Discipline (v): to train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way

Discipline, discipline, discipline. What can I say? Is it me, the full moon, or is everyone out there? Case in point, I got into the city today, Lower East Side, and went to a very Bohemian style coffee shop that I don’t normally frequent because everybody’s not on the ball. And it was proved to me again, it seems like most people are just trying to get by. I ordered my black coffee and a small biscuit. Not even thirty seconds after I ordered it, the guy had to ask me again what I ordered. Meanwhile, there was no one in line and the place was virtually empty. You might say to me, well, what does this have to do with discipline? Discipline is rooted solely in the mind. It doesn’t come from your left pinky or your elbow. I like to use the phrase, “Discipline your mind and the body will follow,” which a lot of martial arts students, exercise fanatics and general laypeople don’t quite adhere to. There is no magic bullet. The magic bullet is the discipline that you can conjure up and apply, stemming from your willpower and mindset.

I don’t think most people will have a problem with the definition of discipline above. But what I want to investigate is actually the seat of discipline itself. Where does it come from? How do you get it? You can’t buy it at Walmart. You can’t order it from Amazon. I think everyone has had moments when they were highly disciplined and moments when they couldn’t discipline themselves to get out of bed. And if you say that’s not you, I’m going to call you a liar. So how does one first and foremost acquire that understanding, feeling and/or mindset to even prepare oneself to discipline oneself? I have had people tell me I’m a very disciplined individual, especially when it comes to the Kung Fu training, but when I view myself personally, I find myself not as disciplined as I’d like to be. 

The art of Kung Fu requires immense amounts of focus and discipline from the individual. Discipline can be gotten by instruction from someone i.e., your master, Sifu, or teacher, but they cannot discipline you to the point that you acquire the skill. You can be guided, directed, taught, prompted, or even prodded, but you cannot be made to acquire the discipline to learn the art of Kung Fu. That is solely from the individual, from his mind, heart, body and soul. I’ve also seen highly disciplined individuals run off the track and end up out of sorts. I’ve witnessed those that are disciplined to the point that they stifle and stagnate their spirit and character by the sheer rigidity of the habitual practice of whatever they’re doing. Not only do we have to try to understand where the germ of discipline comes from, try to acclimate ourselves to the actual practice of disciplining the character and mind of oneself, but we must not exceed the extreme and become so rigid and unwavering that discipline takes all the joy out of doing something. Where is the point of balance? I know, I’m asking a lot of questions… and I’m not expecting any answers. These questions have to be answered by and for each individual, because what may work for one person may not work for another. 

I think giving oneself structure goes hand in hand with acquiring discipline to accomplish any given task, be it big or small, and the consistency of that structure on a daily basis will slowly lead oneself to be disciplined. Hence I was bent out of shape with my Bohemian black coffee that took the guy several times to get it right. In the study of Kung Fu and life and in raising yourself up to be a competent, mature adult that’s contributing positively to society, you need to give yourself structure. But what is the ultimate root of establishing that structure and giving oneself the discipline? I think it has everything to do with the desire that any one individual has within them. You need to want to structure yourself. You need to want to discipline yourself. You need to want to toe the line. How do you nurture that desire, how do you not let it run over the side of your coffee cup and become something else? It is controlling the heart of the individual (which in Chinese is also comprised of the mind), the seat of the intelligence and the soul of the person, that keeps you on the straight and narrow. 

Discipline, i.e. structure, gives you complete freedom. This is not the kind of “freedom” that means you can do whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it. That just leads to chaos. Individuals who lack the structure to discipline themselves are always a complete mess. We all know individuals that never learned to discipline and structure themselves to gain freedom. What is that freedom? That freedom is in knowing who you are, what you are capable of, what your limitations are, and then creating a structure that will help you to go above and beyond those limitations. You become free because you put that structure there. The building is only as tall as its structure allows; that is the discipline of the architect. If there was no structure, the building would fall down or never be built at all. An architect wishing for a building to be built but lacking the discipline to do the work will result in nothing. Wishing for something never makes it true; rubbing that rabbit’s foot ain’t going to help. You have to get down and dirty and do the work, and, as my mom always used to say, take your hands out of your pockets. My parents came from a highly motivated background that had less; therefor they disciplined themselves, and in the end had more. I think this comes back to my Bohemain coffee cup this morning. A lot of people have just enough to sate their palate, and because they are satisfied with what they have, they are that much more susceptible to falling short of creating self-discipline. In the lack of self-discipline and self-structure, we open ourselves to be controlled by others that can impose their own structure upon you. 

The ancient Asian civilizations and martial arts, specifically the Chinese martial arts, are highly systemized and therefor highly disciplined in terms of doing one said action ten thousand times, as we spoke of in the previous blog. The prevailing attitude of today’s culture is that it’s cool to bounce around and do what you please. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be happy with what you do, but there is something to said about disciplining the mind and the body, giving oneself structure by doing the same action again and again. In this way, you come to understand it in its entire depth and bring it to another level of perfection. In this way, the individual practitioner acquires the freedom that is in the knowledge. The process is not going to be easy or happy. The process is going to be filled with pitfalls and disappointments, and that’s okay. That’s the price that one has to pay in order to derive the discipline that brings the freedom of execution and skill that are required to practice the art of Kung Fu and to live the art of life. The art of discipline is how to live a fruitful, happy, and productive life. Yes? I think so. 

I guess the true answer of where discipline comes from is the individual’s willpower to honestly reflect upon themselves and be painfully true about who and what you are. This is why people don’t like to discipline themselves, because you need to look into the mirror of your own soul, and you probably won’t like what is reflected within. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most messed up one of all? That’s what you’re going to see, and you’re going to have to deal with it. But only when you deal with it can you make steps forward. Yesterday, I was cautioning my class about being too comfortable. There is a certain modicum of discomfort that pushes you to grow. Your muscles only grow when you utilize them to the point that they go above the limit they’ve become accustomed to. You only become more flexible when you stretch your ligaments, tendons and muscles to the point that they exceed the level of comfort that they know. Only death is comfortable because you’re in a prone position. You know you’re still alive when you get out of bed in the morning. So this conversation about the art of discipline, which I feel is actually not dying... it’s an art that the individual must find and nurture within themselves. But it’s not a one-shot deal. That’s why I said there’s no magic bullet. It’s a continual revision and refinement of the self. That’s the practice and the art of Kung Fu, which is truly the art of discipline. You have to confess, not to whatever spirits or god you may believe in, but to yourself. When you confess to yourself, that’s when you talk to God and he slaps you in the face and calls you a b****, and then you have to go back to work.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅