I started to write about this in my journal on the subway this morning. The train got delayed, and I had this topic on my mind.
I’ve been thinking about discipline. When I was young and in school, discipline had two concrete meanings. The first involved responsibility. You did your schoolwork, you did your chores, you followed through with what you started. You finished what you started. No matter what. You measured up to expectations.
The second involved punishment for not following through. You had to brought back into line. By force. With pain. And then despite your humiliation, you had to finish what you started, no matter what. Do what was expected of you, and that was that.
So , the idea of discipline, having understood it in the ways described above as I was growing up, has always been an idea which conveyed hardness to me, resolve under duress, austerity, and purity, a sense of unwavering purpose. Sometimes against all odds. To the bitter end. That sort of thing.
But I think I’ve learned another aspect of discipline recently. Something to do more with vigilance, warning, self-correction for the purpose of self-preservation, a way of taking care of myself, when no one else is. After the experience of discipline being something external and urged in a somewhat threatening way by an authority I had no part in electing to that office, finding that other, internal, caring aspect of discipline within myself was a pleasant surprise. Discipline as a caring quality, a way to care for yourself? That was new.
I flung that external type of discipline to the wind once not too long ago, and jumped carelessly and without hope over a kind of emotional cliff. The experience of finding myself in all kinds of pieces on the rocks below, and the time it took to put those pieces back together, stitched more tightly and more sympathetically to my true shape, brought this figure of discipline into my consciousness like a caring doctor. Watch your thoughts, your feelings, acknowledge them, give them respect, but remember always the experience of what happens when they are allowed to spread out, all slovenly, in your living room. Remember how you couldn’t get them off the floor so you could walk to the window, the sunlight, the air… they were so heavy, and so sleepy, and you couldn’t move them once they settled in. You tripped all over them. You fell off that cliff. You took some years to heal.
You are not the same person you were.
And you will not jump off that cliff again.