Old Chinese Martial Arts: Bagua
I’m not sure how I feel about discipline. It’s a two edged knife that cuts both ways. Shiiiiiing! It can be very useful, but it can also lock you into obsessive behaviours that are not genuinely in your best interests. What it’s not, is necessary for fitness.
We’re often told we need discipline and dedication, but what I think we actually need is awareness, curiosity and a genuine care for our own well-being. You don’t need to ‘be disciplined’ in order to exercise – the only thing you need in order to exercise is – to exercise. Don’t over-complicate it. You don’t need to change your personality so that you can train. You can do it as the you that you are.
It needs to be said that discipline will certainly get you started, but it’s not enough to keep you going. My martial arts practice has spanned about fifteen years. We usually associate martial arts with the development of self-discipline, and although that’s part of it – the reason I kept training was because I liked it. It wasn’t because I was ‘disciplined’ – that was just the icing on the cake, so to speak. The cake that I sliced with my two edged knife.
Discipline is useful because it’ll get you started; it’ll get you through the door and it’ll commit you enough so that you’re able to get to the point of discovering how (or if) you like to train. It’ll give you the opportunity to reach a point of satisfaction.
Yesterday at the gym I did 1000 meters on the rower, twice. I had to push through, with discipline, at the end – but I wanted to get 2000 meters into my workout and when I did I was satisfied. That was a relatively simple example. I did other things too, but the rowing was the bit I had planned, and I knew I wouldn't have been satisfied with something easier.
Why? Because I'm curious about developing my rowing ability. And I know that in order to do that, I'm going to have to push myself to do things I wouldn’t necessarily gravitate towards if left to my own devices.
That’s the essence of discipline – it’s what we use to get ourselves to do things we wouldn’t automatically do otherwise.
In my teenage and early-adult years I really enjoyed my martial arts training, and I knew that proficiency required the endless repetition of techniques. I built a strong sense of discipline which was based on ambition and enjoyment, and was probably one of the things that helped me win a number of medals in various competitions. So it was certainly helpful.
But what if you’re deluded or misinformed? What if you use your strong sense of discipline for something that’s not actually in your best interests?
What if you’ve got discipline confused with self-chastisement?
What if your childhood experience of discipline equated to simply being abused?
A disciplined approach to eating can lead in disaster. Insufficient saturated fat intake for a prolonged period of time led me to hormonal imbalances. Low testosterone in particular, which made strength gains very difficult in recent years. Of course I don’t know that it was insufficient intake of saturated fat (that’s right, that’s the bad one, as a disciplined vegetarian I wasn’t getting much of it), but I do know that increasing my intake of saturated fat is what helped me to correct the imbalance. I know that, because that’s the one thing I changed and my blood tests indicate that my hormonal state has improved.
Of course, I really don’t care how much saturated fat you’re consuming, but hopefully my point is clear – disciplining myself to ‘doing what I should’ got me into trouble. It’s those danged two edges again!
A doctor of Chinese medicine once told me that eating too much raw food can damage your spleen chi, which encourages obsessive behaviour, which leads to more adherence to ‘raw food only’ dogma. Although I personally like raw food, that’s one example of a cycle I don’t want to get stuck in.
The down-side to discipline is basically being closed-minded or abusive. Discipline is at odds with child-like curiosity. And that doesn’t sit well with me at all.
Because it’s curiosity that leads to self-knowledge.
And so, discipline encourages ignorance. Sometimes. But sometimes it doesn't. How confusing!
Soldiers in training.
Why is discipline used in martial arts training? To discourage people from questioning authority? To instil in people a sense of obedience? Those are useful qualities for a soldier to have. But it also gives the individual an understanding of their own capacity, and as Bruce Lee said, an ability to ‘exceed your potential’. It enables people to deepen their self-knowledge through tireless investigation.
At my gym, I teach a martial arts-based conditioning class. I've had a few participants come along to try it who did not continue, I suspect because they wanted something ‘more disciplined’. But I’m teaching classes for adults, not children, and they’re focused on conditioning, not combat, so they are based on a quieter investigation of ones self rather than simply barking orders. Whether one method is better than the other is a topic of much debate, but not one I’ll get into now.
None of this means discipline is either bad or good – it’s dangerous. Understand it and use it wisely, my friend.
How can you use it? Discipline yourself to do things that are good for you and discipline yourself to investigate. Keep asking questions.
Hypothetically: I’m going to go to the gym twice each week. I don’t care what I do when I’m there – if I’m tired I might walk for 15 minutes and stretch, but my discipline will get me through the door. Once there, I can do whatever the hell I damn well please. Leave the judgement at home – just because you didn’t ‘kill it’ at the gym does not mean it was a wasted session. Walking and stretching are always good for you. Some days you have energy, some days you don’t.
Maybe I’ll discipline myself to row at least 1500 meters every time I go to the gym, and I’ll spend the rest of the time lifting something heavy, but I’ll decide exactly what on the day.
Or maybe my discipline will get me to do 30 push-ups every week. And everything else is playtime. Who knows?
You can use discipline to get you started, but don’t go nuts. Unless you want to. Then go as nuts as you want. You are your own compass. Work out for yourself what’s right, through experimentation, investigation and pursuing your own sense of satisfaction - nobody else’s.
What if an injury starts to appear? Discipline yourself to your awareness. Know when to change the focus of your training. You may need to use your discipline to hold you back.
Use discipline to give you the opportunity to really experience exercise and its effects on your body. The good, the bad, the whatever. Use it to stimulate your awareness.
Ask the question: is this useful? If not, forget about it.
7/3/2011 10:02:20 am
thought provoking as always chris, i suspect that my notion of 'discipline' is mixed up with a lot of (unhelpful) extra things. i love the idea that we need to let our natural curiosity lead us forward - this is the approach any sensible person would take in the arts, so it makes even more sense to use it for personal development.
7/3/2011 01:23:06 pm
Oh yes, isn't that the best!
7/3/2011 03:36:03 pm
The thing with art and development and discipline is funny, because we call certain arts "disciplines" in the sense of "studying/working within such-and-such a discipline," but we also say you need to "have" discipline, or to "discipline yourself." All different ways of saying the same thing: "do a thing." Like you said, discipline is the art of getting yourself to do stuff you wouldn't automatically do otherwise. I think you make a really important point when you talk about satisfaction, and what's useful, because when you're getting yourself to do things that you wouldn't automatically do otherwise but *satisfaction* has morphed into something more akin to *self-worth* then you're in trouble. Using any form of achievement as evidence of self-worth is wrong, and that's true of exercise as much as it is writing a novel or getting a promotion at work. I think you need to stay aware and conscious of the distinction between 1) your self doing/achieving a thing, and 2) your self being constituted in the thing you've done. The first leads to satisfaction if you're successful and contemplation if you're not - as in "I did this thing, that's pretty cool, or, why didn't it work?" and the second leads to "if I don't do this thing/get it right, I'm worthless and I need to be better next time." When I type that I'm actually thinking of writing! But it's just as true of exercise and training.
7/3/2011 05:23:10 pm
that's so beautifully said yesha (hooray for rambly), and has really opened my mind up to all sorts of ponderables. mainly, the possibility of a more considered methodology toward fitness etc than 'make up a bunch of rules and stick to them'. i'd never approach my practice in such a prescriptive and yet quite half-assed fashion, so why anything else?
7/3/2011 09:00:22 pm
Oh I agree! I was thinking about goals, because if your goal is athletically based, you can - as you said - achieve satisfaction if you're successful and contemplation if you're not - but if you're goal is physique based - ie. if it's tied up in the way you look, that shit makes people feel like failures and 'give up' because exercise 'isn't working'. As you know I'm all about not connecting exercise with notions of self-worth.
7/6/2011 06:54:49 am
This post really resonated with me. I have struggled with exercise my whole life, just because I can often find something else I would much rather be doing. I would waste a lot of energy just psyching myself up for exercise – which actually involved a lot of negative self talk. I thought I was being disciplined. Recently I have realised the more ‘disciplined’ I am with my exercise the less motivation I have. So I have now done away with discipline! – I start my week with ‘This week I would like to do X’ and if I don’t do X I don’t care. Since I have started this my motivation has increased significantly and I am moving so much more, all because I don’t give myself such a hard time now. I find it fascinating the habits we pick up, carry for a very long time only to realise they have been holding us back. Hmmmm I foresee a day of deep pondering.
7/6/2011 03:42:48 pm
Thanks so much for sharing that Bec! The more people drum into us how important and necessary it is to 'take care of yourself', the more it makes you just not want to participate - if you're in any way rebellious. That's my experience anyway. So it can be quite difficult working out how you want to go about 'looking after yourself' on your own terms, without being resistant to perceived social pressures to 'fit in' and 'be good'.
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