You Don't Have to Join the Marines to Learn about Commitment.
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 . . .
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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Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.
- New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
- Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
- The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.
Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
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