Monday, August 28, 2017

Discipline is all we have

My AZIndiaTimes column for August.


“Discipline is freedom” -Jocko Willink

Where do thoughts come from? If we really are Homo Sapiens, Wise Men, how do we traverse from millions of random transient thoughts to wisdom. I have been reading that, evolutionarily speaking, we developed the ability to think to perform sophisticated action. Then what is the place of pure thought, echoing Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum, that does not always translate into physical action in our material world?

“We are spiritual beings dabbling with the material” -Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev

We are told all roads to self-realization/ enlightenment are paved with discipline. On one hand, there is conscious penance that Yogis, sages, philosophers and artists do, wherein they repeat a few rituals and seek to continuously evolve in it to eventually reach higher states. On the other hand, there are the sufis and the mystics, the Thyagarajas and the Rumis, whose discipline is more inherent in the fact that their extraordinary faith in and receptivity to a higher order fuels their junoon thereby closing the feedback loop. Their devotion is so complete that they can reach transcendental states by the sheer force of their longing that invariably translates into sustained, disciplined action over a long period of time.

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work” -Gustave Flaubert

I have been obsessed with discipline for a long time. I have tried and failed in applying so many self-help theories that that ability to not see through a plan has in itself become habit. The next time I pick up a new self-help book, I’m sure I won’t finish it. (It could also be argued that I read every book like a self-help book because I try to pick stuff from it to learn to live a better life. I must confess I’m not too pleased with that ability.) Despite failing so many times, I still find an irrepressible need to “improve” my life. I guess it’s a cultural thing. We live in an age of efficiency where mainstream media bombards us with our inadequacies and relentlessly repeats that we should strive to be “our best selves”. Every year, thousands of self-help books are written, hundreds of programmes are conducted for everyone from mid-level managers to technology CEOs telling them how they can improve the turnover of their companies by becoming more empathetic, or getting in touch with their inner selves, or understanding Karmic balance, tens of celebrity speakers use stories and methodologies from ancient religions and folktales, recycle them to fit the present context and sell them to well-meaning, unsuspecting but nevertheless conformist masses. People want to become more efficient, and thereby rich and happy, and like our ancestors first turned to Gods, to priests, then to philosophers and eventually to CEOs, they turn to self-help gurus and new-age spiritual teachers. They, as in we, are engrossed with four-hour work weeks, 10000-hour rules, eating frogs, influencing people and growing rich. Do we have a natural inclination for being excellent sheep?

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” -Arthur Schopenhauer

As a lifelong procrastinator, I am enamoured by the idea of repeating a ritual everyday, no matter what, because it truly feels like freedom- from the intoxicating swerves of whim, from paralyzing nihilism, from the indecipherable random acts that define our lives, from the tyranny of inexplicable, inarticulable thought, from the impenetrable darkness of the human heart. To be disciplined, to re-enact a series of manoeuvres everyday in an attempt to get ready for divine inspiration seems like the only thing we can do to hold onto a sense of reality. True to form, even my procrastination is not disciplined. I’m frequently overcome by a need to stick to discipline every few weeks.

“Eighty percent of success is showing up” -Woody Allen

It would have been easier, but way less fun, if this was the only set of thoughts in my head. In true postmodernist tradition, another set of thoughts question these assumptions. Okay, even if I buy that discipline is the axe that will help break chains of habitual cause-and-effect, how do I cultivate it? Can we control our thoughts?- If thoughts and actions are part of a closed loop, feeding off each other, how do you discern the validity of a thought if not by experience? Since that experience is our’s, do we not give more value to it (confirmation bias) and continue to live under the illusion that our thoughts and beliefs are correct? How can I leap out of my Karmic cycle if it is all I know. If one set of thoughts tell me discipline is good, and when trying to apply it, another set says any work without inspiration is a waste, who do I listen to? Is there a hierarchy of thoughts? Is writer’s block just laziness or a ‘genuine’ lack of churn that needs unpredicted impetus? In The Knowledge illusion, the authors argue that an individual mind is not equipped enough to traverse through the complex world we have built and inhabit. We are nodes in the most evolved brain called the human ecosystem. So, maybe, the crowd is wise. However, like Arendt argues in The Banality of Evil, the crowd is less empathetic and more subservient to the handed-down thought than an individual. Does that mean the original thinker influences the the society for the better? Whereth lies salvation?

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” -Aristotle

How do I find balance between the plateaued learning graph of discipline and the unexpected magic of whimsy? How do I get into a good relationship with the mind I don’t completely understand but that has infinite power to manipulate me? Where do I and my mind meet? I will continue to ask questions. I’m sure I’ll find solace in answers but it will will be short-lived. Certainty is death but it is also comforting. Flux is scary but it is also life-affirming. Sticking to a discipline is the regression testing mechanism I need to follow to keep questioning the basis of my assumptions. Focused meandering- A contradiction of terms. When opposites come together, something entirely new is created. That is what I’ll try do with discipline and impulse. We can’t control inspiration, discipline is all we have.

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