Dear Still Water Friends
When I was young, I thought that discipline primarily meant punishment by my parents and teachers, who wanted to teach me how to behave properly by making me hurt in some way. The physical pain was only moderate, but the psychological pain was great, and I internalized a lot of shame and guilt. It made me feel that I was no good, and that in order to be any good, I should only do the things they told me to do. I never understood the reasons why I wasn’t any good. They were loving parents, but that’s the way they had been taught to raise children, so that’s what they did, too, that is, spare the rod, spoil the child.
Whenever I tried out something new on my own, it had a pretty high likelihood of being punished. As a result, I never developed much initiative, or many of my own goals, or self-discipline in service of my own goals. My safest course was to obey. I spent a lot of time anticipating what was likely to get me punished, and not doing that.
I didn’t do very well at growing up as a person. I either played the role of the obedient child, or else rebelled against that role. If I did the former, I didn’t feel real, because I knew I was pretending to be who I wasn’t.
After graduate school, I went to work, and I saw my role at the various jobs as doing the best I could to do whatever my employer wanted me to do. I very rarely set goals for myself and tried to pursue them with self-discipline. Instead I had a vague ambition to always work hard and try to be superior. I expected rewards for that.
After all such efforts, however, I still felt – “I’m still not enough. I’m still not good enough.” During my drinking days, I often went to get drunk to escape from my painful and unsatisfactory life.
After years in AA and meditation, I have different thoughts about discipline: I need to go to my own heart, and identify the kind of person I would like to be, and the steps I need to take to get there, and then at least try to do some those things. It is one small step at a time. I won’t be perfect in any day. I need to allow myself to be happy with what I have done. I’ve learned that discipline has to be based upon the inner workings of my own heart, and my own goals. You can’t flog yourself into becoming better.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we can share our experiences with discipline, self-discipline and mindfulness.
You are invited to join us.
Below are excerpts on discipline from Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron.
The Essential Discipline
From The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
Yesterday Allen came over to visit with his son Joey. Joey has grown so quickly! He’s already seven years old and is fluent in French and English. He even uses a bit of slang he’s picked up on the street. Raising children here is very different from the way we raise children at home. Here parents believe that “freedom is necessary for a child’s development.” During the two hours that Allen and I were talking, Allen had to keep a constant eye on Joey. Joey played, chattered away, and interrupted us, making it impossible to carry on a real conversation. I gave him several picture books for children but he barely glanced at them before tossing them aside and interrupting our conversation again. He demands the constant attention of grown-ups.
Later, Joey put on his jacket and went outside to play with a neighbor’s child. I asked Allen, “Do you find family life easy?” Allen didn’t answer directly. He said that during the past few weeks, since the birth of Ana, he had been unable to sleep any length of time. During the night, Sue wakes him up and-because she is too tired herself-asks him to check to make sure Ana is still breathing. “I get up and look at the baby and then come back and fall asleep again. Sometimes the ritual happens two or three times a night.”
“ls family life easier than being a bachelor?” I asked. Allen didn’t answer directly. But I understood. I asked another question: “A lot of people say that if you have a family you’re less lonely and have more security. Is that true?” Allen nodded his head and mumbled something softly. But I understood.
Then Allen said, “l’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.
“But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”
Allen smiled as he spoke. I was surprised. I knew that Allen hadn’t learned this from reading any books. This was something he had discovered for himself in his own daily life.
Washing the dishes to wash the dishes
Thirty years ago, when I was still a novice at Tu Hieu Pagoda, washing the dishes was hardly a pleasant task. During the Season of Retreat when all the monks returned to the monastery, two novices had to do all the cooking and wash the dishes for sometimes well over one hundred monks. There was no soap. We had only ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks, and that was all. Cleaning such a high stack of bowls was a chore, especially during the winter when the water was freezing cold. Then you had to heat up a big pot of water before you could do any scrubbing. Nowadays one stands in a kitchen equipped with liquid soap, special scrubpads, and even running hot water which makes it all the more agreeable. It is easier to enjoy washing the dishes now. Anyone can wash them in a hurry, then sit down and enjoy a cup of tea afterwards. I can see a machine for washing clothes, although I wash my own things out by hand, but a dishwashing machine is going just a little too far!
While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.
At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.
From When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times by Pema Chodron
To dissolve the causes of aggression takes discipline, gentle yet precise discipline. Without the paramita of discipline, we simply don’t have the support we need to evolve.
I remember the first retreat I led after The Wisdom of No Escape had been published. Most people came to the retreat because they were inspired by the notion of maitri that permeates that book. About the third day of the program, we were all sitting there meditating when one woman suddenly stood up, stretched a bit, and lay down on the floor. When I asked her about it later, she said, “Well, I felt so tired that I thought I’d be kind to myself and give myself a break.” It was then that I realized I needed to talk about the magic of discipline and not being swayed by moods. …
What we discipline is not our “badness” or our “wrongness.” What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality. In other words, discipline allows us to be right here and connect with the richness of the moment.
What makes this discipline free from severity is prajna. It’s not the same as being told not to enjoy anything pleasurable or to control ourselves at any cost. Instead, this journey of discipline provides the encouragement that allows us to let go. It’s a sort of undoing process that supports us in going against the grain of our painful habitual patterns.
At the outer level, we could think of discipline as a structure, like a thirty minute meditation period or a two-hour class on the dharma. Probably the best example is the meditation technique. We sit down in a certain position and are as faithful to the technique as possible. We simply put light attention on the out-breath over and over through mood swings, through memories, through dramas and boredom. This simple repetitive process is like inviting that basic richness into our lives. So we follow the instruction just as centuries of meditators have done before.
Within this structure, we proceed with compassion. So on the inner level, the discipline is to return to gentleness, to honesty, to letting go. At the inner level, the discipline is to find the balance between not too tight and not too loose— between not too laid-back and not too rigid.
Discipline provides the support to slow down enough and be present enough so that we can live our lives without making a big mess. It provides the encouragement to step further into groundlessnes