motivation · training

Self-Discipline As Ease and a Path to Joy

On a recent morning, I experienced my self-discipline in a whole new way. I’ve always thought of self-discipline as being about … well … discipline. Getting shit done. Staying on top of things. Progress. Maintenance. Control. The universe introduced me to the possibility that self-discipline may contain all those things, and their seeming opposites.    

I woke to torrential rain. I’d been looking forward to my run and the audio book I’m listening to. Instead, I was going to have to do a Peloton ride or stream one of their Pilates classes. Have to, because I had a day full of Zoom and wanted to move; and because moving (and sweating) makes for a happier, more settled day, for me. The have to was weighing on me more than usual. Most of the time, I’m glad to have the external encouragement of the instructor. But not this particular morning. I wanted to move, but not that way, not with that kind of intensity or focus.

When I got to the bike, I thought, hang on a minute, I can do this differently. I don’t have to take a particular class. I can do my own thing, can’t I?  And I did. And it was profoundly satisfying.

To start, I opened the window next to the bike. My music for the morning was the sound of the pouring rain. Next, I hunted down the bike feature that would allow me to do what I wanted. I found the feature under the tab labeled More; and really, it’s more of an un-feature called Just Ride. Finally, I hooked my iPad over the bike screen and pressed play on my audio book and then shut off the screen’s light. Soon I was immersed in the words of David Abram’s, The Spell of the Sensuous, about the origins of language, as it arises from impulsive, gestural responses to our sensorial experience as beings in the world. I was a being on a bike, listening to the rain and the occasional city sound of traffic or a siren, experiencing my body in motion, the sweat running off my face, the rhythm of my legs and the light of a grey day leaking slowly into a dark room, though I mostly rode with my eyes closed.

Such. Pleasure.  

Red leaves through rainy window,
by Anne Nygard on Unsplash

A couple of hours later I was engaged in a deep dive conversation with two study partners about the difference between self-discipline and obedience (as part of my Non-Violent Communication program). My ride was the distinction we were talking about. I woke up with a desire to move and I made a choice to nourish my need. That was my inner voice of self-discipline, or at least how I usually think of her. Then a bunch of shoulds arrived to try to divert me from the freedom underlying my choice. You should do an instructor-led ride. You should try to ride harder than you will on your own. You should be more serious. You get the picture. On this particular morning, the idea of listening to those voices felt like obedience to some random external measure of success. A killjoy. Then, I discovered that getting to the bike was only Part One of the self-discipline voice. Part Two kicked in when I illuminated the screen. In lieu of obeying felt societal pressure, even if that pressure was and is largely imaginary or self-imposed, Part Two suggested that I search inside myself for the answer to what I wanted. The answer was clear. To just ride. To feel connected to nature, even if it was only through an open window. To listen to my book. 

I got off the bike drenched, my brain tingling with the sparks of ideas connecting and my body ready for some hours inside a box on a screen. 

Part One of my self-discipline on her own might not think I did an appropriate workout. She’s a lot about obedience. That’s where Part Two (a fresh aspect of self-discipline) came in to remind me that obedience does not have to be blind choice, but can include flexibility and creativity.  Part Two trusted me to decide, to double check inside and verify that my decision came from a place of internal discernment and not from an externally-fueled judgment of sufficiency. Part Two expanded on Part One’s mission to keep me healthy, reminding me that I alone have the power to decide what is the right workout self-discipline on any given day. With all due respect to Part One, Part Two encouraged me to free myself from obedience to arbitrary, impersonal measures of that incredibly elusive concept—success.

Instead, I my self-discipline is making this choice: what will give me the most joy today? 

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