Discipline — What does it mean?

Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981) is one of the most inspiring films ever made, telling the story of young men who display great discipline and courage to live out their dreams and uphold their principles.

“Right discipline consists, not in external compulsion, but in the habits of mind which lead spontaneously to desirable rather than undesirable activities.” — Bertrand Russell, Writer

When people hear the word “discipline” they often associate it with something arduous, time-consuming and painful. The same thing can be applied to the ethics of work — an onerous virtue linked to duty (and punishment) that is to be avoided as often as possible. This is rather unfortunate because the thing is, human beings are designed to work, just as our feet are designed for walking.

But there is more to it than that — discipline is required for true fulfillment as a human being.

“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” — Buddha

The word discipline actually finds its roots from “discipulus,” the Latin word for pupil, and is also the source word for disciple. So discipline actually refers to the practice or code for the acquisition of knowledge and skill — a route towards higher personal development. In fact, it is a core component to mastery,  along with concentration, patience and commitment. There is no easy prescription to excellence, happiness or fulfillment, only practices that enable its becoming.

“One might think that nothing is easier to learn for modern man than discipline… (yet) modern man has exceedingly little self-discipline outside of the sphere of work (organized labor).” — Erich Fromm, Psychologist

Without discipline, nothing is ever accomplished that needs to be accomplished. If it’s so obviously important, then why do we dread it so? Why can’t we overcome our laziness or fatigue and bear down and just do it (as that famous shoe brand tell us)?

These two infographics show what hours of sitting and a sedentary lifestyle do to us. The human body is designed for a minimum of 2 hours of physical exertion everyday— that’s less than 10% of the day. Yet how many of us give even 2 % of our day (less than 30 minutes) to caring for the body, our vessel, that carries us throughout this long journey called life?

Perhaps it’s because far too many of us have jobs and/or other external demands that “obligate us” to do to labor that is unsatisfactory, uninteresting, non-creative or simply incompatible with our being. Worn out from eight or more hours of the day, both working and commuting to work on something that has no meaning or joy in doing will do that to us. In other words, being an automaton creates resentment and bitterness, which in turn adds to the fatigue of an already taxing routine. Some of us can escape this mindless drain with work that more closely resembles careers — employment that offers greater mental and creative stimulation — but even then, the long hours, stressful deadlines and office politics could be enough to offset any feelings of true satisfaction or fulfillment. At best, it seems we sacrifice one thing for another; namely, time for money, or meaning for time.

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” — Henry David Thoreau, Philosopher

As a result, the idea of any kind of discipline to be practiced (post work hours) becomes too high a concept for the mind/body to accept. There is simply no will power left over to work on our own person, or spend time with family or nature. It would take discipline just to schedule time off for rest alone. Therefore, it’s almost inevitable that, once the work day is over, we want to  engage in the most rebellious activity possible; to participate in a sort of infantile self-indulgence, as psychologist Erich Fromm noted, such as the excessive browsing of the internet, playing video games or watching TV or worse — damaging activities like hard drinking or drugs to fill our emptiness. Study, exercise or eat a plate of raw veggies? “You got to be kidding me!” would be the most likely reaction to any such suggestion.

But we all have to make a living don’t we? Not many of us were trust fun babies or have lives that resemble celebrities. What then should we do while we still live in a world that aims to maximize production-consumption?

Traditional Japanese culture honors deep principles in “how” we do things, and no where is this code for living more fully expressed than in Bushido, the way of the warrior as emblemized by the life of the Samurai.

If we’ve got a job to do needed to pay the bills, then we must be more than just aware of that fact. Whether it’s an ideal job or not is irrelevant. It’s a choice we make. And if it’s a lucid choice, and we’ve decided to take or keep such a job, we can no longer approach it like a burden. The issue is a matter of perspective. Once we view one thing as a burden, we begin to view other things as burdens. If we create an environment (either internally or externally) that is poor, we become poor.

“Every Roman was surrounded by slaves. The slave and his psychology flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly, and of course unwittingly, a slave. Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious of their psychology. No one can shield himself from such an influence.” — Carl Jung, Psychologist

The narrative we give to a situation alters our entire experience of it, for “one’s man pain is another man’s joy.” So if we’re gonna do the job anyway, we mind as well do it well and be respectful of the workplace — the people we work with, the company we work for, and the work itself. That’s what taking a professional approach and attitude means. And we’d be surprised at how much we can learn from the experience and, more importantly, how much we can learn about ourselves. Learning any craft is a process. In participating in that process, we discover knowledge and build respect. And it is with respect that we learn to appreciate and then love something, anything.

Muhammed Ai, seen here alone doing the classic sit up. All the “glorious” careers (sports, drama, music, art, etc.) come with the requirement of practicing the less sexy stuff behind the scenes. If we learn to accept or even love the process required, we begin to love the job.

“It’s not what you do, but how you do it.” — John Wooden, Record-winning UCLA Basketball Coach

Now, if the work is truly absolute torture with no relief in sight, a job that causes immense strain and robs us of not only all the time that we’ve got but our passion to live, then it should be clear that we have to make a serious change. There’s always an option. We cannot be afraid to be free. Most people are. It takes courage to be free — and ironically, discipline — to listen to your intuitive self.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor E. Frankl, Writer & Holocaust survivor