All devoted and ethical martial artists I have known care about protecting that which is vulnerable, fragile, weak, valued or loved. The role of discipline is to enable you to protect that which requires protecting, and to develop and grow in a way that serves you and your best interests.
It is not to enable you to police your own oppression – but that’s how we are encouraged to apply it these days. We are called weak, and only strong when we are capable of abusing ourselves in the name of health and progress. Our morality is questioned based on our eating and exercise practices, and assumptions are made about our character, based on our size, shape and weight. I have always felt conflicted about discipline. It’s a double-edged sword, it can harm or it can serve. It is useful, but in excess, or when misapplied, it can be extremely problematic. And as disciplined as I have been in my life, it never made me look the way I wanted. There are gaps in our assumptions.
I no longer believe in using discipline to control a diet, or even in a broader sense, one’s nutrition or eating practices. I believe in intuition, respect and understanding. If you experience cravings, there’s a reason for it. If you struggle with perceived over- or under-eating, or bad food choices, what will serve you better than forcing an idea, punishing yourself or trying to commit to what you’ve been told you should be doing – what will serve you better than all that is investigation, questioning our concepts and prejudices, and re-establishing trust with yourself.
I’ve been there. I’ve disciplined myself to different eating practices, and it hasn’t helped to make me that much healthier – in some ways, maybe – but in many ways it made me sicker, and it damaged my relationship with food, with my own body, and my self-trust. Not to mention, it never made me thin in the way I wanted, and when I started to notice all that crap wasn’t working, that was when I started to be capable of letting go of my own prejudices surrounding food, weight and health.
Here’s where I’m at: most likely you need more food than you think you do. I don’t think I know anyone who genuinely seems to have a problem with portion-control, except that limiting portion size is far too common and too contrived, and there seems to be this massive gap between how much we need to eat, and how much we think we need to eat. If you’re desperately reaching for a coke, if you crave sugar and caffeine, if you feel you cannot control yourself around food, odds are you aren’t eating enough – and you haven’t been eating enough for a long, long time. It can be quite shocking just how much food you need to eat. People think they eat plenty, but that’s based on societal prejudice and this bizarre notion that in a natural, well-fed state, humans still wouldn’t have stored body-fat. There’s really nothing logical or scientific in that assumption.
I really don’t care how much sugar you eat. But if you have overwhelming cravings, if you don’t want to be eating so much sugar – try eating more protein and fat. That’s what worked for me. It took months, and I still eat sugar today (oh heavens!), but when my body readjusted, after months of being committed to eating more damn food – especially fat – sugar cravings lost their edge. They all but disappeared. The thing is, you can’t eat fat and expect it to satisfy your craving for sugar. It isn’t immediate, it’s systemic. It requires a lot of time, which of course teaches us patience. Damnit!
And it can be really confronting when you start to eat more. If you have come to regard food as the enemy, as the obstacle that gets in the way of you achieving your goals – rather than the awesome, nurturing stuff that enables you to grow and develop and thrive, which is what food really is – eating more can result in some serious anxiety. It can feel like a betrayal. Like a crime. And if eating food gives you anxiety, you’ll rush it, you won’t be able to enjoy it, you’ll be consumed with guilt, because ultimately you’ll want the experience to be over, and quickly. You’ll feel incredibly conflicted about the whole thing. You’ll question your worth, morality, and sense of control and discipline.
And in case there’s any doubt, you cannot harden-the-fuck-up your way out of anxiety. That approach only makes it worse. So you need to work through that shit if you’re going to be able to eat naturally, autonomously, without anxiety or contrivance or fear. If you want to be free from shame and guilt, and if you want to be able to live a healthy life. And if you’re going to rebuild trust with yourself, regain the faith that you really can take care of yourself, it’s a tough path.
But the role of discipline is not to police your obedience or your own oppression. The role of discipline, now, is to protect that which is vulnerable, fragile – my sense of worth, my capacity to be exploited, my private fears that I’m not adequate, that I don’t qualify, that I’m a fraud. Discipline protects me, because my strong sense of discipline that once served my oppression now serves my freedom and independence – it’s discipline that stops me from dieting, that stops me believing the exploitative crap that is ‘shoved down our throats’ every damn day. It is so ubiquitous, so invasive, that we don’t even see it any more.
It’s the lie that you are broken and need to be fixed; the lie that fat is the enemy and hunger equals weakness; the lie that a real man is rugged and strong and stoic; the lie that women are either weak or strong; the lie that if you buy this shit, it will all happen easily; and especially the lie that if you shut the fuck up and do what you’re told, everything will turn out fine. No. Investigate, question, and challenge.
If anything is broken, it’s only superficial. Your heart is pure – you want your circumstances to be better – you want to be free from shame and judgement, you want to be healthy – these are signs that you care for yourself, you value yourself and your own best interests.
But the way to be free from shame isn’t to try to change yourself to the point where you are perfect and therefore unashamed, that is only precarious, temporary – it’s not to try to diminish yourself, to strip yourself down to some standardised ideal that evades controversy and criticism – nor is it necessarily to rage publicly in defiance of these pressures.
The best way I know of to be free from shame and guilt is to deal with shame and guilt. Don’t deal with size and expect it to help – don’t deal with size and expect it to work out for your health – deal with the problem itself. It doesn’t work by proxy – some things carry over, and some things have positive and negative side effects, but if you deal with the main issue, as best you can, you maximise your chance for success.
I once realised the only foods I didn’t feel some sort of guilt about eating were vegetables and nuts. And suddenly I realised the truth that one could not be healthy or vibrant on such a restrictive diet. I realised that my problem was not with food, it was with guilt. And I resolved to stop blaming food, or desire, or myself, for a problem that was actually about something else entirely.
I wanted to be free to eat what I like, and I also wanted that ‘what I like’ to be good for me. I realised I had to abandon preconception and prejudice. My testosterone was down, so I started eating butter and cream, and my hay fever cleared up. It’s the complete opposite of what they tell you in the vegetarian community. Every one of my previous food prejudices have been challenged since I started investigating this stuff, since I started working on what I believed was the actual problem. Timing, carb/protein/fat ratios, quantity, quality, access, you name it.
And then there’s training. Discipline will get you to the gym, but having satisfying and engaging training experiences are what makes it all worthwhile, and the physical experience of overcoming weaknesses and limitations is what makes it meaningful – not thinness – not the dubious pleasure of feeling approved of by the body-hating status quo. Discipline will also lead you to over-training, to obsessing over numbers, and to completely missing the point of being alive and vital in the first place. But it will also teach you skills, coping methods, and educate you about your capacity, limitations, and resourcefulness, and it will reveal to you the actual process of athletic development, when you discipline yourself to not count calories, when you recognise that when athletic progression is on the cards, there has to be a reason for every single exercise you do.
Discipline can protect you from dieting, and stop you skipping meals, and that’s the best chance you have at resolving cravings. Discipline, if you don’t believe in yourself, will keep you oppressed, and get in between your own inner self and freedom, but discipline can also liberate you from your own – and culturally mandated – psychological prisons. Discipline can help you achieve excellence, but only if you’re not exploiting yourself in the process. Only if you can have compassion, understanding and respect for yourself and your boundaries and limitations, as you’re trying to exceed them.
Here’s the key to the confusion: discipline is not about making yourself do things you don’t like. That’s not the purpose it serves – if you use it that way, you only become your own oppressor, you only learn to place limitations yourself and your capacity for growth. Discipline is about supporting and enabling yourself to become who you really are. Which is, of course, who you are right now. Damn.
Discipline will help you bring yourself to what really needs to be done, actively, with an open mind. And that’s quite a different thing to forcing yourself into doing what you dislike, to doing what goes against your character, what goes against your desire to preserve your own individuality, what goes against your will to be unexploited. We are right to resist our own exploitation. Used properly, your own self-discipline will help you fight for freedom, in defence of that which is most precious, rather than become an agent of tyranny.
And if you don’t think of yourself as a disciplined person – fine! Because you don’t need it.
People survive just fine doing what they need to do, and as we grow, our capacity for hard work, patience, tolerance and understanding develop too. But none of this happens by accident. Nobody develops patience and generosity easily. They develop as a result, a positive side-effect, of hardship – if you value them. And that’s kinda the kicker – you cannot develop patience and insight by having everything go your way. That’s the real problem with privilege – you only start to understand other people when shit doesn’t work out right – when you start to see through the contrivance, the illusion of control, and when you start to see chaos revealed.
So thinking of yourself as an undisciplined or impatient person doesn’t really help. Thinking of yourself as someone who can’t commit doesn’t really help. Doing something, anything, for you, for once, can help. That can help you remember what’s worth protecting, what’s worth taking care of, and it can help you re-establish trust with yourself, every time you reject the message to hate yourself thin, to hate yourself successful, to hate yourself popular. Every time you make the hard choice and refuse to tell yourself to harden the fuck up and get on with it, you renew your sense of self-trust. Every time you cut yourself a break, you renew your sense of self-trust. And it gets easier – the more you practice it, the better you get at it, and one day you’ll find you’re good at it. You’re good at rejecting the bullshit and caring for yourself, you’re good at caring for your own inner vulnerabilities that require care, you’re good at protecting your heart, and you’re good at not exploiting yourself – and that’s what discipline is. It’s not a character trait, or an attribute, it is simply a skill – one you get better at every time you practice it.
And if you’re using it to police your own oppression, you can shift that. Identify what’s worth protecting, and resolve yourself to protect it. And each time you fail, remember that part of protecting your vulnerabilities includes forgiving yourself for failing. Disempower failure – reject the negative stigma associated with failure, because that too, helps you protect your inner self, and all these things in time, bestow strength and strength of character. And as is the cliché – it’s not for oppression – strength enables you to be kind, gentle and understanding, and if you learn to direct that inward, it becomes easier to direct it outward too.