August 20, 2010   |  

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I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to force myself to do things. Really good things. Things that are important to me. Things like meditating, journaling, going to the gym, and so on. I set schedules over and over. (I will rise at 5. Meditate, 530-630. Journal 630-730. Breakfast 8-9, and so on.) I fail way more than I succeed, which makes me really, really upset. I get angrier and angrier at myself, curse my lack of discipline, shame myself for watching Battlestar Galactica (again) instead of writing, delve into my psychology hoping to unearth the seeds of self-sabotage. It spirals out of control until I either give in to lying on the couch or somehow manage to squeeze out a day of discipline according to schedule, whereupon I exhale a half-sigh of relief and immediately begin bullying myself to repeat this tomorrow.


Yesterday, I finally realized that this method would never, ever work. I was shocked. But it never, ever has. I’ve been after myself on this score for, what, like ten years? Had it ever worked once in that time, I asked myself. No! I said immediately.

Now what?

I knew I had to give up trying to be disciplined in any conventional sense. And since the definition of suffering is trying the same thing over and over expecting a different result, I had to put myself out of my misery.

Right away, interestingly, fear swept through me. If I’m not vigilant about making myself do stuff, I won’t do anything. And my commitment to meditate is critical on every level. I mean, I’m a meditation teacher who writes books about Buddhism. Shame if I turned out to be a phoney. And every writing book on earth says you must work at the same time every day, or words will never come. “Inspiration is for amateurs,” says painter Chuck Close. “The rest of us just show up and get to work…” I want to be like Chuck! There has to be another path to spiritual and creative discipline…what could it be?

The answer I came up with? Pleasure. Pleasure! The last thing I usually think of when planning my day. Once I get all my work out of the way, maybe I can do something fun or satisfying or just cuz. I never do stuff just to have fun. Never. I am so not built like that. However…among the most pleasurable things in my life are the things I’m committed to doing: spiritual practice and writing. I love those things! I remembered that they make me happy. Maybe I could just jump into them for their own sake, for the joy of doing them rather than the obligation and it’s possible the whole thing would roll out just fine. Once I remembered that my motivation is rooted in genuine curiosity and that my tasks are in complete alignment with who I am and want to be, my office suddenly seemed like a playground rather than a labor camp.

So I didn’t schedule myself at all. Instead, I asked myself: what do I feel like doing? What would be fun for me? Write? OK. What is fun about writing? Oh, it’s so cool when it just starts to flow and plus I really enjoy thinking about things like dharma and love and creativity simply for the sake of doing so. So start there. When you’re done, ask yourself what would be fun to do next.

Which I did. And you know what? I did all the things I yell at myself to do. My day looked pretty much exactly like my days do when I succeed in being “disciplined.” Only this time, it seemed effortless. I had such a light heart.

So, yes, discipline is critical, just like all the teachers say. And there is definitely stuff that needs doing that is just never going to be fun like paying bills and cleaning the cat box. But I suggest that instead of being disciplined about hating on yourself to get things done, try being disciplined about remaining close to what brings you joy. It takes a lot of courage, actually. See what happens. Let me know.

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