Does Your Daily Practice Need More Discipline or Devotion?

How deeply caring provides daily motivation and helps sustain your practice.

Posted Sep 17, 2020

Eric Maisel
The Power of Daily Practice
Source: Eric Maisel

This post is part 17 of a series of posts on the psychological and practical benefits of daily practice. In this series, I’ll explore the elements of daily practice, varieties of daily practice, challenges to daily practice, and strategies for meeting those challenges. Please join me in learning more about this important subject! Complete information can be found in The Power of Daily Practice.  

Many of the elements of practice combine to help you maintain the discipline required to show up every day to something that may be hard sledding, like writing your novel or rehabbing an injury. The habit of regularity will help. The sister habit of repetition will help. The seriousness you bring will help. The ceremonies you’ve thought to include will help. That you are self-directing and see self-obligation and self-authorship as virtues will help. That is, the many ways that you are on the side of your daily practice and holding the importance of your daily practice will help you maintain daily discipline.

Still, for many people discipline is hard to come by. This can happen because they have serious trouble tolerating the very experience of discipline: the experience of sitting there, doing a single thing in a step-by-step way, not reacting to the hardness of the task and not jumping out of their skin, and not leaping impulsively to a default behavior or acting defensively to halt the encounter. Discipline feels a certain way and many people can’t tolerate that feeling, often because of childhood trauma or other childhood experiences that have now become a hardened feature of their formed personality.

If this is your challenge, your daily practice is threatened. You may therefore need to choose as a practice, in addition to some primary one, the secondary personality upgrade practice or mindfulness practice of tolerating the feelings that come with doing something in a disciplined way. For example, you might maintain a separate 5- or 10-minute “I can sit here and tolerate these thoughts and feelings” mindfulness practice that precedes your daily writing practice. If you find that you can’t get to your writing in a disciplined daily way, this additional mindfulness practice might prove the missing ingredient. 

Your daily practice is a primary way that you manifest your willingness to be disciplined at least for a portion of your life. By manifesting discipline here, by showing up every day at your practice and by making the effort to do this work, especially on those days when you would prefer not to, you build your muscles for disciplined action in other areas of your life. Being disciplined even just for the duration of your daily practice will lead to excellent disciplined action elsewhere in your life.

Discipline is one thing, and an excellent thing. Devotion is a different thing, and also excellent. Devotion has about it a sense of love and also a sense of worth: We are devoted to something because we sense its worth and also because we love it, feel passionate about it, feel deeply curious to learn more about it, and so on. If we are lucky, our daily practice is a devotional thing and maybe one of the few places of devotion on our very secular calendar. 

Luciano Pavarotti explained, “People think I am disciplined. It is not discipline, it is devotion. There is a great difference.” And there is. I would have a very difficult time, maybe an impossible time, working hard on book after book just for the sake of “maintaining a disciplined approach to life.” It is a place of love for me, though that love can wax and wane. But, so far, even when it wanes, it doesn’t fully vanish. Some mist of love remains.

If you hold something as one of your life purposes, if in a quite visceral way that something is a part-answer to your meaning questions, if you deeply love something, then that something may rise to the level of object or subject of devotion. It may still tax you, annoy you, frustrate you, and bedevil you. But it remains close to your heart as something worth embracing.

A kirist idea is that meaning is the sort of thing that can be coaxed into existence. As a child, maybe music moved you. As a teenager, you went to concerts that thrilled you and that mesmerized you. Whether it was a sensible idea or an absurd idea, you devoted yourself to music. Now music remains consistently and persistently a place of meaning for you. You make meaning investments by practicing a lot and by playing a lot and you seize meaning opportunities by jumping at the chance to sit in with good musicians.

Maybe in a conscious way or maybe in an unconscious way, you viscerally experience music as one sort of answer to your meaning questions. Music is a real and almost complete antidote to the feeling of meaninglessness. This is largely a matter of luck, of course, that some pursuit fills the void so well as to become an object of devotion. But you have been vouchsafed that piece of luck and music is that for you.

That doesn’t mean that blocks won’t occur—of course they still might. But it is a very different matter to block on a novel you love because a plot problem is standing in the way and to block on a novel that holds no particular meaning for you and that you are writing for this or that reason. Those are very different experiences in the realm of meaning and that second block is rather likely to become a permanent one.

Even if you do feel devoted, that devotion can wane. I know a nun who was devoted to her order, to her Mother Superior, and to God. At some point, that devotion ended. Even that devotion can end. Maybe you’ve gotten down on the thing itself: Maybe fiction or pop music no longer impresses you or interests you. Or maybe you’ve gotten down on yourself, as someone who ruined your chances or failed yourself. There are many reasons why our devotion may wane. Since it can wane, you will want to carefully monitor it. If it is waning, maybe you can rekindle it before the flame dies out completely.

Devotion is a tricky business. It is an important element of practice but it can’t quite be manufactured, any more than meaning can be manufactured. If you feel devoted to your practice, that is a great bit of luck. If you only feel marginally or intermittently devoted, or if you don’t feel devoted at all, try the following: Open your heart. Maybe there is some love waiting to be lavished. Open your heart, cross your fingers, and practice.

If you can marry these two, discipline and devotion, you will have done wonders for your daily practice.