(The following is riffed on from the book “Mindfulness in Plain English,” by Bhante Gunaratana, pp. 86, 122-125, 146, 170.)
“Discipline” is a touchy subject for many of us. It conjures up images of somebody standing over us with a stick, keeping us in line, correcting us harshly when we’re wrong.
But real self-discipline is different. It’s not self-scolding or self-denial. Rather, it’s the skill of seeing through the hollow shouting of the vast majority of our impulses and piercing their secret—that they have no real power over us, that it’s all a show, a deception, a misdirection, a bluster. Our urges scream and whine at us, they cajole us, they coax us, they threaten us, they seduce us, they con us, but really the vast majority of them carry no allure, no substance at all. We give in out of habit. We give in because we never really bother to question or investigate them or ourselves. We never really bother to look beyond the allure or noise, beyond our urges and see how empty most of them are—do I really need this? Will this matter in the end? What am I really after? What would happen if I didn’t give in to this urge or temptation?
There is only one way to learn this lesson, though. And the words on this computer screen or page won’t do it. Instead, we have to look directly within and observe the stuff coming up—the restlessness, ennui, anxiety, pain—just watch and observe it but not get involved. That is self-discipline—watching ourselves in an uninvolved way. Because, much to our surprise, the vast majority of what comes up will go away. It rises; it passes away. It’s as simple as that.
There’s another word for self-discipline. It’s called patience.
If you truly want to change something, the first thing you have to do is to see it the way it is. Self-discipline, patience, not immediately gratifying our every urge, is what allows for this, is what allows us to see how the vast majority of our desires are simply distractions, discursive, a chase after our own tail, and they simply arise and then fall away if we don’t give in and get involved trying to placate and gratify every one of them, but instead just watch and observe ourselves.
Questioning ourselves and our desires is a particularly useful way of remedying our monkey mindedness and impulsiveness. Do I really need this? What am I really after? What will I have wished I would done right now if I were to die tomorrow? What would happen to me if I didn’t define myself in this way by giving in to this urge or temptation? In order to answer these questions—in order to even ask these questions—we must learn something of the quality of the distraction. To do that, we must divorce ourselves from it, take a mental step back from it, disengage from our id or our monkey mind, and engage our higher brain and view ourselves more objectively. We must stop feeling the feeling or thinking the distracted discursive thought if we are to step back and view it as an object of inspection and observation. And this very process is an exercise in mindfulness, in uninvolved, detached awareness. The hold of the chain of distractions is broken, and mindfulness is back in control. The key is not to fight distracting thoughts or urges, not to strain or struggle, because the energy we put into resisting tends to only make the thought or distraction stronger. Instead, just observe the distraction with bare uninvolved attention—mindfulness. Mindfulness—the Pali word “appamada,” means clear-thinking or the absence of madness. By observing more and more what’s going on in our minds, we eventually reach a state of ultimate sanity. As genuine mindfulness is built up, the walls of the ego are gentled and taken down, craving diminishes, defensiveness and rigidity lessen, and we become more open, more flexible, and we grow more in wisdom and compassion and equanimity.