March 10, 2011

Discipline is Freedom

Discipline and your spiritual practice.

Discipline provides the support to slow down enough to be present enough so that we can live our lives without making a big mess. ~ Pema Chödrön

What kinds of habitual patterns seem to catch you just about every time? Do the words that form a complaint roll off your tongue before you thought you even opened your mouth? Does your middle finger tend to inadvertently spring up toward a driver that has just cut you off?

We all have strong habit energies within us. Formed by years of conditioning from our families and from society, our habit energies drive us to criticize ourselves and others, complain, gossip and grasp for untenable control even when we don’t mean to.

How do we free ourselves from the grip of habit energies? I can only speak from my direct experience. Discipline offers me support in freeing myself from the near irresistible tug of some of my habit energies. That doesn’t mean that I am completely free of all of them, by any means!

A daily commitment

In January 2001 I almost died from a severe flare of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s colitis). While I was in the hospital, my father brought me a book about qigong. He showed me how to do a standing meditation pose and I tried to do it every day for 30 seconds.

When I was well enough to live on my own again, I lived in Washington, DC, where two dharma teachers at the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax encouraged me to practice qigong. One of them gave me a book and a video and suggested that I try to practice qigong every day for 100 days. So on March 9, 2001 I committed to practicing qigong every day for 100 days.

As of today, I have practiced qigong every day for more than 3,650 days. I practiced qigong during six hospitalizations, often in bed. I have practiced qigong in parks, at airports, at festivals and atop mountains. Every day I commit to caring for myself and to being 100% present with my body for at least a few moments.

It has been exactly 10 years and one day since I first committed to practicing qigong and I am now completely free of inflammatory bowel disease. Practicing qigong daily was one of the first things I did to help free myself from some formidable habit energies that kept me in a near constant state of stress, which exacerbated my disease.

In conventional terms, discipline is often likened to self-control and “fixing mental defects.” In Buddhism, moral discipline is one of the six paramitas, or wisdom virtues. Different Buddhist teachers have defined it in different ways, but it is often described as having qualities of refraining from negative actions and working for the benefit of others. For me, spiritual discipline involves five qualities:


I think of resolution as being determined to keep going, even when the circumstances are difficult, and even when a part of me wants to give up. Paradoxically, it also means being determined to stop. The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has spoken and written about “the art of stopping,” of making pockets of time throughout the day to stop and be mindful. Stopping weakens my conditioned habit energies. I turn on my computer’s mindfulness bell every day to remind myself to stop and breathe every 30 minutes while I am working on my computer. I also practice the art of stopping by sitting my butt down on a cushion almost every day to practice sitting meditation.


This aspect of discipline involves really listening to what the body needs and heeding its messages. A large part of my spiritual practice is caring for and practicing loving-kindness for myself. Regular self-care helps me to also have the energy and strength to be there for others. When I first decided to practice qigong every day, I did it without any expectation that it would “heal” me. I did it because I wanted to do something that would help me really be in my body every day. The same with mindfulness meditation. I started practicing it long before I knew about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I simply wanted practical methods of caring for my whole being every day.


I modified my qigong routine to ensure that I could practice it in bed while in the hospital. I practiced simple qigong movements when the doctors forced me to fast for days at a time in the hospital (I had parenteral nutrition delivered through my veins). I committed to being in my body and to practicing, but I did not force myself to do too much. When I had severe back pain I practiced meditation lying down because sitting was excruciatingly painful, and again I modified my qigong routine. Compassion means that I exercise great gentleness in carrying out my commitments to practice meditation and qigong.

Drinking the bitter medicine

In some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s talks, he has described a soup in Vietnam called “bitter melon soup.” It is extremely bitter (I say this from firsthand experience!) and it is considered to be a traditional medicine that people take when they have a cold or flu. Thich Nhat Hanh has talked about how sometimes facing our suffering is like swallowing bitter melon soup. It is hard to do, and yet we do it because we know it has healing properties. At times my spiritual practice is like drinking bitter medicine. Sometimes I feel tremendous resistance to sitting down on a meditation cushion or practicing qigong, but I do it anyway because I’ve experienced the benefits of doing so, again and again. Time after time, facing my resistance and whatever suffering lay behind it helped me to transform my suffering. Awareness is healing.


Appreciation is important to me because there were times when it was impossible for me to sit on a meditation cushion or practice qigong standing up. There were times when I was so sick that I could barely walk. I appreciate that I can practice sitting meditation, walking meditation and qigong standing up. My appreciation of these small wonders helps me to be even more determined to continue to practice no matter what the circumstances.

Discipline has made a huge difference in my spiritual practice and I welcome your comments about how discipline has or has not been important to your spiritual practice. I still have a lot to learn about it!

* The photo above of me practicing qigong at Sibley Park in California was taken by my partner, Cris Luengo.

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