In all the miles this season, I've collected some thoughts. One thing I've been marinating on is discipline -- a relatively new arrow in my quiver. As I round out the end of another trip around the sun, I'm realizing how much grace has fallen on my life since I embraced the concept of discipline. Let me explain.
As far back as I can remember, I disliked the word discipline. It reminds me of the well-meaning but stern grey-haired woman who tried to teach me piano lessons when I was in first grade. She was frail and sort of spiny, like a winter tree, and she squinted and rapped her fingers on the piano wood every time I hit the wrong note. I was hopeless. I see music in colors and I've always played everything by ear. I am also phenomenally stubborn to a fault. I can't read sheet music to save my life, and her twisted scowl every time I left her house indicated that she could not save my life either. I was equally appalled by the way she treated music -- like it was some kind of math problem with only one right answer.
I lasted two months and quit by way of tantrum. My first-grader view was: I don't want to grow old like this woman and view music as something I should force children to memorize while ironically pounding out mechanical repetitions of "Joy to the World" in perfect quarter-notes. I viewed discipline, and "practicing" music the same way: Like the destruction of joy and the sabotage of everything artful and exciting about possibility.
Here's the part where I confess things about my past, and the results of that kind of thinking:
Between the ages of 17 and 24, I treated myself badly and I treated my life like it wasn't worth much. I smoked a lot of cigarettes and took ridiculously terrible care of my body and mind. I drank bottle after bottle of various things to try to get away from myself because I was really just not happy. Maybe it was the piano lessons, I don't know. (Kidding.) It actually got much, much worse than this but I'll save the graphic details for another time. I'm embarrassed about this very dark period of years, but I'm trying not to be ashamed. I think shame is the false belief that others won't accept our truth. I'm going to go out on a limb here and believe otherwise. I believe we all just want to accept and be accepted, regardless of what we project.
So in my twenties, I was always just struggling to get to a place of peace, and I didn't know what that was, so I ended up constantly running from everything. I went out late and stayed out late. I bounced around to different jobs. I was late to things. I forgot people's birthdays. I cancelled plans all the time. I ran away from any intimate situation. I was scared of anyone who cared about me. I was terrified of food. Terrified of love. I grew up in a really critical environment where perfectionism was encouraged, and I guess I just sort of exploded and went careening in the opposite direction -- running away. Self-sabotage. I just assumed that life was all ways going to feel like an anxiety-ridden dread-fest where everything ahead would just get worse. That was what I knew. I didn't have a purpose or a goal. The only goal was to protect myself from everything in the ugly world, and to protect everything good in the world from my ugly self.
It was the worst kind of selfishness: Self-hatred. Self-criticism. Self-destruction. Nobody is winning.
I was not, at early 20's, the kind of person who believed that one day I could graduate law school, run a marathon, run an ultramarathon, be on a trial team, be an aunt, write books, and land an amazing job at a law firm, or build beautiful lasting friendships. I didn't see myself as that person. I saw myself as a broken thing that should avoid intimacy and relationships and try not to inflict my insufficiency on others. That's no way to live. I see that now. But I don't think I could have gotten there without discipline.
Here's the Raymond Carver moment of grace, where things get hopeful:
What I learned was this: Discipline actually creates possibility.
I'm going to break discipline into two categories: Action Discipline and Thought Discipline.
Action Discipline is doing things you don't want to do because you trust that they will amount to something greater that you can't see or feel yet. It's going to an event you RSVP'd to, even when you really don't feel like it -- trusting that something will happen greater than the doom you imagine. It's is as simple as getting up at 5:30 to go running or to the gym instead of sleeping in. It's picking up the phone and making a ten minute call you don't think you have time for. Sitting the butt in the chair and studying 14-hour days before exams. Dragging yourself to class. Staying late at work to finish instead of procrastinating. Folding laundry when it's dry. Writing just one page of that novel draft even when you don't feel inspired.
That's all Action Discipline. It's small things, done over and over trusting that they are creating something larger and greater. Sometimes they surprise you with immediate payoff. Sometimes, they actually don't. But you have to use your imagination and trust that you are building something great.
But also, this: Discipline is learning to control your thoughts.
Thoughts dictate everything. I think the first time I learned that I could control my thoughts was when I ran my first marathon. I got tired and upset and frustrated, and really bad thoughts started creeping in. I mean...painful thoughts from long, long ago. About my shortcomings. Feelings of abandonment from my mom. Breakups. Feelings of inadequacy. A tragedy I witnessed and couldn't stop. Unresolved grief. It was all just a horror-show in my brain of really self-destructive thinking.
It all got to be too loud and too much and I remember ripping off my headphones and walking for a minute. I was so engulfed in my own misery that I could no longer absorb anything around me -- even though I was running the Miami Marathon with thousands of people. And right there, for the first time, I asked myself:
"Are these thoughts helping me get to the finish line."
It was more of a statement than a question. Of course the answer was no. So I made a rule. All the thoughts could flow by. But the only thoughts that could stay were ones that would help me get to that finish line and subsequent beer tent.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was disciplining my mind. That's a practice of mindfulness -- something I knew nothing about either. We are not our minds. We are the awareness behind our minds.
When you practice thought discipline, you are being the awareness behind your mind.
When you practice thought and action discipline, you become a better family member, a better friend, a better coworker, and a better human being because you meet the standards you set for yourself -- and you control the never-ending chatterbox in your brain that filters all of your perceptions about the world. Sure, I could mull all day over the ugly parts of the past. But, those thoughts don't help me get to the next amazing place in life. They just keep me in the same space.
All of this has created possibility and joy. I can't remember any feeling I've ever felt like the one I had when I crossed that finish line. I can't compare the transcendence I've gone through in an ultramarathon. These human experiences were gifts that came because of the discipline it took to push myself to that point. I swear, I've never looked back and regretted any of it. People ask me constantly, "But why. Why would you run 50 or 100 miles? Why would you wake up at 5am and run? Why are you pushing yourself so hard?" Because I trust that there is more amazing out there, and amazing comes from the state of flow, and the state of flow comes from discipline. It really does.
And, in the end, discipline comes from a place of self-love. I took control of my thoughts during that marathon because I really wanted Megan to finish that marathon. I wanted it for her because she deserved it. I wanted myself to have that experience and that joy of accomplishment. In a state of awareness, I embraced the pain and asked my mind to get onboard and work with me.
I leave you with a quote: "To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment." Eckhart Tolle
Where To Catch Me