Friday, July 16, 2010

Discipline and New Habits

Since I set this thing up a couple days ago and haven't really done anything with it, I guess my first post should be about discipline. This ties in nicely with my zen practice, culinary school.. and well, a lot of other things in my life.

One of the reasons I'm still in culinary school after four plus years is due to a lack of discipline. I missed a lot of class the first couple years so I had to repeat a lot. I don't want to make excuses anymore and it doesn't really matter anyway, but discipline was pretty much the problem. It was too easy for me to make excuses that I could accept as suitable reasons to either just stay home, drive all the way there and not get out of my car, or just drive around. I've dealt with this for waaaay too long, but I'm fairly confident I've broken that habit. I didn't see it as being lazy, because I really struggled with it. I cared that I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing, I was just better at making and accepting my own excuses.

And habit was a big part of it. For many years I've halfheartedly looked for some sort of meditation practice to incorporate into my daily life. I'd tried different moving and sitting forms of meditation, but never really stuck with it. I knew the benefits of such things from my previous experience with aikido. Most of it's benefits were from focusing and staying in the moment, but I had trouble taking those things off the mat into daily life. And of course the reason that was my previous experience is because once I started to lose interest, I gradually stopped going. It had been a hobby, but not yet a habit yet. Every time I was given another chance, I'd psych myself up that it'd be different this time, but I just wasn't able to follow through.

So what's different? What changed that allowed me to make new habits and break the old ones? Now that I think about it, it's not all that obvious. I think the credit rests with resuming Aikido. Last summer, I found a book (not in a store to be bought, but in a box in the woods, but that's another story) called Zen in the Martial Arts. I'd set it aside for a while but read it eventually and it got my interest back up to get back into Aikido. I'd never really lost interest in it entirely, it always kind of stuck with me and colored my worldview in some way, but now I realized I actually had the time to train. The instructor at the dojo I found required a one year commitment, which I did hesitate to commit to (fear isn't really the right word, but in sense it is appropriate).

Over the first few months I had some frustrations, but stuck with it since I was in for the year. Now I've always felt the need to share things I learn with people, mostly as a courtesy to what I've learned, so I've always respected people who teach. But I think the most important lesson I could ever learn was when my teacher told me that there were days she didn't feel like teaching us, but she did because that was the commitment she'd made.

I don't know why that had the effect on me that it did. Of course it was to be expected of her, she's only human; no one could be expected to really want to do anything four days a week with almost no break for years on end no matter how much they enjoyed it. But for some reason, this acknowledgment really struck a chord. I became more aware of the years of effort and dedication to reach that point and that without all of that she would not be in the position to teach us.

As someone who habitually adjusts interests time after time, this sort of dedication was brought into a new light. I couldn't help but see this revelation in the other parts of my life, my teachers at school for example, but not just them: anyone who was any kind of authority on anything had made the conscious decision to commit and follow through with it.

About this same time, I was reading an awesome book, Zen Heart by Ezra Bayda. I credit this book with me actually beginning my practice and will talk about that more some other time. My point, though, is that here was another person who'd dedicated themselves to something that hit home in me somehow. I'd put off actual practice for so long, but this book inspired me in a practical way to make the commitment myself.

Now there were other reasons to do it, and they are all legit, but in an idealistic move I cut my hair about as short as I could tolerate to mark this commitment. I'd needed something concrete that I couldn't ignore and it seemed an appropriate way to mark my commitment to my new life and new practice.

Now whenever I'd scratch my head in wonder about doing what I'm supposed to do, I get that nifty scratchy reminder. Plus, about once a month, I have to renew that commitment by cutting my hair again.

But discipline... yes, back to that. I had started sitting in the evening after my girlfriend went to bed, and that was fine for about a month. It was calming and became a little habitual. I followed what was laid out in Zen Heart for practice until I was able to take a free intro class at the local zen center. I've always been an evening person, but after sitting once early one morning, I learned how sitting can affect my day. I was actually somewhat awake and motivated.

I was fortunate enough to be given a scholarship for a deeper six week intro class to sitting meditation a month later and applied my new perspective on teachers and commitment. Here were two people teaching this class who had dedicated themselves to this life sharing their experiences with me, and on top of that, they had agreed to share it with me without charge. I had to take this seriously to honor this as a gift. It definitely paid off.

I committed myself to get up an hour earlier than I was accustomed to sit for twenty minutes everyday. For anyone who hasn't sat zazen, it's more than you'd think. Just sitting for twenty minutes? How hard can it be? It's pretty tough not just mentally, but physically as well. Discipline is needed to keep from stopping when it starts to hurt or when you get bored. Rather than have a watch in front of me and decide on a time I'd stop. I set a timer and refuse to look at it. I won't move until it goes off so there's no, "eh, that's close enough to twenty minutes.."

Sitting is so simple, and it's a great way to build discipline, among other things. I make the commitment and there's nothing else to do until the time is up. After six months, it has become a habit, and one that spills over into other parts of my life. Gotta go to school? Just go, it's more exciting than just sitting there, and I'm supposed to do it anyway. After enough days not missing: new habit! Don't feel like scooping the litter box, washing dishes, doing laundry? Won't take more than twenty minutes, and my legs won't hurt after doing it.

So the irony of the title of this blog and the title of this post: did I have everything I needed already? Did I have discipline? Well, no... I didn't, not then, but the past is the past. I've learned my lessons, and now, in the present, I do have more discipline than I did. I definitely had the seeds before, otherwise I would have just been lazy without a care of whether or not I did what I was supposed to do. So in a way I did have what I needed already, just not at that present, it was waiting for me in the future to learn my lessons and then I would be ready.

What an ungodly long way to make a point, but before starting this, I didn't have anything at all. So here's to new habits.

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