By John Ashbrook
The spiritual principle of discipline is one of the most misunderstood and challenging aspects of life. Indeed, discipline is as much a part of love as is kindness. Unfortunately, discipline is often thought of as rigid, harsh, unfair and punishing. In the extreme this is true, however, reasonable, balanced discipline is positive for so many areas of life. Spiritual discipline is a harmonic force within the soul. It is both protective and permissive as it sets reasonable limits, encourages direction, commitment, and fosters self-confidence. This leads to maturity and personal responsibility. A lack of reasonable discipline cannot be protective because it promotes the pursuit of scattered whims, which can be destructive or at the very least non-productive. The results of this approach can only be immaturity, dependence, laziness, and loss of freedom. Foundation is the source of freedom and without discipline foundation cannot be built.
It is important to understand that all extremes are the same, so too much discipline or too little discipline ultimately manifests the same state – stagnation. This is true because too much discipline discourages the pursuit of adventure and diverse expression while too little discipline promotes chaos and non-completion. We can see that neither of these extremes can bring about the manifestation of new creativity, which is the source of a joyful, fulfilling life.
Where there is a loving attitude of gentle patience there will not be a fear of discipline. Where there is a lack of patience, discipline will be disrupted by the fear of failure, because focus and commitment cannot thrive where this aspect of love is missing. If a young child likes to play in the street and you know this is dangerous, you are not going to let the child play there. Now you can force the child not to play there, but this attitude could create rebellion and the child may deliberately play there to spite you or you can take the child aside and patiently explain the dangers of playing in the street, showing the child that your discipline is loving and understanding. In this case, the child does not see the discipline as harsh and unreasonable and learns not to fear it. This way fosters cooperation. Remember the child wants to have fun, express its young life, so forced discipline is seen as an unwelcome hindrance to this end, but an understanding, firm explanation will likely be met with adherence. Instinctively a child sees reasonable discipline, the setting of limits as proof of your love. You could give the child its own way, but you don’t because you are aware of the possible consequences, and so this discipline is an act of kind, protective love.
Now, let’s look at your own life. Do you protect yourself from indulgence in habits that are destructive or at least non-productive? Are you giving your own inner child its own way even though you know that this is not good for you? If you are not disciplining yourself in these areas, it is because you do not want to deal with the real need, the need for gentle, patient, understanding love that listens and encourages that immature part of you to express itself without fear of rejection. Instead, you give it a pacifier, “here, now leave me alone.” Is this loving yourself?
These pacifiers have a way of becoming paralyzing emotional attachments, poor substitutes for the real love that you crave so desperately. The need to express your feelings, your ideas, your individuality is being suppressed and the subsequent anger is being pacified by the only source of fulfillment that you will allow. Have a candy bar or buy something new that will only be old tomorrow. Loving yourself means listening to yourself and disciplining yourself to focus on the real need instead of the false craving. Is it kind to give yourself things that are not good for you?
The way out of this dilemma is the cultivation of a discipline of joy. The next time you’re about to do something that you know has a track record of preventing real fulfillment and even leads to emotional pain, gently grab hold of yourself and think about the consequences of this instant, but short-lived gratification. Now ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Relax, turn your attention elsewhere, be patient and the answer will come. When it does, make an effort to give it to yourself. Now you may not do a real good job of giving yourself what you really want at first, but with a gentle, patient, understanding attitude, you will get better at it with each try. This is about learning to love yourself. It takes time. You are disciplining yourself to choose real happiness over-programmed misery. Remind yourself that spiritual discipline is a powerful principle of love and as such, it is the essence of a free spirit.