When I first began healing from 10 years of bulimia, I despised the word “discipline.”
I thought that everything that had damaged me was due to that word.
In a sense, I was right. When I couldn’t stop my bulimia on my own, I thought it was a lack of discipline. As a matter of fact, there were many people in my life who agreed. My college boyfriend would say, “Just don’t eat so much and go running with me!” I remember reading The Road Less Traveled at some point during college. One of the first sections of that book is titled “Delaying Gratification.” And I thought “Ah! That’s it! I just need to learn to delay gratification!”
The problem there is that bulimia is an addiction. Though I can now understand and embrace “delayed gratification,” back then I was steeped in an eating disorder, and any attempt at this was pointless.
After college, I used my first years in the tiny city of Asheville to recover from my eating disorder. I worked with all kinds of practictioners to let go of this thing I had known for so long. Discipline was not an option at that point. Delaying gratification was not an option. I was not a whole person. The only agenda was listening to my body and my heart. Even though I was writing songs at the time, I refused to call that practice discipline. I called it “showing up.” I called it “courage.” But discipline was anathema to me. People who had “discipline” were – like my college boyfriend – magically able to go through life sans emotion.
If you’re on my mailing list, then you’ve read my new year’s emailers about resolutions. I don’t like new year’s resolutions. They fall under the same category as giving stuff up for Lent. This always seemed kind of dumb to me. I still have stacks of old journals from high school (yes, this is what inspired me to write Mary Catherine’s Ash Wednesday Journal Entry), and I was reading them aloud to a friend. We both couldn’t stop laughing at how each year, my resolutions (stop cussing, give up M&Ms, exercise everyday for two hours) invariably were the same exact list as my Lent list (stop cussing, give up M&M’s, exercise) at which I had obviously not been successful the first time. Apparently, the Lenten idea of giving up material things in order to remind myself of the suffering of Jesus was not nearly as appealing as weight loss and self-improvement.
A few years ago, I decided that rather than resolving to do things, I would choose a word to focus on during the new year. And judging by the volume of responses I get from my new year’s emailer, I think this idea strikes a chord with lots of people.
The first year I did this, I chose “gratitude” because I realized that I had a very hard time recognizing the gifts contained in this amazing world of mine. And I spent the year gently practicing gratitude. I kept a gratitude journal every night before going to bed. That practice made me pay attention to and deeply appreciate random things — an angle of sunlight on some tulips on my kitchen table; the phone call from my friend Steve instigating a hysterical discussion about the ineffectiveness of the luggage carts in St. Louis airport; the look my dog gives me in the car when she puts her chin on the console. (It tells me that I am, in fact, the best human ever to walk the planet.)
The next year, my word was “generosity,” and I never left a hotel room without leaving a tip for housekeeping (I keep up this practice to this day), I paid the tolls of people behind me (which, for some reason, freaked me out, especially in New Jersey), I looked for little gifts to give to friends. Picking a word a year has been kind of “Discipline Lite” for someone like me who had such a hard time with discipline.
Several years ago, I went to my first Prosperity Workshop. During the second week’s class, the teacherwas walking us through the Eleven Principles of Prosperity. One of the principles was “self-discipline.”
My entire body tensed up. “Gross,” I thought. “These people are nuts.” When our teacher introduced the concept, the first thing she said was, “When I say ‘self-discipline’ I’m not talking about getting up and jogging for an hour in the morning. I’m talking about how you talk to yourself. Do you perpetually sink into drama at the drop of a hat?” She continued the discussion by describing all of the ways we take our minds into reactionary behaviors, and all of the ways we damage our selves and our lives by doing this. In her descriptions, I saw myself clearly. I call it my Inner Eeyore. At the end of the class we were asked to pick our weakest of the Eleven Principles and work on it. My area was clearly self-discipline.
Now, I have not been a big huge “just think positive!” kind of person. I do, however, recognize my own propensity for negativity. I call it the Crash And Burn Approach To Anything That Happens. If nothing else, it certainly doesn’t hurt to shift out of this habit. (This is true especially if you’re an environmentalist. If you don’t like pollution, trying looking at what’s floating around in your own head.) That’s what I wanted to do.
What I learned during the coming months changed my life.
I came to understand that emotional reactions are default patters. That’s all. And if you are going to be disciplined enough to create new mindsets, then the work will sometimes feel PHYSICAL. I had to work, and work hard, at keeping my mind from slipping. It was an earth-moving experience. It felt like I was trying to rip a steel door out of one wall, and then put it into another wall, so I could enter and exit from a different space.
Each time I would come face to face with an old default pattern and write my way out of it, I would go outside for a walk. I would stay present and refuse to let my inner-Eeyore take over. It would usually take 20 minutes or so to feel completely free of the energy that had been grabbing at me.
Now, the triumph of this level of discipline is not necessarily about the happy endings that it brings. (Yes, many results began to shift in my life!)
The triumph is when you can let go of labeling the results at all. I had gotten myself to recognize that I get to choose how I perceive any situation. That was a huge lesson to me in recognizing the disease of this addiction to the Crash-and-Burn-Approach and recognizing that I had an option, and it was up to me to choose it.
That is the essence of discipline, and it is a great lesson.