‘Discipline’ is a word I’ve long had an uneasy relationship with. Discipline was always about feeling restrained, constricted, corrected. Discipline was there to limit my self-expression, curb my desires, force me into behaviours that weren’t mine. Discipline wanted to stifle the wild heart of me, quench my fire.
Reflecting, I can see why I experienced discipline in this way. Some hate discipline because they’ve felt trammelled in their days of greatest energy by parental strictures. Others, including me, had an inverse experience. My courageous parents gave me freedom in many things, and discipline came as a shock when I met it. I don’t remember the sensation of my grandmother smacking me, but easily re-summoned is my sense of outrage: ‘You can’t hit me; you’re not my mother!’ She smacked me again, presumably to demonstrate that she could.
My brother was several years older than me, and when we had play scraps he was strong enough to immobilise me; had arms long enough to hold my wildly kicking legs at a distance. Equally present in my body memory is the violent rage I felt in my small helplessness. Play is never just play.
You could say I grew up with ‘authority issues’, and I still have them. I’ve always resisted conforming, but I’ve learned to be more discerning.
There are many things that conforming to would feel, to me, like violation: consumer fashions, unjust policies, laws and regulations, practices that flout my deeply held values. And I’ve created a life in which I can stay relatively free of them.
But there are also things very worth conforming to. I sing in a choir, and to do this effectively I have to relinquish my ego and become part of the greater whole, take guidance from others. The same is true when I want to accomplish anything worthwhile in the world. Then, conforming to social norms isn’t just sensible – it’s vital. That’s why the society we choose is so important.
‘Choosing’ has been a key learning for me where discipline is concerned. When we experience discipline as an external force, something being done to us, we kick (although we learn that in certain cases it’s wiser to submit ; that all we will achieve by kicking is bloodied toes.) But when we experience discipline as a tool, it becomes something quite different. Discipline comes from within, and we choose when and how to wield it.
Discipline supports both our will power and our won’t power.
When our lives are in flow, we generally have abundant will power. A trip you want to go on, study you want to undertake, a new professional venture, a person you want to connect with – you go ahead and bring it about. But occasionally you may fall into a pool of stagnancy. You can wait there a long time for something or someone to fish you out. Or, with some discipline, you can haul yourself out: summon the courage, the tenacity, to do the thing you’re nervous or apathetic about.
Discipline supports won’t power: the ability to refrain from hurtful words, a glass of wine too many, the extra hour on the internet; anything you’ll likely regret later.
Discipline can also instil a pattern or rhythm that our minds, bodies and souls appreciate and take comfort from. The discipline of fasting; of getting up at a certain time, meditating, walking, reading or some other nurturing practice for half an hour each day.
Too much discipline, or discipline with destructive rather than creative intention, is bound to cause a reaction: a swing towards liberty. And in the last few decades there has been a forgetting of the value of discipline, and many find it incredibly difficult to practise. I see this with some coaching clients and in broader society manifesting as psychic entropy, depression, low self-esteem, confusion, indecision or apathy. This isn’t good for individuals, and the world they inhabit loses out.
At this crucial time in humanity’s history, a time of global instability, perhaps one of our tasks is to bring about (both internally and in society) a harmonious balance of fluidity and fixity, spontaneity and structure, expression and restraint, freedom and discipline. http://www.gillcoombs.co.uk/