Discipline, or, trying to get things done when you don't want to

This is a blog post about how I didn’t want to write a blog post and so, I think, it’s a post about discipline.

I have an ongoing task list related to being a self-employed yoga teacher. It includes things like keeping up on accounting, research about workshops, and people to contact for guidance, and I have a very organizationally-talented friend who helps me manage it. Partly thanks to this friend, my task list constantly includes “Start a new blog entry.” Sometimes this task is highlighted and sometimes not, but if you look at this blog you’ll see how frequently it gets accomplished -- seldom.

Currently, I am 27 weeks pregnant. This, I’ve noticed, makes me even less interested in my task list than usual. In one way, I feel this is because all my creative, generative energy feels directed towards growing this baby and making space in my life for her to arrive. This is pretty cool on its own and entirely natural and correct. But it is a tricky shifting of gears. I am lucky to have enough time at my disposal to rest and teach and work on baby-related things and still eek out some business-related tasks, which are important and which I don’t want to entirely lose sight of.

Thinking about it this way, I realized that the redirection of energy was really exacerbating an existing problem: being my own boss, Being my own boss means motivating to get work done when I am basically the only person accountable...and there are few non-negotiable deadlines...and my income does not entirely depend on it. As long as I show up to teach my actual classes and clients, I get paid.

Today, faced with this constantly lingering (and currently highlighted) blogging task, and the prospect of an imminent meeting with my organized friend, I considered two approaches:

  1. I could continue ignoring the task, go to my meeting, complain about/make an impassioned, overstated argument about being a purely baby-centered person. Or
  2. I could start a damn blog post.

Here’s the thing about discipline, as I understand it. We all know that we feel better after we exercise or meditate or accomplish a task, etc. Yet the knowledge of that future satisfaction is rarely sufficient to get us over our present hurdles. The cycle of “I don’t want to do this, I should do this, I can’t do this,” causes a cruel and unruly stress. But, rather than thinking of discipline as a brute force that catapults us past the hurdles, we could think about it as part of a clear mindset, one that can look at the situation as it is now -- those hurdles, that stress -- and realize that they are already more uncomfortable than doing the thing.

It is simpler, quieter. It is stepping away from the entire situation enough to weigh the stress against the dreaded thing, and to see that the thing itself looks much more appealing in comparison. This is not easy. But it’s easier.

In full disclosure, this concept of discipline came to me via my sister and a book she mentioned called The Yoga of Discipline, by Gurumayi. I am obviously just starting to play with this concept, and midway through writing this post -- the one I didn’t want to write -- I bought the book online. It is making its way to me now. I very much hope I can muster the discipline to read it and report back here.

My Dinner with Arjuna

At the beginning of the Baghavad Gita, Arjuna, the warrior, laments to Krishna, the god, that on second thought he does not really want to wage battle against an opposing army. I know these guys, he tells Krishna. They’re relatives, friends, good fighters.

How can I shoot arrows through Bhishma and Drona, who deserve my reverence? ...If I killed them, all my earthly pleasures would be smeared with blood.

To which Krishna, a real tough-love guy, tells him, you’re doing it wrong.

Although you mean well, Arjuna,
your sorrow is sheer delusion.
Wise men do not grieve
for the dead or for the living.

He does not mean that in order to be “wise” you have to be heartless. Krishna means that he can see past this moment to one where those men’s lives have ended. That, in fact, he can see both moments simultaneously. That, in fact, there is no such thing as a particular moment when one of those things -- life or death -- is more true than the other.

Never was there a time
when I did not exist, or you,
or these kings; nor will there come
a time when we cease to be.

Or, as one of my teachers, who has a flair for the dramatic, paraphrased: Those guys you don’t want to die? They’re already dead.

They’re already dead.

I have often found this immensely comforting, which is ironic for someone who won’t watch scary movies and, until young adulthood, was afraid of skeletons and graveyards (and by “young adulthood” I mean “college”). Death is terrifying to me. It is in direct, cruel opposition to the sense that I have any amount of control over my life. The very concept is haunting.

When I started writing this post, I was on a plane. It happens that I never get on a plane without thinking, at least once, maybe this is where I die. This thought used to frighten me so much I couldn’t fly for a while. It still frightens me a great deal. But now (after over a decade of yoga and therapy) I am usually able to say to myself: Okay. If this is where you die, this is where you die. I murmur to myself, They’re already dead, and at once my brain opens to the possibilities of a reality beyond the one in which I am typing on a small plastic tray, in a metal tube, impossibly high in the air. They’re already dead, I think, and I can see to the time or space where I am both alive and dead, where those I love are both alive and dead, and that means I cannot lose them. And if I cannot lose them, and I cannot lose myself, what have I to fear?

The presence that pervades the universe
Is imperishable, unchanging,
Beyond both is and is not:
How could it ever vanish?

They’re already dead is an odd mantra, but it allows me to take a hammer to that illusion of control and smash it up. I won’t pretend there isn’t fear in the smashing, too. There is. The illusion of control is so much more familiar a comfort than the infinity of the cosmos. Perhaps that’s why I like this bit of morbidity in my mantra. When I say it to myself, the hammer is already in my hand. My arm is already swinging. The illusion flies away and leaves behind relief.


(This post originally appeared in the Dou Yoga Blog)

I recently took the Yoga Tune Up(R) level 1 teacher training with two wise and fabulous teachers, Dinneen Viggiano and local Dou celebrity Ariel Kiley. If you’ve been in my class lately, you’ve heard me talk about it, and you’ve tried out some of the moves I learned in this very cool training. But I’m not here today to talk about YTU. I’m here to talk about failure.

Until recently, the very idea of failure made me uncomfortable. Every time someone successful in the public eye sang its praises - daily, it seemed - there was a decently-sized portion of my brain recoiling like a 12-year-old boy at the word “puberty.” My brain hated this talk. My brain thought it was flat-out wrong. My brain thought “Yeah right, successful person. Easy for you to say with all your success and your money.” In my prejudiced brain, what I heard was, “First you fail lots of times and then magically you succeed.” It didn’t add up. And it sounded unpleasant.

At the beginning of the training, we were asked to create a sankalpa. You’ve probably heard of this. A sankalpa is an intention, the thing that you need to be true for your life, or for this class, or for this training, that would allow you to proceed with your clearest, most true self. I was nervous about the training. At some point, right before we were led on a sankalpa-building exercise, Ariel spoke the word “failure.” I don’t remember the context. What I remember is that it struck such a bolt of fear through me that I knew very suddenly, “Oh shit, this is not going to help. This has to be handled. This is already unpleasant.” So I built my sankalpa around it. My sankalpa was designed exclusively to convince me that failure was okay.

Did it work? Yes! Did it work right away? No. Did it work always? No. My sankalpa worked after being told “Repeat your sankalpa to yourself,” and reluctantly following those instructions countless times. It worked after trying a YTU exercise that felt weird and foreign to my body, and feeling like a failure at it, and crying. Multiple times. It worked after thinking “Why aren't these wise, fabulous teachers seeing my discomfort? Why aren’t they giving me a pass? Where is my cookie?” and realizing, reluctantly, that it was on me to be wise and fabulous towards myself. Many, many times. I can’t emphasize the reluctance or the repetition enough. Am I still working on it? Yes.

But here’s what I learned, besides the real value of a sankalpa. I learned that failure is a way through. You can spend your life, as I have done, cultivating perfectionism. I still grip really hard sometimes (lots of times), trying to cajole my experiences into a lovely, faultless mold. But it can start to feel like bouncing off progress, bouncing off growth, bouncing always back into a stale safety bubble. Failure offers something new. It is uncomfortable, but it’s also interesting. If you can stand to fail, you will have learned something. You will have learned what doesn’t work, and that is powerful, even if it feels shitty. If you can stand to fail multiple times, you start to build up your tolerance to those shitty feelings, and then it doesn’t hurt as much, and you can pay more attention to that interesting stuff.  If you can stand to fail, then instead of bouncing back to your safe starting point, you can end up someplace different. Someplace new. And the air might be fresher there.