Until recently, I would have laughed in your face if you told me I’d find my path to freedom and happiness through discipline.
Rules are made to be broken. That was my wild-child mantra. For me, discipline was punishment for getting caught outside the box. A disciplined approach was not the way I wanted to live my life. However, as my friend and colleague, Giovanni Dientsmann points out in his book Mindful Self-Discipline,
“The result of a life lived with self-discipline is fulfillment. The result of one lived without it is regret.”
The pandemic has brought us face-to-face with our mortality. Keeping death at the forefront of my mind has lit a fire within me to live each day as my last. It’s inspired me to embrace teachings on the power of cleaning up our act and the discipline it takes to do so.
Buddhism lays out the six paramitas (or perfections), which include specific ways to live with discipline and intention. Traditionally, the six perfections are: generosity, morality, patience, joyful effort, meditation, and wisdom. These ways of being in our world give us what we need to be of benefit to others.
Let’s see how these six disciplined areas can inform our life:
1. Practicing generosity.
Sometimes we think generosity means donating our money or time, but we can practice generosity in many ways. We might be generous with our partners by not holding a grudge. We might teach a loved one something we’re good at, like knitting socks or roller skating.
A potent generosity practice is extending friendliness to strangers. Each morning, I run along a mountain highway. I used to give peace signs to drivers who moved over and slowed down for me. Recently, I’ve been less stingy—I now shoot all cars a smile and a peace sign. I feel less irritated by drivers who don’t slow down and have noticed surprised looks and warm waves. The simple act of extending friendliness creates a human exchange that feels good. Engaging in intentional generosity is contagious, soon we might find ourselves engaging generosity in our work, family, and life relationships.
2. Morality is sexy.
When one of my teachers exclaimed, “Morality is sexy!” I nearly fell off my meditation cushion. Dancing to John Legend with a lover in my good-fitting jeans is sexy; morality wasn’t a blip on my sexy radar.
Upon reflection, morality plays a big part in sexiness. When we feel sexy as hell, we’re in a position of power and alignment. How can we feel sexy if we’re lying, stealing, and engaging in activities that hurt others?
Does this mean that we have to become monks and nuns? Not at all. We can live with intention and discipline by being more kind and honest with our words, trying not to hurt other sentient beings with our actions, and avoiding divisive talk and gossip. We feel better about ourselves and our relationships by being aligned with our higher self. That feels better than any tight-fitting pair of jeans.
3. Practicing patience.
This isn’t waiting for the light to change. This is what I call “zip asana” or shutting our mouths when provoked. When life pushes our buttons, it only takes a few intentional breaths to change from reacting to responding. For those who anger easily, it takes willpower to practice patience when our natural impulse is to make a cutting remark or to tell someone exactly where to go.
I practice “zip asana” at least once a day. I work best with things that aren’t highly triggering. First, I stop when I notice low-level irritation. Then, I take a few ventilating breaths. Once I’ve ventilated the space, I decide if it’s worth saying anything. I’m surprised how frequently it’s not.
It’s worth noting when I use intention and patience to prevent myself from engaging in destructive anger. Through self-recognition, I create space for awareness instead of reinforcing the habitual patterns of impulsivity. I’m not suggesting that we bypass issues. If something has to get addressed, we should do so at the appropriate time. Practicing patience allows us to discern the most appropriate action in the moment, which might be inaction.
4. Joyful effort.
My friend Jane lives by a remarkable motto, “Life is hard, find the joy.” Last weekend, I was feeling a little down, so I decided to go into town, shop, and find connection with others.
The first store I stopped in, a gal wanted to engage with me enthusiastically, but I wasn’t there quite yet. I gave a friendly smile through my mask and let her know that I was just looking.
By the second store, I felt some normalcy enter in my shopping experience. The shelves were stocked, the music was jamming, and I found a couple of inexpensive shirts I liked. I shared a pleasant exchange with the checkout associate and left with a little more pep in my step.
Next up, was a stop at the grocery store for some fresh veggies and deli take-and-bake. The gentleman behind the counter was older and moved slowly. Instead of feeling my usual impatience, I used the force of discipline and effort to joyfully engage in the moment. As I walked away, I could feel the camaraderie between the two of us and it fueled the rest of my day.
It takes effort to find the joy, and sometimes we fail, but when it’s top of mind, we can make our lives and the lives of those around us happier through disciplined, joyful effort.
5. Having a daily meditation practice.
I teach people how to meditate. The reason that most of us don’t have a consistent daily meditation practice is that we haven’t used discipline to pick up the habit. We want the results without putting in the hard work. For householders like us, people with jobs, family, friends, and obligations, sitting down to get still and quiet is quite different from the normal hustle and bustle of our daily life.
When we sit in meditation, we might find that it doesn’t feel immediately beneficial. When frustration or judgement inevitably enters the picture, it’s easy to understand why we put off sitting for other activities like changing the kitty litter. When we create a goal and use discipline to meet objectives along the way, we create a positive feedback loop; this is especially true with meditation practice.
With good instruction, a supportive community, and an accountability partner, we can move from the less-inspiring “I have to practice” attitude, to the “I can’t wait to meditate” attitude. This is where we find peace, inspiration, and happiness. We can experience bliss on our cushion, but first, we have to put in the hard work.
6. Commitment to curiosity.
It takes considerable effort and discipline not to become single-minded, even if the single-mindedness is seemingly more enlightened or spiritual (can you say, Joe Rogan and Spotify?). We receive teachings and implement them in our own lives and oftentimes become a near zealot. It is easy to think we’re right, but by becoming intently curious, we keep the door open to all possibilities. Curiosity keeps our hearts and minds open.
What is the point of all this hard work and discipline if we’re not seeing results? As Elephant Journal founder Waylon Lewis recently wrote in his editor’s letter,
“If your spiritual path isn’t making you less selfish and more caring, you’re missing the point.”
I spent many years aspiring, but not really knowing how to become less selfish and more caring. Discipline is the pathway to both. The freedom and happiness that comes to people living without regrets is something the world needs now more than ever.