By Duane Toops
My last article and YouTube video was all about discipline, how it relates to Zen practice and even about how it relates to ideas of liberation, awakening and realization.
What I didn’t realize was how polarizing the topic would be. Once the comments started rolling in, it became clear that there is a wealth of varying perspectives on the subject, and most people seemed to fall into one of two camps—those that also seem to emphasize and relish the uncompromising rigor of “disciplined” practice, and those that appear to see “discipline” as stifling, antithetical to the meditative pursuit and contrary to the Buddhist process.
Yet, perhaps, what became even clearer was where I went wrong or what I overlooked. It seems that I made two glaringly obvious mistakes. I dove headfirst into talking about the importance of discipline without ever taking the time to define how discipline is commonly defined and understood. And I never clearly explained my understanding of the term and what exactly I mean when I use it.
In other words, I think there’s an opportunity here, not to attempt to try to sway anyone or to present a rebuttal. I think it just shows that there’s more for me to explore and think about here.
Throw the word discipline into Google and you’ll find that it means “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience” and to “train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.”
I have to admit that’s not particularly uplifting or inspiring.
Merriam-Webster’s definitions of discipline aren’t much better: “control gained by enforcing obedience or order,” “to punish or penalize for the sake of enforcing obedience and perfecting moral character.” With definitions like these, it’s easy to see why the idea of disciplined practice would be such a turn-off. These descriptions do sound cold, rigid and authoritarian. But, I don’t think that’s the whole picture.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that, “Moderation sees itself as beautiful; it is unaware that in the eye of the immoderate it appears black and sober, and consequently ugly-looking.” I think you could say the same thing about discipline.
I think discipline can appear ugly, cold, confining, authoritarian and maybe even totalitarian if we have not truly taken the time to look deeply. I think there’s a joyous and exuberant beauty present within the moderation of disciplined practice. It all too often goes unseen, but it is there. In other words, I think that the seemingly moderate austerity of discipline is not opposed to awe, wonder, and curiosity instead I think that the awe and wonder of curiosity are the dance partners of discipline.
Master Hanshan Deqing, a Chan master monk and poet, wrote:
“True Dharma seekers who live in the world use their daily activity as a polishing tool. Outwardly they may appear to be very busy, like flint striking steel, making sparks everywhere. But inwardly they silently grow. For although they may be working very hard, they are working for the sake of the work and not for the profits it will bring them. Unattached to the results of their labor, they transcend the frenetic to reach the Way’s essential tranquility. Doesn’t a rough and tumbling stream also sparkle like striking flints—while it polishes into smoothness every stone in its path?”
Committed practices of persistence and perseverance, industrious acts of tenacious resolve and enthusiastic zeal, practicing for the sake of the practice, working for the sake of the work, unattached results, or profit—this is how I define discipline. Discipline is not antithetical to joy and wonder; discipline is an active expression of them.
There are many mornings when I would much rather sleep-in than get up so early and meditate. Yet, because of my purpose, intention, resolve, dedication, commitment and discipline, I get up early when my alarm sounds and I go meditate. This does not negate the joy and peace that I find during the practice, it makes it worth it all the more.
Zen isn’t about achievement, attainment or about trying to get something.
Mindfulness isn’t about trying to get somewhere; there’s nothing to get, we already have it. There’s nowhere to get to. We’re already there. Awakening doesn’t require practice or cultivation, what does require discipline, practice and cultivation is our ability to genuinely recognize our already awakened nature,
It’s not about striving towards a goal and it’s not about the outcome. Its about commitment and dedication. It’s about consistently showing up, doing the work, doing the practice, regardless of the results, regardless of what happens—regardless of all the external factors.
Just being present, mindfully opening up to the joy and wonder of the present moment takes practice, takes discipline.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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