think contemplatives can learn a thing or two from our charismatic brothers and sisters. I was speaking with a Trappist monk the other day and mentioned that I had some dealings with the charismatics back in the ’70s. He smiled and said, “Ah, yes, the charismatics. They reminded us that it can be fun to worship God.” Such a simple insight, and yet one that had eluded me for so long. And yet it explains better than anything else why that particular expression of spirituality continues to grow in popularity. The same can be said for Wicca and other forms of Neopagan spirituality. Measure their strengths and weaknesses all you wish, but a central reason why these types of spirituality prosper is because they’re so much fun to explore.
But… how do we turn the Liturgy of the Hours, or a daily commitment to lectio divina, or an hour a day devoted to silence, into fun? I think the answer here has to do with learning to appreciate the subtle side of fun. These practices are designed to yield their treasures slowly, a little bit at a time, over the long haul. Unlike a typical hit song that is designed to sell a million copies in 90 days and be forgotten by next year, the genius of mystical practices lie in how they are engineered to reward perseverence and gentle stability. It’s amazing how meditation, for example, continues to reward me, after more than 25 years of practice; it gives me hope for all sorts of unimagined (but subtle and simple) joys that I will find in the practice over the next 25 years. But those rewards are like learning to tell the difference between two fine wines. It’s not going to hit anyone over the head. Contemplative spirituality brings us into the deeper places of our soul, where both a shyness and a wildness come into play. Learning to navigate these deep places is challenging and rewarding, although the rewards are so minute that if we don’t pay attention we’ll miss them.
So discipline is knowing what we want, and having fun going after what we want, and learning to re-calibrate our “fun meter” so that we can begin to enjoy even the subtlest fun to come our way. With all this in mind, we can turn the challenges of the contemplative life into an adventure lived daily.
Now, about that garage…