The Gift of Discipline

If you, like me, grew up in an environment that was strict (whether that’s parenting or religious practice or even just a strong sense of “this is how it is”) you may get a bit of an icky feeling when you hear the word “discipline”. It sparks ideas and memories of punishment. Or of pushing yourself to the limit and then having to keep going. Or of rote and repetitive actions that you hated. 


With that in mind your brain and body might rebel when you hear the world “spiritual disciplines” or “creative disciplines”. You start to feel like they’re being forced on you. That it’s about following the rules and checking off the boxes and that if you can’t do it perfectly you’ll be punished somehow. 


I get it. These words, because of the baggage they are wrapped in, can bring up a lot of negative feelings. And if the words no longer work for you, throw them out! Find new words that feel more in line with the life you’re trying to cultivate. 


But I do want to spend a bit of time talking about the impetuses BEHIND these ideas of spiritual and creative discipline and why I think we shouldn’t be too quick to throw away the practices even as we might throw away the words. 


I grew up feeling like I could only be creative when the mood struck. When I was feeling some kind of inspiration. Which meant, as a young person in particular, I didn’t work much. Or I created in fits and starts and barely finished anything and definitely never revised anything. I was dabbling. Notebooks and notebooks of ideas and fragments and bad poetry all just cluttered around my room.


And listen! There’s nothing wrong about that. I think all creativity is good no matter what form it takes. So if all you do or want to do is make something when the mood strikes, then go for it!


But looking back I wish I had been a little more disciplined. I wish I had understood then that writing, creating, has a craft to it. You grow not just by creating but by being intentional with your creating. By finishing, by getting notes, by revising, by rewriting. 


It can sometimes be the same in spiritual situations. We want to feel something every time. We want to feel connected. And when we don’t we walk away from the practice. 


Again, sometimes walking away from a practice that no longer serves is a GOOD thing. But sometimes what we need to do is stick with a practice to give it enough time to change us. This is an act of discernment. 


And there’s something else behind this idea of practice or of discipline: sometimes you won’t want to create. You’re busy. You’re tired. You just don’t know where the story goes next. And while sometimes taking a break can be good, other times what you need to do is stay with the work. Especially if you want to be a professional writer or even just produce something solid. You have to stay with the story even when you don’t want to create. 


In the spiritual realm, sometimes life gets hard. It gets messy. Someone we love gets sick or dies. A relationship fractures. Our anxiety gets the better of us. It’s in these moments that we need our spiritual practices the most. But it’s also in these moment where we might struggle to make time for them or to feel something in the midst. 


In both of these cases the very act of PRACTICING (or the discipline of doing the work) will help to make it easier to do it when we really need to. It will help to make it easier to get started. It will help make it easier to access that part of ourselves.


This isn’t about pushing ourselves past our breaking point. It’s not about punishing ourselves if we miss a day (or a week or a month!). It’s not about doing it perfectly or trying to win over God or the muses or anyone else. It’s simply taking care of ourselves in advance of the hard times.


The practices I cultivate now: journaling, prayer, meditation. Setting a timer and writing for thirty minutes, showing up with my Patreon peeps and at my writing group, getting notes on a project… all of these things feed me and, yes, train me, so that when things get hard and I’m under deadline or feeling sad I have already built the muscle memory that allows me to do what needs to be done. 


So maybe you hate the word discipline. Maybe even practice makes you squirm. What are the other words that might reframe this idea in your mind? Here are some that might resonate: training, exercise, cultivation, preparation, routine, regimen, development, planting, enacting, rehearsing. What words on this list resonate with you? 


We practice so we are prepared. We do this in our spiritual lives, in our creative lives, and even in other arenas (like meal planning for the week, or planting a garden, or learning a new skill). We do the work ahead of time so when we really need it we are ready. Think of it as taking care of your future self. 


It’s an act of care. Of self-love. Of attention. 


It’s a gift to ourselves to do the practice.