Self-discipline, seems to be a big deal these days. Social media is full of inspirational quotes inspiring us to push ourselves harder. Books which teach motivational techniques are always among the best-sellers. Parents constantly complain that their children are not disciplined enough, and many adults harbour the belief that all their dreams could come true if only they could somehow be more disciplined.
For people on the spiritual-path, self-discipline can become and even bigger deal – with many of us wishing we only had enough of it to engage in the frequent Yoga and meditation sessions that we know can really help us. Sure, you can go to a retreat with a strict schedule of 6am starts, painfully long meditation sessions and painfully bendy Yoga ones – but can you keep on practicing when you get home? If you find your strenuous program of practice has been replaced with Netflix and ice-cream eating, you may be wishing you had more of this precious self-discipline we hear so much about.
If self-discipline is so essential then why is it so difficult to find? One reason is that we have a skewed idea of what self-discipline is. There is the perception that it is the ability to do something hugely uncomfortable in order to get some kind of future reward. Buying in to this view of discipline has, for many, lead to a life-time of drudgery. Work hard at school, work hard at work, work hard on your relationship, work hard raising your family… only to find yourself wrinkly and toothless, wondering what exactly the point of it all was.
This distorted view of self-discipline is often fostered by the school system. Imagine a boy who is bad at maths, enormous efforts will be made to push him to meet the required standard. He will struggle, but may eventually develop the ability to force himself to do equations well enough to get the teachers off his back. He has now learnt that making yourself do things you hate is an important life skill! This is hugely disempowering – compare it to the child doing something he is good at. His success will build his confidence and motivate him to continue. When we focus on what naturally are good at, we improve so much! It is not that we should ignore what we find difficult, of course it is good to challenge ourselves and learn new things, but we should also remember the beautiful positive-feedback loop that occurs when we are doing something that we find enjoyable. Unfortunately in its attempt to turn us all into obedient work-robots, the modern education system has forgotten this. So many of us wrongly equate discipline with discomfort. This is why we find it hard to motivate ourselves.
This extreme, “no pain no gain” mentality can easily be brought onto the spiritual path where things like Yoga, meditation, and even acting with kindness can be seen something we must force ourselves to do (like our maths homework). Sure we may be able to grit our teeth and make ourselves do hundreds of sun-salutations, but instead of spiritual growth all we will do is cultivate resentment toward the very practices that are meant to be liberating us. It is not just modern society that is to blame for this – spirituality itself has a long history of self-punishment as a means of salvation.
Restraining oneself from engaging in worldly pleasures IS a big part of many spiritual traditions, however it is not supposed to be a guilt trip: more a way of finding that genuine contentment that is not attached to any of the transient objects and situations that life throws up.
You may have noticed that images of the meditating Buddha generally show him smiling – not the grin of the frantic pleasure-seeker but more of a half-smile signifying lasting contentment. You certainly will not see him portrayed with the frown of a child forced to solve quadratic equations. In the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha did initially carry out the hardcore world-renouncing practices of the Indian tradition (at one point almost starving himself to death) but eventually he came to the conclusion that going to these extremes is counter-productive. Torturing yourself with extreme practices is not really that different from amusing yourself with endless pleasure-seeking, either way you are going to be in a state of distraction which prevents you from perceiving reality as it is.
It is not just Buddhism that stresses the importance of contentment. In Patanjali’s Yoga sutras, contentment is given as one of the 5 Niyamas (observances that should be in place before spiritual progress can be made). It may come as a surprise that a tradition that is often associated with extreme self-discipline and difficult practices makes contentment a requirement – but actually it makes perfect sense if we drop the idea that progress can only be made through miserable effort.
Contentment is an acceptance and appreciation of the here and now, finding pleasure in what is happening in the present moment. This attitude is far removed from the idea that we must force ourselves to do difficult things in order to be happy or successful at some point in the future. Without contentment, our attitude towards our spiritual development may become like that of the child forced to study maths, or the bored office worker waiting for their next pay-check (neither of them are appreciating the present moment at all).
It is not that the Yogic tradition does not advocate discipline, in fact it can be found right after contentment, in the next Niyama. There is a beautiful synergy between the two: if we feel content it will be much easier to be disciplined, and the sense of reward from carrying out disciplined actions will lead to a greater sense of contentment and so on…
So how can we put this into practice? It is not so easy to feel content just because some ancient scriptures say that we should. However dropping the idea that we are supposed to make ourselves miserable for some future reward is a good place to start. Any self-doubting thoughts that get in the way of our spiritual practices and daily lives may have come from the motivation-sapping approach to learning we picked up at school.
Often during Yoga classes, you will hear the teacher say, “Relax your face!”. This is when they notice the students are showing a look of strain – like a pumped-up weightlifter rather than a tranquil yogi meditating in the mountains. Rather than grim-determination we want a contented-determination – so swap those gritted teeth for a Buddha-inspired smile.
The Bhagavad-Gita, one of the most inspirational texts of all time (which cuts to the very core of the Hindu philosophy) one of the key themes is renouncing the fruits of our actions. This means to take action, but not for the hope of any future reward. This type of pure, present-focused, action seems to be the complete opposite of what many of us do today as we struggle to improve ourselves or earn our living. This teaching is not just for advanced Yogis, we can take all take inspiration from this beautiful approach to living and focus simply on the “doing”.
To be content requires the ability to relax, something that seems to have been forgotten in today’s society. Many of the great spiritual teachers of today talk about the importance of relaxation, this is significant: people who are famed for seemingly super-human levels of self-discipline are telling us to slow down and relax!
“Relax a little, give life a chance to flow its own way”
“Calm mind brings inner strength and self-confidence, so that’s very important for good health.”
– Dalai Lama
“It’s very important that we re-learn the art of resting and relaxing. Not only does it help prevent the onset of many illnesses that develop through chronic tension and worrying; it allows us to clear our minds, focus, and find creative solutions to problems.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh
When we understand that contentment is not just part of the path, but essential to it, our attitude to spiritual practices will change, making genuine self-discipline much easier to find. So instead of forcing ourselves to do what we dislike in the vain hope it is good for us, it is better to focus on enjoying the here and now. The practice is simply to feel happy now, not when you have completed X amount of Yoga sessions or passed your maths exam. From the point of happiness and appreciation, you will be able to find that challenging yourself to improve is a lot more enjoyable and effective. This is something they do not teach in school!