Compassionate self-discipline:  Is there, can there, be such a thing?

Self-discipline is a much admired and desired quality.  And yet deep within the word discipline is a hidden snarl curled up and ready to pounce, to punish.

It is coupled with words like military, and images of ranks and ranks of soldiers marching in uncanny synchronicity. It is connected to punishment and images of people being whipped into bloodied submission, enslaved.

Discipline has become part of the destruction of body, mind and soul.

Even in the name of its betterment and celebration. Even in the name of God.

And much of that required, demanded performance, judgment and punishment is and becomes part of our thoughts, our own self-talk, how we treat our selves, our bodies, and our souls.

More popularly it is associated with images of slim, muscled people with sports instructors barking at them into ever-greater performance and its aesthetic twin, muscle and leanness.  It is coupled with clean, shiny perfection, everything organized so neatly.  The achievers, the successful, the leaders.

Is there, can there ever be, self-discipline with compassion instead of perfection, instead of punishment of our self?

Discipline is connected with order, performance; control amidst the chaotic, often times inert or possibly explosive energies of Life itself.  We flee Chaos and wish for Order.  We flee flux and ache for stability.

And yet we are not machines, we live in and through human bodies, physical entities, part of Earth that lives through resonance, vibration, tidal waves, rhythm and harmony more akin to music than how to manuals, to do lists, and goals, of the tick-tocking of clicks and the binaries of 1-0 in computers.

We humans do not work in quite the way we may often like, our bodies, our souls have limits and aspects we may well be unaware of, that even scientists are still discovering.

Push us too hard in these inhumane, inhuman ways, we become resentful, turn back with anger — the remnants of what little energy we can muster, as though in a last bid for survival, and we become exhausted.

Until all we can do is give up, and collapse. Turning to drink, drugs, comfort eating, sleep to ease our pain, our distress to take us back to a place of calm and imagined care…. ahh, phew…it’s OK…

Then that too quickly flips around and brings anything but comfort and further hampers the flow of Life, of Qi, of Prana.  As though we have been deliberately taken into some horrendous labyrinth we have no way of escaping, each attempt taking us deeper, trapping us more irreversibly, flinging us from one extreme, one opposite, to the other.

A primal sense of lack, of fragmentation, coupled with fear and avoidance that then eventually takes us into the drive to get out of this, to move out to meet these apparent needs, this lack, that then pushes us too far, oh so often and just as often in the wrong direction.  A cruel, contemptuous and punishing fear and drive from which we so often fall exhausted and failing into oblivion of so many sorts.

In that place what and who can guide us out of such turmoil, these vortexes of pain and dismemberment?

There is increasing interest in compassion in recent years.  That loving care which reaches out to us precisely because we are suffering — not to make things better or perfect them.

That gentle touch that says I am with you, that suffers alongside, and that recognizes our beingness, our living, pulsating, breathing being.  And sees within it an inherent dignity.  A deep worth and value.  Just for existing — exactly as we are.  It sees we are a soul in spite of our indignities and the humiliations of poverty, persecution, illness, homelessness, unemployment, racism, ageism, imprisonment and more — all the many ways we humans have found to reject and exclude one another, and ourselves, hiding the great beauty and light hidden within. Such agonizing pain, such suffering.

And so mercy holds the embrace and shares and sheds tears, as a mother holds her yet unknown child in her womb, sharing in the wonder and suffering of creation, of creating, of becoming. Human.

From and amidst — chaos and change.

From and in this tender, hidden, dark and unknown place of labyrinth, of womb something so infinitely precious it cannot be seen, cannot be named — though we try so hard to — something

Sacred is there.

Even here right now amidst the horrors that now unite us globally of covid-19, of environmental, climate and planetary catastrophes.

Something in we humans is beyond value.  Every single one of us.

We sense this, if only for a few seconds as a child. Its distant dimming light and echoes distorting in the prisms of social and environmental conditioning to produce vast arrays of colours and notes, calling on us to do and be who we truly are however and whatever it may be.  Not in comparison to anybody else or by society’s ideals but just our own.  Which may be as simple and monumental as finding and developing the will and strength to live in horrendous circumstances with the patience and hope to change them.  This infinite preciousness…

Rev Dr Martin Luther King in his great call for African American emancipation and human freedom, in his life and death, was an embodiment for many of us of this human nobility and true worth amidst suffering and injustice.

And he summed it up in his famous ’I have a dream’ speech.

One lesson in this speech being to have: “faith that unearned suffering is redemptive”, to “not despair”. “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”

If we can find this glimmer of dignity in our being (1), no matter how distorted the rest of our being may feel, in our breathing-in Life, in this dark unknown unknowable and feel its awe inspiring mysterious and sacred power.  And its fragility, how easily it is violated.

If we can for a moment go there — then we know there is also something deep within we are living with, standing up tall with, feeling encouragement with, becoming with, and finding protection in.  Something buried below our usual awareness – cherishing us.

If we can just start there, begin our day there, root ourselves there.

Discipline. Although, there is the snarl of contempt and cruelty embedded in the word discipline through use and time, there is something else in there too. And it came right at the start, long before that snarl.

The word discipline is a noun, a thing, and also an action, which can mean to punish, derived from another noun which is also an action — disciple.

Which means to follow, to learn from.

Just that.

So self-discipline means — following and learning from the Self.  Your own dear self, nobody else.

Not guru, not doctor, not scientist, nor parent, nor teacher, valuable though their advice and wisdom are at times.  No – you do not need to be a disciple.  Just to be your own dear Self.

It is listening to that silent often unheard voice hidden within, it is seeing with the aid of the light that burns deep inside, it is knowing,

it is wisdom, with love.

And this was the Buddha’s last advice, last words to his disciples

‘Take thyself for a light.’  Nobody else, ‘Everyone, everything passes away’.  Life is transient.

Self-discipline is a quality I have long desired, like many people assuming I did not have this elusive quality, this thing.  I listened to all sorts of people on this topic, and one in particular shared to enable us to live aligned, to live our truth, who we really in these difficult times.

And there’s the thing.  It was somebody else’s understanding, usually somebody whose life, being and circumstances are so very different from mine, from yours, almost completely opposite…

Something out there, external, somebody conditioned and positioned and supported to be allowed to know and tell. As indeed many people are. To tell the majority of us what to do and how to be.  Quickly, oh so quickly, these good intentions, plans and goals within much of this intrudes and hurts, as though an attack, flips back, our bodies, nerves, brains, hormones reeling in hidden memory of trauma, be it our own, family, our society.  And then it is back to hiding away in the comfort blankets we have adopted…

Going back to the Self, to the breath, to the dignity of the Self, Luther-King urges us towards, we go back inside in a different way, not hiding, fearful and ashamed but listening deeply, going into the heart and asking what questions do we have?

What do we know? What is our body, our soul asking of us?

So rather than sensing we are lacking a thing, a skill, a quality, and must go out and follow others to get, something we are trained to do in our consumer society, get stuff, get services.

Instead going inwards, we can ask: what do we know already, what do we do already? What is there, who is there that never goes away?

What might we find?  A dozen different ways that every day we are already Self-disciplined, we are following our Self, our highest ideals, living with dignity, even if we do seemingly fail at every step.

Brushing our teeth, going to the toilet, avoiding places of danger,,caring for chronic or acute health needs, our own and others, and taking precautions so we do not fall ill, making sure we have what we need when we leave our home to go where ever: glucose tablets, blood testing kit, spare batteries and supplies, walking sticks, water, nappies, baby wipes, face mask and hand sanitizers — keys.

Sleeping when tired, drinking when thirsty, eating when hungry.  Nothing complex and I, you, we do it!  We can start there knowing we do know, we can do. We are.

And returning again and again to that place, even when, and especially when, we go into old and painful ways of being and doing, we may find this quality, kindly, warm, protective.  Cherishing.

A compassionate self-discipline that helps keep us awake and aware. Present.

We may find as we come to know our new friend, our neighbour, that it does not judge us, that its gentle presence encourages — quite literally warms, softens and strengthens the heart into expanded states that blossom into a smile of welcome, of joy, of gratitude.


We may go in there and find that indeed we are deep down already complete, whole and yet we have come into life and not been shown that, not been seen, been shown things ugly and detestable and told you are ‘that’, you are out, never recognized for who we truly are.

Now we may see that we wish to nurture and protect our whole being, see the neglected  – sometimes gifted — parts of our Self, and wish to see it, support it in blossoming — just as we do so often, every day maybe, with a child, an animal, a plant.

Zen master Thicht Nhat Hanh has suggested, “not to think of (spiritual) practice in terms of discipline because the practice can be pleasant, joyful and you don’t have to force yourself to practice….You want to practice, don’t want to impose practice on us.” (2)

Compassion softens and holds the fears and drive that push us too far in the wrong direction. Mercy is not as many fear a honeyed sweet call that, like the Turkish Delight offered by the white witch Queen to Edmund in CS Lewis’ Narnia Tales, will ultimately trap us, freeze us into despair and ruin.

This discipline and its twin our inherent dignity holds us in the deep upright stillness of the skilled archer with bow or rider and horse waiting, poised, and ready. Neither alone, but close up and with its partner in being, present, still and ready to act.  As Hamlet wisely noted to Horatio: “Readiness is all…” (3)

We can be there and with, deeply rooted, breathing in love and dignity, and knowing often without words what is being called on us to do.  Knowing that deep within this ‘overseeing spirit’ holds our back strong, knowing it is watching over our vulnerable soft body, our heart, our chest forward as we stand tall.

So we can act with both the dignity and discipline Luther King recognized are so essential if we are to truly live who we are as individuals and as humanity amidst the chaos of life, even the brutality of oppression and the struggle to reform it, where indeed such qualities are needed even more.

This self-discipline does not turn to humiliation but humility and hope, knowing there is something else with and in us. Knowing something else is calling us to act for all that is most beautiful and brilliant in our selves, in life, for freedom and justice, peace and harmony, love and unity.

And being happy to do so.  Like getting out of bed earlier now, even before the alarm goes, after years of being a late riser.

For the joy of a new dawn…


(1) See earlier article: Finding Freedom

(2) Thicht Naht Hanh YouTube: What is the difference between freedom and lack of self-discipline?


(3) Shakespeare: Hamlet Act 5, Scene 2