I’m not sure when I became cognizant of the concept of discipline, but I remember instances in my childhood that would fall under the portion of its definition that relates to punishment for misbehavior. I wasn’t a bad kid by any means, so I didn’t get disciplined often. The times that I did, though, it really stuck with me. I can remember a time at daycare, pre kindergarten, when I was playing with my friend while we were all supposed to start our naptime. The lady in charge gently told me to stop more than once, so that the other kid I was playing with could try to fall asleep. Because of her tone of voice I didn’t really listen, and kept jumping at my friend who lay on his cot, making him laugh. The way I piece things together now is that the lady told my grandmother, who picked me up from daycare that day, and my grandmother spanked me for the first time when we got back to her place. I think I was in shock at first, because I remember not knowing how to respond. There was nothing to my young mind that could logically explain what had led to this phenomenon I’d never experienced before. Eventually, I started crying, and soon after my grandmother stopped and told me that she still loved me. Even though I still don’t feel that that harsh a reaction was justified for someone who didn’t know any better, I can’t really blame my grandmother, who grew up Amish and raised almost all of her many kids with these same ways of curbing behavior. Things are pretty discipline heavy in the Amish family unit.
Religious discipline is the reasonable transition here. You can look at each religion as a separate discipline, almost as if they are different genres of an art to living, some with more coherent manifestos than others. Inside each religion are also the prescribed morals, followed by outlined punishments for those who do not follow the morals. Sometimes there’s a name for the vague figure that doles out punishments. These explanations are laid out in the respective texts of each religion, and often there are developed mythologies around the periphery where the rules are a little cloudier. When it comes to Christian mythology, at least as far as I interpret what I’ve read of the Bible, a lot of the common customs have more to do with cherry picking from of the wide array of texts which scriptures to turn into praxis. This is by design for a number of reasons. For one thing, the canon of texts we call the Holy Bible was cherry picked itself. Texts like the Book of Enoch and the Gnostic Gospels all exist in the fringes of mysticism now. Another reason people decide to focus on some parts rather than others is that the mind usually acts as a peephole, capable only of doing this. It would be pretty hard to hold such a large amount of rules and metaphorical stories inside our brain for quick summoning without a constant dedication to developing that skill, so cherry picking is the standard we’re left with.
I wasn’t raised Amish, but Christianity was a very serious subject growing up. I accepted it wholeheartedly when I was young, and feared breaking any rules given to me. I didn’t know it then, but I had a strong capability of sticking to principles I thought were right. It made absolutely no sense to me that there were people who didn’t believe in God. My thought was always, why risk it? There had to be more to lose by not believing and going to hell as opposed to just believing in something it wasn’t too hard to follow. As it turns out, it just wasn’t too hard for a kid like me to follow, but as I grew up, it seemed to be pretty hard to stick with it. That could be for a number of reasons. Maybe I wasn’t strong enough to stick with it. Maybe it’s an unrealistic philosophy for our current era. Maybe the spirit of the religion has long since vanished, no more exemplary practitioners in existence for inspiration to critical followers, nor for support of the tenets. It’s too easy to be cynical when money is so entrenched into influencing the leaders, especially when Jesus had quite a lot to say about money. Maybe the hypocrisy of the community where I grew up made it impossible for me to reconcile the disparity between people’s actions and the ideals espoused. If discipline in this regard means anything, it’s the ability to at the very least recognize this disparity, admit to it, and put even the slightest effort into reconciling it. Most people, myself included, do all they can to avoid the first step. It seems habitual.
These early childhood experiences with an ease and willingness toward adhering to rules seeded the thick thread of discipline that has woven through my life. When disillusionment set in in my early teens, it eventually erupted into a burning and sought after lack of control, so this running thread was discipline in its whole dialectic form—the thing itself and its opposition. In my sober state I was very disciplined and logical by nature. But the problem was that I only had access to a religion I couldn’t make sense of, and one that seemed at odds with literally everyone in my immediate outside world. Its contradictory principles had been ingrained in me, and whether I knew it or not, my thoughts have always, and may always, be influenced by it. I remember sitting in my ninth grade social studies class as we were learning briefly about Greek mythology, thinking about which religion I should switch to, because I had to leave that one behind for all the stress and confusion it produced in me.
In the following years when I didn’t have a big picture life philosophy to be disciplined under, I chose to be moderately disciplined in different forms of art. First it was drawing, which was my main way of entertaining myself when I was a kid. That carried me all the way to college when I hit art school. It only took about a semester of that nonsense to kill in one quick swoop any trace of fun I ever had in drawing. It was ten years before I drew for fun again. But the vacancy of that form of creative expression didn’t cut the impulse at the root, and wound up reformed into one expressing itself as music. I wouldn’t say I ever held a regimen for writing songs, but I was prolific with it between the ages of eighteen and twenty seven. I only played with a few people, most of whom didn’t wind up meshing with what I wanted to do, so it was all mostly for my own entertainment. Just as there was some overlap between the drawing and music parts of my life, there was also some overlap with music and writing in my mid to late twenties. In college I had the drunkenly hazy ideal of being a writer, maybe because it required a more substantial amount of discipline in order to go against the odds and succeed, more so than my experience with the other arts.
That’s not to say that music or the fine arts require any less discipline than writing. They are definitely different processes though. You can get immediate feedback for a song written or a picture drawn. Getting someone to read a novel you write seems to have a much more severe imbalance between the amount of effort put in versus appreciation received. When I thought I had pulled my head out of my ass, I decided to make a go at writing a novel, and I did it. I spent two years writing nearly every day for a set amount of time. Usually more than two hours, sometimes up to six if I was editing. I wrote a novel and went through five completely rewritten drafts. What I wound up with is a manuscript I haven’t read in nearly two years for fear of the horrifying cringes I’ll bring upon myself. Only a few of my friends have read old drafts and given me (mostly positive, someimes constructive) feedback. I’ve abandoned it, however, and now view that entire process as an exorcism of the nastier, attention seeking parts of my ego. It’s the only way I can console myself for all the time I spent on it. Luckily, it seems to be at least somewhat true.
On that note, let’s take a break from indulging my self revealing muscle (because who knows where that ends and attention seeking begins?), and see what else my mind can dredge up in regards to discipline.
Discipline is an album by King Crimson. It came out after a pretty lengthy (for them) hiatus following one of the greatest, in my mind, seven consecutive album streaks from any band. It took me a very very long time to get King Crimson, but now that I do, I have a nice array of progressive rock floating through my head at random times during the day. Especially this song.
The Gang of Four song, “Outside The Trains Don’t Run On Time” has the word “Discipline” as one of the many very forcefully pronounced words, this one in particular kicking off the second half of the song. I have a Gang of Four shirt with that song title written on the back. When I lived in the United States, any time that I wore that shirt out in public someone would always compliment me on it, whether it was a guy talking on the phone at Lollapalooza, interrupting his own conversation to yell something at me, or a Whole Foods checkout person, or a drummer from an opening act after the show, someone always had to point out how much they too loved Gang of Four. I still wear the shirt, but in Asia it doesn’t seem to spark the same reactions.
Alright, time to face myself again.
What I found out about my desire to be a writer was that my intention behind it wasn’t a good one. It was all purely ego driven. I was insecure about not doing anything ‘great’ with my life for whatever reason. It might be one of those many muddled up, ingrained, American Dream nonsense things. I think I really wanted to prove something to someone, but I can’t think of what I was trying to prove or who I was trying to prove it to. All I’d really succeeded in doing was stressing myself out, nearly to the point of mental collapse, perhaps even past the point for a good while. I had the discipline to follow through with the task at hand, but the plethora of information available at my fingertips, and my imagined competition, confused my monkey mind. I paid too much attention to the cold and dry intellect and completely ignored my feelings when it came to reflecting on things. And to be clear I’m not just talking about emotional feelings, but also simple bodily feelings, which I’ll get into later. This whole process taught me that discipline in itself is worthless. Discipline based on the wrong intentions can result in years of wasted time, and can even be more harmful than one can imagine. That’s why the Buddha had ‘Right Intention’ as one of the tenets of his Eightfold Path, lumped in with the rest of the Concentration attributes.
Regardless, creativity, has always been a godlike presence in my life, both full of wrath and benevolence alike. Ever since I was young my interest in art forms has never been less than an all-encompassing obsession. In an economic point of view, the scope of my creativity is wide to a fault, in that I can’t settle into just one medium, can’t hone in on a set of practical skills within one art form so that I could potentially make a living on my creativity alone. Although, having my financial wellbeing hinge on something as fickle as my imagination does carry with it a set of pressures and burdens I’ll probably never be willing to deal with (I’m also lazy, obstinate, and unmotivated to work for others to a fault—typical bedfellows of creativity). Instead, my natural inclination so far has been to jump from medium to medium, discipline to discipline, focusing in on one for years at a time, only to abandon it for the appeal of another. It feels like a form of ADD that’s spread out over years instead of in the short term, leaving me with a feeling of existential aimlessness.
Although, for a while, I was able to survive on just writing and editing professionally, from the comfort of my own bed, or the local library. The only problem was that I couldn’t stand where I was living, so I decided to go back into the scheduled working grind where I had to have bosses and timecards and whatnot again, but on the other side of the world. I had to be an actual teacher, which has less to do with teaching and more to do with bureaucracy and keeping up appearances. What I found out through this process was that I’m not a disciplinarian. As a job, I had to keep my students in line, try and act like I gave a shit if they said bad words, all that stuff. But in reality, I could have cared less, and I assume a lot of teachers are like this. To some degree I can see the necessity of discipline in the educational setting, but so much of it is pointless, especially since whenever I tried to actually discipline a student for doing something wrong, they wound up getting off for it and I wound up having to do more work, thanks to the bureaucratic higher ups. Again, reemphasizing the point that discipline in itself, without the right intention behind it, it is pointless. If you don’t have a good reason to provide to a child as to why you’re telling him or her to do or not to do something, then the discipline lacks substance. ‘Because I said so’ is the worst reason you can give a kid. They’re trying to figure out how this world works, and that sort of laziness only sets them up for further confusion and in regards to what discipline ought to represent.
Anyway, to get back onto a former track, since all the other arts I tried seemed only to stress me out, I decided it was time to focus on my body, as opposed to my mind. I spent most of my twenties sitting at school desks, resting my head on my hand, with my left elbow on the table. If you do this enough, you wind up warping your shoulders chest, and overall balance, which is exactly what happened to me. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision, or an unconscious one, bubbling up out of my imbalanced body, but I wound up seeking out Tai Chi as a solution to this once my balance started to distress me. I’d tried Yoga on my own, but that didn’t seem to do anything for me. When I moved back to Thailand a little over a year ago, the first thing I did was search for a Tai Chi class. I found one immediately and began attending it on the weekends. I can honestly say that going through those classes has been one of the biggest mind fucks I’ve ever gone through. What repeatedly going through that form in what feels like slow motion does to a mind that seemed to thrive on making my body move under its automatic control was more than jarring. Every session left me feeling like I was about to have a stroke. My mind couldn’t form thoughts, and that frightened the parts of me that felt comfortable in their automatic nature. It’s like slamming on the breaks and spinning out of control. All my insecurities popped up in my mind, attempting to halt me or trip me up as I tried practicing the form in front of others in my class. It’s the mind throwing everything it can at you to make you stop from changing the routine it’s used to. It wants to be lazy and undisciplined in the sense that it doesn’t want continual progression. Discipline in this case isn’t just the form of martial art, but it’s the practice of continued honing in on what you want to achieve, stripping away of bad habits, and, in my case, simply feeling somewhat in control in my own mind and body. It took me a good year before I started feeling a semblance of this again, and it only worked because I had pure intentions behind it. I wasn’t doing it to impress anyone, in fact, I was putting myself in an extremely vulnerable position in which my idiosyncrasies had the potential to reveal themselves to everyone, which of course they occasionally did.
After coming back from the Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal earlier this year, I had so much positive energy and such a great feeling of strength that I wanted to maintain, so I looked into a Muay Thai gym near my condo. Luckily I live in a country that has a plethora of these gyms available, and for a more than reasonable price. Having the slow and mentally draining Tai Chi practice mixed with the fast and physically draining Muay Thai practice gives me a nice balance between extremes to exist amidst. It’s helped me expand my capabilities in ways that just a year ago I didn’t think were possible. I don’t know if I can make an accurate, definitive, or objective statement, but for me, now, the Martial Arts are the highest expression of creativity out there. I don’t feel like my ego could be wrapped up in it because I’m not using it as a means of competing, not to mention that seeing others on a constant basis who are much better than me at these disciplines is extremely humbling. This along with the fact that these practices have improved my confidence, while giving me a physical and mental solace I haven’t experienced in all my other endeavors into the arts affirms my claim, and convinces me that this is a beneficial direction worth devoting time and energy toward.
I think a lot less nowadays, and that’s a welcome quality to my life. For too long I let my thought patterns control me and stress me out. Now I have living art forms that express themselves through the whole of the mind and body, tested and refined over years of disciplined practice, to follow after and incorporate into my body in order to reduce all that accumulated stress over the years. Required for doing this is mental clarity and control, which you wind up developing slowly, piecemeal, over time practicing. As a result, meditation has made its way back into my life, after a significant absence, now that I’ve begun to understand ‘Right Intention,’ and have learned how to be more graceful and forgiving toward my wandering mind. For the first time, I feel like I’m on a worthwhile path, one that is moral, one that burdens no one, myself included, and one that could allow me to help others, that is, if I can learn more about maintaining discipline.