Note: Although I originally wrote this for the blog of Brooklyn Aikikai, the martial arts (Aikido) dojo where I train, I hope that the theme will resonate with anyone who has struggled to come to terms with the role of self-discipline in achieving their life goals.
'Sensei' refers to Robert Savoca, the dojo's chief instructor. Kate Savoca is his wife and the dojo's co-founder.
Maybe it's because I'm a product of post-sixties America, born into an anti-authoritarian culture of individual liberty and self-expression. Maybe it's because I'm the rebellious son of a tough, Italian-American mother. But I've always had issues with discipline.
In the West, the word "discipline" gets a bad rap. We prize individualism and we dislike authority, which we conflate with authoritarianism. Within this framework, discipline smacks too much of conformity and humility, which we associate with fear and weakness, as opposed to bravery, creativity, and self-expression.
I see things a bit differently now. Discipline, it seems to me, is simply the decision to stick with something, in spite of all the internal and external forces that tempt you to escape from it.
For me, personally, and maybe for all acolytes of post-sixties teachings about creativity and freedom (which, if you think about it, are really a revival of the founding revolutionary spirit of the country, minus the "hard work" part), the basic confusion is this - we don't want external authorities telling us what we're supposed to do, or punishing us for failing to do it. In rejecting external authority and committing to spontaneity, inspiration, etc. as guiding stars, we tend to throw out the baby with the bath water - rejecting out of hand anything that feels like restraint. (If you doubt that this impulse is characteristically American, I invite you to watch the classic cowboy movie “Man Without a Star,” in which Kirk Douglas moves ever Westward, pursued by his deadly nemesis “the [barbed] wire!”, which is slowly but surely fencing off the once free and open frontier.)
Understanding this – and the insight hit at the age of 25 in my case – it's tempting to go and join the Marines or something - to repent and submit once and for all to the gods of Discipline, in an attempt to annihilate ego. Those allergic to all things military might find themselves, alternatively, running off to a Zen monastery to meditate 8 hours a day.
For me, at least, all such drastic measures (and I’ve tried them, in various forms) are doomed to failure. What I'm capable of, and what I've managed to do at Brooklyn Aikikai for the past year and a half, is to figure out a schedule that works for me and commit to it internally - something that has only been made possible by many years of learning from life why such a commitment might be valuable.
And even so, there are days when I don't come to practice because I'm tired and I don't feel like coming. And still I sometimes feel the old anger at external authority rising in my throat at the occasional stern reminder from Kate Savoca or Sensei about what commitment to a practice means. “Oh yeah?” says the inner 16 year old... “You wanna tell me what to do? How about I never come back here again?”
But the next week, I’m back. And usually with a renewed, internal commitment to the practice of Aikido. The word practice is key here, because implicit in it is the recognition that steady improvement, not perfection, is the goal. The word forgives our limitations without excusing them, and thereby makes commitment possible.
And you know what? I’m getting stronger. Not only at Aikido, but at the practice of commitment itself. In other words, I’m coming to terms – my own terms – with discipline. Because the only way I can understand, accept, and practice commitment is as the decision – over the long haul – not to run away.
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