Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of November 16, 2020


Self-Discipline: The Promise and the Peril

(The Ladder of Being: 4)

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The promise and peril of self-discipline arise from its basic premise that one part of ourselves can impose order on another part. In some cases, this is an absolute necessity. If our body is addicted to smoking tobacco and our mind wants our body to stay healthy long enough to fulfill our life, then our mind will attempt to cajole our body into stopping. A similar situation occurs with overuse of alcohol, overeating or unhealthy eating, sedentary ways, and the like. So we devise a campaign of thoughts and attitudes to change our physical behavior. It usually fails because our mind lacks the authority to impose order on our body, to change our body's habits or instill new ones.

What to do? Considering our three-fold structure of body, heart, and mind, we try to recruit our emotions as an ally. We arouse various feelings about why we should give up a particular bad habit. And when the impulse to indulge that habit arises, if we notice it, we can call up both thoughts and feelings to help stop it. That might work sometimes.

The real solution is for our body to want to stop. Many years ago, when I finally stopped smoking, the factor that tipped the balance was getting my body out on a track and running the quarter mile around it. By the end of that one lap, my lungs were aflame. This pain and the associated fright were enough to stop the smoking immediately and permanently. At that point, every part of me wanted to have clean lungs. My body had understood the need, in its own language.

Thus, with destructive physical habits, one approach is to communicate the problem to our body in a way it can understand. The stuffed feeling of overeating and the drag of carrying around extra weight can help. The actual experience of having drunk too much alcohol and the dull pain of the resulting hangover can help. When those situations arise, we face them fully in the moment, experience them vividly and viscerally in our bodily senses, as they really are. When that works, the discipline is not imposed on one part of us by another part, but rather the offending part lets go of the destructive habit and no discipline is needed.

For our spiritual path, for the management of the inner energies that we need to create our being, letting go of destructive physical habits is necessary. Otherwise, too much energy flows down that drain, hampering our inner work.

Self-discipline can be a spiritual practice in another sense: generating energy by temporarily going against our likes and dislikes. Let's say you like to chew gum. You might decide that for the next ten days, you will not chew gum, nor substitute something else in its place. By renewing that decision each of those ten mornings, you can strengthen it and stick to it. Then each time the impulse to chew gum arises, you use the energy of that impulse for your inner work, by immediately turning to sensing your body. Or say you dislike a certain flavor of gum. You might decide to chew that flavor exclusively, again driving the energy from your dislike into your inner work. These are just two of the innumerable likes and dislikes that shape our lives.

A deeper benefit of working against likes and dislikes is the freedom it brings. It shows us that we need not be enslaved by our habits and propensities. The purpose of self-discipline in the realm of likes and dislikes is not to change them, if they are harmless, but to use the polarity of working against them to generate energy and become free in front of them. We are not trying to get rid of our likes and dislikes, as that would make our outward life dull indeed. We do not, however, wish to be driven by them. We strengthen our power of choice.

A particular cautionary note must be sounded regarding self-discipline. If the self who is imposing the discipline is our ego or if success at self-discipline feeds our ego, then that robs the entire enterprise of its value. Self-discipline can make us stronger and more confident, which is deeply beneficial. But if that strength inflates our self-centeredness, it is spiritually counterproductive. We need to be alert for this and adjust our work of self-discipline accordingly. If we were to meditate two hours each day, or fast once a week, and by doing so come to believe we are better than other people, then that would misappropriate the results of our efforts.

The ultimate purpose of self-discipline is to transcend itself, to so unify our being that we come to live and act as one whole. Our body, heart, and mind work seamlessly together within our individuality, in accord with our conscience. No longer does one part need to create order in another part. There are no parts, just the whole. When we see and understand that something needs doing and is moral, legal, appropriate, and within our power, we do it. As simple as that. The inner conflicts disappear into the unity of our being. We choose with the whole of ourselves. Self-discipline helps bring us to this point by slowly making each part more aware of the others and opening channels of communication between them, until finally they merge into our unique individuality.

For this week, please explore self-discipline within your personal domain.


     

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