Discipline: “the suppression of base desires, and is usually understood to be synonymous with self-control restraint and control. Discipline is when one uses reason to determine the best course of action regardless of one’s desires, which may be the opposite of excited. Virtuous behavior can be described as when one’s values are aligned with one’s aims: to do what one knows is best and to do it gladly.” (This quirky, but very apt definition comes from Blaine J. Fowers via Wikipedia.)
In early October I found myself sitting in a room with an acquaintance of some 10 years. He was teaching a workshop on acting technique to a small group of enthusiastic teens. This man is a bit of a guru. He has traveled the world studying the performance of spirituality or Ritual-something I too have studied in my own way. But he lived in a yurt in Mongolia for several years, you know? The next level. What impresses me about this man is that he is a very talented actor who seems to have a deep understanding that life is about learning how to live well, not about success on anyone else’s scale.
Anyway, he had the students sit face to face, knees nearly touching, and had them speak truth to each other. The dialogues went something like this:
A: You have brown hair.
B: I have brown hair”… ….
A: Your hair is brown.
B: My hair is mostly brown.
A: Your hair is mostly brown, with some blonde.
B: I have blondish brown hair.
A: You seem nervous.
B: I’m nervous. *blushes*
A: You are blushing.
B: …I’m blushing.
And on an on, and it was weird and awkward for all of us. The students were confused, but in it to win it. The exercise was about how to NOT create, portray, display, or show emotion in front of an audience. It was about actually FEELING something in front of an audience—emotional honesty and truth. n the last few minutes he opened up for questions—anything at all. A rather dangerous proposition for a room of 15 year olds. Of course, they were enamored with his charisma and good looks. So was I probably a little, and if they had felt anything profound in the workshop it was pretty well thrown out the window during this opportunity to have an open-ended conversation with who they saw as a handsome, successful actor. They ask him, “What’s the best part you’ve played on stage?” “Do you like kissing on stage?”
In true form, he answered their question frankly and with a bit of humor, but with a sincerity that encouraged them to think more deeply. Finally one asked, “You have an awesome beard. How do you groom it?” At this, the guru man opened up about the death of his mother earlier that year, and how that pain had manifested itself in his growing a beard as a physical marker of the invisible pain. He said the beard helps him remember his mother, and that he is a man. The students pondered this for a moment, and then one girl asked, “So, do you, like, workout everyday.”
After the workshop my acquaintance and I caught up for a few minutes. He mentioned that he had just turned 33. I was surprised to learn that we are in fact the same age. We first crossed paths at 24. He had seemed somehow light-years ahead of me then. I had just started my first full-time job, and still felt myself on the cusp of true adulthood. He seemed like pillar of wisdom, who had, you know, lived in a yurt.
He and I shared stories about how hard 32 had been hard. Really hard. He had suffered some professional setbacks and lost his mother. I had been dealing with physical and emotional health crises. For me 32 had felt like the aftermath of a terrible sunburn. I was (am?) sick in my heart and body, and I felt that layers of myself were peeling away, leaving what was left of me feeling tender, exposed, and raw. (And all of this was before the election that broke my heart still more deeply.)
The guru was equally raw, but said he was finding some wholeness in being the mystical 33. I knew what he meant. 33 being magic was not a new idea to me, but I went ahead a looked it up for further evidence. It’s a cool number. 33 vertebrae in the spine. The age Jesus Christ completed his ministry. The age of the those who dwell in heaven, according to some Christian and Muslim traditions. The number of times the name of God appears in the creation account in Genesis. Generally many cultures think of it as the number representing completeness, or full maturity. 33.
My friend, who I was suddenly over-sharing with, said one of the things that had helped him pull through the hard time was discipline. He didn’t go into detail about what it meant, but it was clear from our three-minute conversation that he is a man who has trained his mind and body. He has control of himself in ways that I, and I suspect many of our peers, envy.
The word stuck with me through the following days, weeks. I heard the spirit whisper “That’s the word. Figure it out.” and I scowled. This word is not my friend. Create. Connection. Service. These are words I understand. They are intrinsic parts of me. I’ve spent the last few years cultivating them—tending a garden that already existed in me. I’ve tried to make my life fruitful with these yearly themes. And I think I’ve done well. But discipline? Discipline sounds like no fun at all. Discipline is punishments and measuring sticks and scales and rules. Those are things broken people need. Discipline is not the path of the enlightened.
When I have spoken of rules it has generally been to say things like “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” And “Rules are for the stupid.” In reality, I’m neither stupid nor much of a rule breaker. The art of the youngest child is “rule negotiator.” I’m a “fly under the radar, ask forgiveness not permission, act like you know what you are doing and few will question you” kind of rule breaker. This confidence has served me well most of my life. I’ve rarely been yelled at, and gotten away with a lot of pretty cool stuff without raising any eyebrows. While there have been plenty of rules I’ve easily justified my way around, there have been a few rules, deeply trusted, logical, cause and effect rules that I have put all my faith in knowing the best rules are not just rules but promises. “If you do (or don’t) do this you will get (or not get) that.” Some rules have been inviolable, unbreakable, and for these reasons I trusted them.
But guess what? This the rules broke me. Flat on the floor, writhing in pain, sobbing, snot-faced, broke me—literally and figuratively at top speed and in slow motion. Now, I recognize my life is blessed. I have a thousands of things and people and ideas and dollars to be grateful for, but this breakdown came in spite of gratitude, logic, and objective happiness. This was the year when the pain became too real to ignore. The promises were broken and the rules that have held me in safety suddenly felt like they no longer applied.
Earlier this year a religious advisor likened my faith crisis to Jacob’s wrestle with the angel in Genesis 32. This is prescient and prophetic. Jacob wrestles with God’s messenger all night until both are exhausted. They are at a draw. Neither can win or lose. Without letting go, Jacob demands a blessing from this opponent. The angel gives him a new name. “Israel: a prince of power with God and men, the one who prevails. The one who preservers. Note that tense/time is irrelevant he has/shall/will prevail, maybe not right now, but always, all ways. Also note that this wreastle happens in chapter 32, but in chapter 33 Jacob, now Israel, assumes his new idenity and is able to settle into the new chapter of his life, which, btw, is pretty much disaster after disaster. BUT he was blessed. He knew who he was and he knew that God knew it. He had left his old identity and life and placed his trust in God to sort our the rest. He didn’t stop making mistakes (favoriatism much), but maybe, just maybe he stopped worrying about it quite as much.
The problem with this analogy, I told this good man, is that Jacob’s wreastle changed everything. It broke a lot of rules. It changed the trajectory of Jacob’s life, and the lives of his children, and his children’s children’s children. That’s scary and huge. And also, I’m not sure that my life of nominally obedience has prepared me for the level of perseverance that Jacob gave in the wrestling match. But the problem with changing your life, I guess, is that it requires changing things. Learning and trying and failing. So I will. This is where it get’s ugly and scary and new. Exercising discipline. Knowing when to say yes, when to say no. Stopping and starting over and over. Putting away what doesn’t work in favor of what might work better. And sticking the hell to what does work. Ugh. I hate that part.
A logical approach seems reasonable to balance out such an esoteric, mystical problem. Having spent a fair amount of time with doctor in the last year, I will follow their three-step process to approaching a problem:
– Understanding symptoms
– Finding a diagnosis
– Offering a treatment*
*Often symptoms can be related to one another—rather than directly linked to causes, and sometimes treatments bring on additional symptoms that might cause the diagnosis to change. So this three-step process can get a bit messy. But I’m going to try to follow it for now.
Symptoms: What hurts?
It hurts me that I do not talk about my stress or my pain. I power through until I physically breakdown.
It hurts when I physically break down. Spending the first week of school in miserable pain in the hospital was not what I wanted.
It hurts to have your gallbladder removed.
It hurts me that I feel my body getting older and less and less controlled. There are strange pains at times and strange changes that I think would be lessened by an increased focus on a healthy diet and more physical activity.
It hurts when someone I chose to trust and love betrays me. It makes me feel foolish and worthless.
It hurts my heart to know that many of my neighbors and fellow Americans, who I thought I shared values with, voted a despicable buffoon into our nation’s highest office.
It hurts that my attempts at activism (knocking doors, posts on social media, quiet conversations, small donation) do not seem to be changing the world at the rate I wish they would.
It hurts that I live in a world where the millions who are currently suffering are kept at a manageably sad distance from me. That I do not know how, or what I should do to help either the homeless man outside of Wal-Mart or the victims of war in Syria.
It hurts when I feel or am told that I simply care too much. WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO? Care less? If yes, HOW?
It hurts that all of these pains have led me into a spiritual transition. An upheaval of belief that has left me breathless, hurt, and frequently feeling at a distance from the community and people who I loved most. This is the sharpest pain of all. It has consumed my mind for the last 18 months or so with the word crisis becoming more immediate since July, coinciding with a physical breakdown (I’m not surprised by this at all).
Diagnoses: What is the problem? Where has my heart been out of line with reality?
The world is not what I thought it was.
People are messy and some are downright bad.
Relationships, even ones I care the most about and give my everything to, are a subject to failure.
Too much faith in systems, not enough faith in myself.
Too much focus on things I cannot control.
Too much sugar and fat in the diet.
Rules matter, but not necessarily the ones I’ve focused on.
Suffering will be a part of life, I can’t change that, but I can try.
General course of treatment: How to get back to healthy
Continually separate the two categories of pain sources into things I can control and things I cannot. I have always understood the wisdom of not trying to control things that I have not power over, but it a lesson I must learn, relearn, and learn again.
Remember: I cannot change another person’s vote, or solve a war, or end another’s suffering. But I can control my reaction to those things. I can choose to love and to cultivate love in my life. I can only do my best—and some times I can even do that. Sometimes I can only do what I can do. Maybe, in fact, and this is hard to say, I can’t do anything. Maybe, I have to let go. Ooooff.
Assess the activities in my life that take up the most time and decide what I really want from them, how they are feeding my soul and how to proceed in a way that better serves me.
Assess the things I put into my body the same way. How does this feed me? Does this really give me what I need?
Apply the same assessment to my personal and romantic relationships.
Not have my phone be the last and first part of my day.
Set aside about 15 minutes for meditation/pondering/prayer each day.
Connect my body and mind through sweating profusely once a week.
Develop moderation in mental and physical consumption.
Strictly limit my time on social media—especially Facebook. I want an alarm to loudly go off every time I’m scroll for more than 3 minutes. I get a lot done on FB, but not enough to justify the amount of time I spend sponging useless info from it.
Risks of Treatment/Possible Side Effects:
Give myself space to change and grow without getting too down on myself and giving up because it all seems impossible. Avoid burst of manic “I can do it all” energy in favor of “one step at a time, you don’t have to be perfect today” progress. Beware of burnout and bingeing.
Do not become simply selfish and self-serving. Watch for signs of disregarding/disrespecting other’s feelings in favor of things that make me short-term happy.
Peaceful determination to improve the world and myself within it without becoming overwhelmed by fear or failure. Set small goals for what I want, take practical steps to reach those goals. Be intentional in choices—do not just go with the flow, unless it doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t, just enjoy going with it, but know what matters.
If you read all this, I’m sorry there are not more jokes, no pics, and it’s long and doesn’t have details of what exactly my issues are or what exactly I’m gonna do about them. If you want to talk I’m here, just let me know. Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear how this year treated you and what you are looking forward to doing better in 2017.