The always thought-provoking Anomalous Thracian has challenged polytheists to spend the next 90 days contemplating the letter “D.” Or rather, contemplating a lot of important religious terms that begin with the letter “D” like deity, devotion, discernment, and depth. I’m not going to write about them all, but I do want to explore the idea of discipline from a Pagan perspective. The Thracian says
Discipline: have it, or learn it and hone it.
Discipline is not a popular word in Pagan circles, or really in mainstream society. The word is frequently used by conservative Christians to mean beating or bullying children until they break and submit. That’s not discipline – that’s abuse.
The word has negative connotations even in a more general definition: “punishment” “training that corrects” “system of rules” – not things that are particularly attractive to free-spirited Pagans. But we do ourselves no favors if we ignore discipline because it’s unpopular and hard, or if we attempt to redefine it into something more palatable.
Discipline is the process of training yourself to consistently do what is right and what is necessary, even when it’s difficult, inconvenient, or unpleasant. Discipline is an important part of any serious religious practice, including Pagan and polytheist practices.
Discipline means there are things that are necessary. You can argue that nothing is necessary beyond air, water, and food. I suppose you’re right, but that’s not much of a life. Any good religion deals with questions of metaphysics, ethics, values, and relationships that may not have the immediacy of air, water, and food but that are matters of ultimate importance. We’re not just looking to continue to exist but to live lives that are meaningful and helpful. We can and should debate what’s on the “necessary list,” but if we’re going to live good lives there are some things we simply have to do.
Discipline means that sometimes there’s only one right way to do something. The first time I went rappelling I was shown how to hook up a brake rack – a piece of equipment that allows you control your rate of descent. I still remember the warning: “there are two ways to hook this up – the right way and the dead way.” What I felt like doing was irrelevant.
Contrary to what our detractors in other religions sometimes say, we’re not just making this up as we go. Some of us are following instructions given by our deities in direct communion (UPG). Some are following traditions established decades ago that have proven meaningful and helpful. And some of us are reconstructing the traditions of our pre-Christian ancestors. In these cases, we don’t have the option to skip something just because it’s hard. We need the discipline to do the right things in the right way.
Good religion is inspiring and fulfilling, but it’s never about making things easy for ourselves.
Discipline means knowing what needs to be done. Doing unpleasant and difficult things just because they’re unpleasant and difficult accomplishes very little. You can lift weights till you’re exhausted every day for a month and you’ll succeed only in getting really tired – and probably injured. Or you can train with the proper combination of exercise, nutrition, and rest and you’ll succeed in growing stronger.
What needs to be done in Paganism and polytheism? Start with basic spiritual practice techniques: meditation, prayer, offerings, study, observations of the natural world. You need not do them all, but having the discipline to practice one or two every day will be a good start, and it will point you toward what you need to do next.
Discipline is an act of will. Do something regularly for long enough and it will become a habit. Discipline has a negative connotation because often those habits are forcefully instilled by others. But ideally, religious habits aren’t formed because someone is standing over you with a stick or threatening you with eternal damnation. They’re formed because you realize the practice is important and you want to do it, even if part of you is afraid of it.
Done right, discipline is not an act of ego or an act of domination, nor is it an act of submission to a higher power. It’s an act of true will, using the conscious mind to align all parts of an individual with their highest values, most sacred practices, and most important goals.
Discipline pays off in bad times. Military discipline is strict so that when soldiers are faced with life-threatening situations they won’t panic but will reflexively do what soldiers must do. A soldier who fights only because he fears his sergeant more than he fears the enemy will be far less effective than a soldier who has diligently trained in combat and is confident in his skills and tactics.
Pagans may not have enemies shooting at us, but we still confront death, disease, injustice, and the immensities of life on a regular basis. Will we run and hide? Will we respond with empty platitudes?
Or will we do what must be done to care for ourselves and our communities and to bring honor to our Gods and ancestors? A disciplined approach to spiritual practice and religious duties will prepare us to do what must be done.
Discipline is the process of training yourself to consistently do what is right and what is necessary, even when it’s difficult, inconvenient, or unpleasant.
Discipline: have it, or learn it and hone it.