Buddhism and Real Life: How to Be Disciplined

May 25, 2010   |   42 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites


There are some things I’m good at, if I do say so myself. I know about generosity. I know from patience. I know how to try really, really hard. I’m devoted to the search for wisdom.  However there is one skill that I truly suck at and, without it, all these other good qualities are considerably weaker than they could be. That skill?


Readers of my blog may be aware of an experiment I conducted about a year or so ago called “The Great Discipline Experiment” or GDE, in which I took all the things I KNOW I want to (and should) do—meditate, journal, write, exercise, drink a lot of water, answer all my emails, eat healthy, take vitamins, spend time focused on those I love—and tried to do them. Every day. Period.  For a month. I had become sick of being all “I need to take better care of myself” and “I must write Every Single Day” and “Susan, you are WASTING YOUR LIFE. Get with it.”

I should have been able to do this, right? I mean, these are things I want to do, should do, must do in this life. They are non-negotiable.

However, the experiment was a bust. I became very anxious and completely freaked out. I woke up worried that I would fail. I lost patience with myself throughout the day. If I was 15 minutes late for anything on my schedule, I felt a wave of self-loathing. I was so angry with myself all day. And when I did manage to accomplish my tasks, rather than relaxing, I cracked the whip harder. Faster. More. Better. Every time I approached the finish line, I moved it further away. Hey, I told myself, if you’re not super hard on yourself, you will fail. It’s happened before.

This—doing everything you’re supposed to do on schedule—can’t be what is meant by discipline, which is one of the six paramitas or transcendent actions in Buddhism. These six are the actions of a bodhisattva: generosity, patience, exertion, discipline, mindfulness, and wisdom. I sort of get generosity and so on, but my view of discipline hardly seems likely to turn me into a compassionate person who wishes to be of benefit to all sentient beings. My view did the opposite—it made me cranky, impatient, and judgmental.

Time for a do over.

What is discipline then, if it’s not making yourself do all the stuff you know you’re supposed to do?

The practice of sitting meditation begins to shed some light on the Buddhist view of discipline. In meditation (instruction here), you cultivate focus and awareness by placing your attention on your breath rather than your thoughts. PS It has nothing to do with emptying the mind of thought!! Almost impossible!! Stop trying!! Big hoax!! Instead, you take a different view of your thoughts by seeing them as passing phenomena while your primary allegiance, attention-wise, is to your breath as it flows in and out through your nose. When you forget to do this and become wholly absorbed in thought again, you simply come back. With kindness toward yourself.

This gentle coming back is our first clue as to what true discipline is. It has nothing to do with bullying yourself. It has nothing do with being “good” or “bad.” In fact, it has nothing to do with anything other than simply coming back. There is no narrative attached to this action, it is what it is. Coming back is always possible–whether to your breath in meditation, the taste of your dinner, the ache of your heart which needs attention, the beauty of the flowers in your garden, or the eleventy thousand things you have to do.

To come back, you have to have a sense of what it means to be gone, to be able to recognize where you are altogether. In meditation, something happens to let you know that you are “gone,” i.e. absorbed primarily in thought rather than breath. That something is very, very interesting. You’re sitting on your cushion, following breath, following breath, following breath, thinking about dinner, worrying you’re too fat, admonishing yourself to eat more vegetables, remembering that time you ate vegetables with that person you used to go out with, hey whatever happened to him/her, I really loved him/her, what an asshole s/he was for breaking up with me, no one will ever love me, hey, I’m really getting hungry now, is that a stain on the carpet?… and so on. (This is how mind works.) Suddenly in mid-longing, mid-kvetching, or mid-meandering, a voice comes in from, well, somewhere. It says, “Thinking. You are thinking. Time to go back to breath.” And so you do.

Have you ever wondered where that voice comes from? I have. A lot. I don’t really know the answer, but I do know what it feels like when this voice re-arises to point out to me my whereabouts.

She cuts discursiveness.

She is like a breath of fresh air.

She is extremely precise and aware.

I love her.

She leads me back to where I want to be, over and over again.

With her, I can remember that I’m supposed to be writing or practicing or thinking of others. Then I am free to act on what I know is right. She cuts into the stream of laziness I so easily get swept away by, not by shaming me, not at all, but by reminding me of who I am and where my devotion lies. She is the key player when it comes to discipline.

Meditation practice introduces me to her, over and over.When she is extremely active, it is easy to stay on task. She brings me back to whatever I am doing. And I don’t have to tell you what it feels like at the end of a day where you have honored your commitments to yourself, to others, and to your very life—you feel complete, unadulterated joy. All is right with the world. You feel tremendously heartened. Inspired. Light.

Whether or not things have gone well or poorly, when you stand right in the middle of your life, honoring your true priorities, the day ends with a kind of delicious fatigue. You are in the game. You are living your authentic life. You feel like you can fly. You can’t wait to get up in the morning and begin again.

The buzz killer when it comes to this sort of right action is laziness, which, whether from a Western or Eastern perspective, is the opposite of discipline. Laziness is never good. (I’m not saying that relaxing isn’t good, it IS. But you can be lazy about relaxing. They’re not the same thing.)

The Buddhist view of laziness gives interesting insight into what its opposite—discipline—must be. There are three kinds of laziness:

  1. Regular. This is the kind we all understand, the kind that means lying around, procrastinating, becoming drowsier and drowsier.
  2. Being too busy. Yes, this is considered a form of laziness. Because when you’re too busy to pay attention to your true priorities, something has gone wrong. You’ve slacked on what is important for the sake of less essential (for you) activities.
  3. Becoming disheartened. I love that this is considered a form of laziness. Rather than being an indication of a psychological problem, disheartenment is simply thought of as a kind of forgetfulness: you’ve forgotten that, for good reason, you actually do believe in yourself and your path. You have seen proof of your own basic goodness, otherwise you wouldn’t be so invested in creating a great life. So becoming discouraged means you’ve let your commitments slip because you’ve let life, other people, TV commercials, and whatnot be the judge of your worth rather than your inner knowing.

So let’s look at the opposites of these traits to discover what is at the heart of true discipline.

At the other end of the spectrum from regular laziness is exertion. Sometimes this exertion looks like pure grunt work (which is simply necessary, there is just no way around it—believe me, I’ve looked) but sometimes, like a runner’s high, it looks like effortlessness. And just like a runner’s high, it comes from practice, commitment, and, ultimately, letting go. So rather than tightening your grip on your actions, you can let go into the natural flow of your own goodness and commitment and let this be your fuel. In this sense, trust is the opposite of inertia.

The opposite of being too busy is, well, not being too busy. But trying to be less busy by yelling at yourself for being too busy doesn’t usually work. Instead, you could remember that at some point you recognized that, in a very deep sense, meditation or yoga or mastering Spanish or being an incredible parent was where your true destiny lay. When you remember this and place your efforts in service of what you know is your higher calling, something interesting happens. Whether things are going well or poorly on a particular day, you relax. When you’re on the right path, you don’t waiver—not because you have superhuman will, but because you’re simply in the right place and you know it. So the opposite of being too busy is to relax into your sense of inner knowing.

And the opposite of disheartenment? Well, it’s not pep-talking your way back into the driver’s seat—You can do it! Show me what you’ve got! Don’t be a wuss! YOU MUST CRUSH IT! (with apologies to Gary V, whom I looove). And so on. Instead, the opposite of disheartenment could be recalling that you know yoga is good for you or the pleasure you get from teaching your child how to live and love, and the natural aspiration that arises from that. It’s not based on motivating yourself through the promise of future goodies, but more through the recollection of the joy you have already experienced when you live your passion, no matter what anyone says. It’s like when you finally convince yourself to start exercising again after a few weeks (or months or years): the moment you begin, you think, holy crap. This is great. This is the best. How could I have let this go?? And right there, your heart becomes full again and the laziness of self-doubt is banished for the meantime.

So rather than using aggressive means to get back on the good foot, try relying on trust, relaxation, and your deepest inner knowing of what an awesome, glorious, unique, and completely precious being you are. These are far more motivating (and true) than shame and disappointment. They bring the qualities of authentic inspiration and tremendous life force.

To do all this, all you have to do is remember to come back. That’s it. At its heart, discipline is simply coming back. (Here is a link to a story that illustrates this interpretation.) The Practice of Tranquility (Shamatha meditation) teaches this skill, exactly.

Phew. I’m so happy to have written this. I’ve honored my intention to be disciplined about writing. It feels crazy good. Now on to the low quality video with high quality sentiments.

Video story (Warning: contains some cussing)


Screen shot 2010-05-25 at 9.18.05 PM

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  • Posted by:  Ashish

    You are such a great writer. Your ability to present complex topics in a simple yet enlightening way is awesome! I also love both your books!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Ashish, thank you for these kind words. Writing is so solitary and it means a lot to know that it touches someone! xo Susan

  • Posted by:  Marianne

    This is perfect! You articulate so clearly what I spend a lot of time trying to gently say to my yoga students about the kindness of yogic discipline. Can I quote you in my classes? And in my 30 days of yoga course? Actually – can I use this post for my 30 days of yoga course? Linked back to you of course!

  • Posted by:  Susan

    Marianne, delighted! Thanks for your lovely feedback and I’d be thrilled if you use this post for your 30-day yoga course. Best of luck and I’d love to hear any further insights about teaching the essence of discipline. xo Susan

  • Posted by:  Tiffany Thompson

    thank you so much for this entry. several years ago, while going through a really bad divorce, I found myself trapped in the GDE. being disciplined about everything i ate, drank, read, saw – my practice – all of it was just a form of fear as i tried to gain control of my life again. i have never been able to truly articulate the pain that it caused. now, i know that it is okay to move forward. to try to find some discipline through mindfulness meditations as i go about my day, not by trying to impose some ridiculous schedule on my spirit. i have to admit that while i was in the GDE exile, things got done. i had never been more physically healthy, successful in my career, or more diligent in my spiritual practice. Yet, i was miserable. i was filled with anxiety. i was afraid to fail. now, i am afraid to begin, as i never want to get caught in the GDE again. what i’m trying to say (not well), is that this blog is exactly what i needed to understand. thank you, susan. thank you so much. xo.

  • Posted by:  Susan

    Tiffany, thank you, thank you for this comment. It is a wonderful illustration of the problem, and of the solution. It is perfectly expressed and it will help whomever reads it!

    Keep me posted–

  • Posted by:  Marie

    Susan, I found your blog about a month ago and I keep coming back to read what more you have to say. So much of what you write about is closely related to the ideas, thoughts, and questions I am so desperately trying to get answers to.

    I am so thankful for your own drive to seek wisdom and share it. This blog in particular hit home for me. Your words allowed me to finally let out a sigh of relief, not only because I so closely related to your beginning dilema but also because I needed somone else to tell me it is okay to just… relax and not be so dang hard on myself.

    Keep it up!

  • Posted by:  Tyler

    Hi Susan,

    This is my first time on your site and I thoroughly enjoyed this post. It seems very well thought out and serious in message but not overly serious in tone. I also appreciate that your explanation of things doesn’t rely on mysticism but rather introspection. Perhaps what I appreciate most is that I can identify with what you’ve described, especially with regards to recognizing when you’ve slacked off and then trying to pep-talk yourself back into the groove. It’s good to hear that this is not considered an ideal approach, as I’ve not had much success with it.

    I’ll will certainly spend some time reading your other content and look forward to newer posts.


    PS It’s good to see that other people are reading and recommending your article, but the retweets in the comments are a bit… obstructive. The first 12 or so comments are just retweets, I almost neglected to post this comment because I didn’t see any discussion until I scrolled past the retweets. Perhaps this is a feature that can be tweaked?

  • Posted by:  Tyler

    Just watched the video at the end of this post and I thought it was very well done. A very simple, clear, and elegant example of the difference between common expectations of meditation practice versus what is actually achieved. The difference is subtle but profound and its easy to see how, from an outside perspective, the two could be confused. Its not that the practitioner never becomes aroused by anything, but rather that he/she is able to recover or return from the aroused state to a more balanced state of mind. At least I think that’s what it means.

    Regardless, I think you’ve conveyed in important point in a effective way, so kudos to you, and thanks again.

  • Posted by:  Jenny

    This is an amazing post. Brilliant! You point exactly to the core issue!
    I badly needed to read “this” and I found it! Wouaaaaaaah! Now I’m happy I also discovered you! Great job and thanks for sharing!

  • Posted by:  Susan

    So glad to know you, Jenny and ery happy if this piece spoke to you! Susan

  • Posted by:  Susan

    Tyler, I never thanked you for your kind words. Thank you!! And thanks for the tip about the pingbacks. All best to you—Susan

  • Posted by:  Susan

    And thanks to you, too Marie!

  • Posted by:  David

    Listening to your interview on GLP, I loved your thoughts on the idea of discipline from the Buddhist perspective, that it’s the idea of “coming back”. I immediately search and found your blog and this post. A wonderful read. Thank you!

    • Posted by:  susan

      My pleasure, absolutely. Glad to know you!

  • Posted by:  Antonio

    Dear Susan, I was sitting in front of my computer, working late at night, I had lost a lot of time during the day doing nothing, avoiding to work, and looking for inspiration!, I googled “how to gain discipline” and was directed to your blog. It was like having someone, like having myself, even, sitting in front of me, saying: I know exactly how you feel and saying just the right thing. coming back! It’s not about not thinking about anything else then what you want to do, nor is it, never to be distracted. It’s about deciding, gently, always decide again and again to be good to myself and do those things that will make me happy and fulfilled. And when i forget, i just nudge myself again in the right direction. Even if doing nothing is easier.
    I’m really thankful that i have found your blog! =)!
    I would also like to ask you, which books could I read about this stuff in buddhism? about discipline, laziness, etc…

    thanks again!
    a big hug,

    • Posted by:  susan

      Antonio, I so appreciate this comment! I’m very happy this blog post was helpful. That is so inspiring to me.

      I totally recommend these books:
      Turning the Mind Into an Ally and Ruling Your World, by Sakyong Mipham
      Shamhbala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, by Chogyam Trungpa
      My book, “How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life” could be good.

      Glad to know you and let me know how you like those books, if you have a chance to read them.

      Warmly, Susan

      • Posted by:  Antonio

        Dear Susan,
        Last time I wrote you, it was because of the amazing advice I received for which I was extremely grateful. I’m still working on my discipline, but I can say that it has improved greatly, I am more patient with myself and can also work better and longer.
        I’m facing another difficulty and I thought, that maybe you could shed some light on it: I study music composition and orchestra conducting. I’ve had some wonderful experiences with conducting, it gives me an immense joy, so I know I want to do it. Composing has given me some trouble: I love to think about composition, I have ideas, there are many things that interest me, I am absolutely fascinated by the act of creating art, it is maybe one of the most curious things there are, and for me, the (and now I start hesitating) natural way would be, to do it myself also. However, I find myself stripped of energy, always feeling lost and without knowing how to work. One minute I love the ideas I have, the other I don’t know what I am trying to say with them. Consequence is: I don’t compose regularly, so that helps to that feeling of incommunicability, and I enter that vicious circle. My question is: am I not happy, because it simply isn’t my thing, and I’m forcing myself to do it? Or because I don’t know and I’m afraid to find out?
        … This is a very complicated question, I know, and probably to personal for you to be able to give me a clear answer. But i thought that asking for an opinion couldn’t do any harm, so if there is something, or some book, or some thought you may give me, I will be thankful. Please don’t feel compelled to do it, I will understand if you don’t have any answer.

        • Posted by:  susan

          Antonio, I can’t think when I’ve received a question I enjoy (and share) more than this one. I contemplate these issues all the time. In fact, right now I’m sitting in a cafe in Mexico where I just finished teaching a writing and meditation retreat. We worked with such questions all week long.

          The creative process is among the most mysterious and beautiful things in the human experience. One could even say it IS the human experience.

          I want to assure you that there is no answer to the questions, Am I not happy because it simply isn’t my thing and I’m forcing myself? Or, Am I just afraid to find out? Because there is no answer, you can relax.

          It’s like any relationship. Whether you wanted to or not, you have fallen in love with conducting and composing. There is no choice in the matter. You are together. Some days, the relationship will feel good and on others it will be difficult. There is no way of predicting. And, as with relationships, you can’t commit to happiness or success—you can only commit to staying. To coming back. With talent and love, when you come to the end, you will know it. In the meantime, keep going and enjoy the mystery and the beauty.

          I truly hope this helps. Do keep me posted now and again!

          Warmly, S

  • Posted by:  Garret Brent

    I’ve had a really shitty week this passed one, and I’ve been struggling so hard. This blogpost has brought some peace of mind, and some context, to start pulling myself together again.

    • Posted by:  susan

      So glad to hear it and wishing you well, Garret.

  • Posted by:  Kamal Kaur

    Hi Susan,
    Just like many of your other fans, I also love your work and your advice. Recently laziness has been a huge problem for me and regardless of the fact that I meditate and pray and force myself to do work, I just can’t seem to find the problem. I recently graduated from college this past june. I’m a first generation college graduate in my family and actually was the first one to complete high school. I come from a Sikh family. However, I also love the teachings of Buddhism and I meditate a lot. Susan, the only goal I have in life is to be a doctor. I want to fulfill this dream which is not only mine but of my father, mother, and three younger siblings. I serve as a role model for my siblings and cousins. Everything was fine until I entered college. I guess because I started dealing with people smarter than me. I lost the drive and the motivation to go the medical school. Not because I don’t want to be a doctor. Trust me. That is the only thing I want…but I don’t know why anymore…or I never did. I tried different fields like business and teaching but I feel like my life will not be the same unless I am a doctor. I do want to HELP PEOPLE and no, I can’t do that by being a nurse or a teacher or a psychologist. Only a doctor.

    However, I can’t focus on my studying for the MCAT. I have to take gap years because I was too lazy to study during school and the summers in between. I am feeling helpless. I don’t know why I can’t just get up, hold the books and practice. This is what I want but I don’t know why. I just do. Why am i lazy now? Is it because I’m scared I won’t make it? Am I just not concentrating hard enough?

    Sorry, you must be thinking I’m crazy. But any advice would be great! I will be waiting for your reply.


    • Posted by:  susan

      Hello Kamal. I can feel the frustration and anguish about your future. I wish I could offer some helpful advice, but the best i can say is to simply take ONE STEP AT A TIME. I know that I get myself very stressed out when I want to do something big and then think about all the many steps and difficulties involved. I end up doing nothing. But what is much more workable is to simply identify the very next step (and not the one after that) and then take it. In other words, if I wanted to be a doctor but wasn’t sure if it was my true desire, I would ask myself what is the next thing I would do IF I wanted to be a doctor…then do that thing. When we take action, things seem to come into clearer focus and we enter a dialog with our world. This dialog is very helpful.

      Wishing you luck!! Warmly, Susan

  • Posted by:  Aaron

    Dear Susan,
    Your post didn’t help me. You, with your flawless dedication to others, helped me. Reading your post put a smile on my, and countless others’ faces, and I’d just like to let you know what an, awesome, glorious, unique, and completely precious being you are, too.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Aaron! This means so. much. Thank you, thank you, fellow precious one.

  • Posted by:  Ashwini

    Hi Susan, such a lovely post, just came across your blog, really inspiring for someone struggling with trying to get rid of laziness without much kindness towards myself, thank you!

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      You are so welcome!

  • Posted by:  Jophiel

    Hello Susan. It’s so strange that you mentioned something in particular that just spoke to me. I had to smile double take and walk around. For weeks now I’ve felt like i was failing at meditation because I feel it was impossible to completely clear my mind. Now i feel I’m gonna try again but this time simply focus on breathing.
    Also, I’ve been studying Electrical and Computer engineering for three years and I am supposedly on my final. Sometimes I feel like I am not where I should be but i realise now that every step is part of the journey and as long as I remember my dreams, my purpose nothing can dissuade me. This post helped me remember never to lose focus. And if I do, just relax and try to refocus. Thank you

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      You are so welcome! And I wish you the best with your exams and your life.

  • Posted by:  Vanessa

    Thank you so much! I really needed to read this. You have no idea how helpful this was to me.

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