Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Discipline

How even lazy people can develop discipline

Photo: Robert S. Donovan

I once made a determination to call a friend on the phone every day for one year. He was new to the practice of Nichiren Buddhism and struggling with a misery of an intensity I'd rarely seen. Anxiety and depression were literally overwhelming him and ruining the quality of his everyday life. I'd hoped to encourage him by leveraging some discipline of my own.

Most days we'd talk for under two minutes. My goal wasn't to engage him in a lengthy and significant dialogue every day, which would have been exhausting to us both, but rather simply to remind him I was there and to try to bolster his determination to do something he said he wanted to do and that I thought would help resolve his suffering. Sometimes we'd talk about the practice of Nichiren Buddhism and the effect practicing it had on my life. Sometimes we'd talk about the barriers he found himself facing in trying to commit to chanting twice a day. I found myself returning often to the metaphor of weight lifting. I told him that steady efforts, if made day after day, pile up over time to yield formidable gains in size and strength. He needed to accomplish the same thing with his life-condition.

He always thanked me for calling and asked if I was planning to call him again the next day. I always answered yes. "I don't know where you get the discipline," he'd often mutter just before saying goodbye and hanging up.

HOW CAN WE MANIFEST DISCIPLINE?

I think of discipline as the ability to expend energy toward a goal on a consistent, repetitive basis. Every single one of us has the capacity to do this, no matter how lazy we may think we are. Our ability to manifest discipline depends mostly on the state of our life-condition, but we can also say several factors are required for us to lead a disciplined life:

  1. A strong commitment. If you intend to perform an action over and over again, you need to care about the reason you're doing it. If you don't, you have two choices: either find a way to understand why what you're doing is important or find another reason to do it you already care about.
  2. A plan you believe will work. Showing up to a baseball game having trained to play tennis will guarantee defeat no matter how sincere your intentions are. If you lack confidence that the action you're taking will lead to success, you'll have trouble committing to it on a regular basis.
  3. The energy you need. Consistency requires energy. Eat well, exercise regularly, and get adequate sleep.
  4. An ability to go through the motions when your drive weakens. There will always be days you don't want to continue, days you try to convince yourself it won't hurt to skip doing what you're doing. Treat these thoughts like the devilish functions they are. Be neither frightened nor distracted by them. Keep your eyes focused clearly on your long-term goal and continue even when you don't feel like it. Don't let momentary fatigue or weakness ruin your momentum.
  5. Creative thinking about your schedule. You must find a way to include your activity in your schedule in a sustainable way. The number one reason my patients tell me they can't exercise regularly is that their busy schedules won't permit it. "You can benefit from just 15 minutes of exercise a day," I tell them. "Is it really a problem of inadequate time to find 15 minutes to do something out of the 10-12 hours we spend awake each day?" We really do have enough time. What we often lack is the ability to prioritize and to set boundaries with others whose demands we allow to monopolize our schedules.
  6. Others around us who are doing the same thing. Discipline is contagious as a virus. Committing to your action with a partner will engage a sense of obligation to him or her that will help sustain your drive toward consistent action. On days you don't feel like taking action toward your goal, your partner's discipline can buoy yours, and vice versa.
  7. A competitive nature. If you have one, use it to motivate yourself. Pick someone or something to compete against. Not that you ever need to let anyone know, but if thinking about your activity as a competition motivates you, then do it.
  8. A willingness to start. Carry out your determination every day, even if only once or for only one minute. I told my Buddhist friend that chanting even a single time was better than not at all. I tell my exercising patients that even going to the gym and doing only one set or jogging only five minutes is better than not going at all. Often it's mustering the activation energy that represents the greatest barrier to consistent action. Once we get ourselves started we often discover continuing is less difficult than we thought. What frequently makes starting an activity hard is our tendency to dwell on how much of it we have yet to do. Focus all your energy on just getting yourself to start whatever it is you're trying to do and don't worry at all about how long you're going to do it. In fact, give yourself permission to stop immediately after you start. Often, once you do start, even if you want to stop you'll find yourself continuing.
  9. The creative use of technology. Whether it's a daily call to a friend, taking a medication, working out, or chanting, technology can help. Program reminders into your cell phone. Track your progress in a computerized spreadsheet program.

Ultimately, I succeeded in accomplishing my goal. My Buddhist friend didn't answer my calls every day, but every day he got one. Three hundred sixty-five in all. He didn't chant every day, but every day he started out with the determination that he would. In the end, however, he chose not to continue with his Buddhist practice. And though his continuing was what I'd ultimately hoped for, I still managed to show him I cared about his happiness with more than words—with my disciplined action. And as his story isn't over yet, who knows what else that year of daily phone calls might one day accomplish?

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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