One of the hardest lessons in martial arts involves learning to advance when you want to retreat. We have an instinctive desire to avoid conflict, usually a great habit to be it. It allows us to escape dangers and find space to come at a problem the right way. As with many good habits, however, it aids only most of the time. Sometimes we need to face our fears. Sometimes we need to enter into discomfort. Sometimes the best exit requires us to go directly through the danger, or the fear, or the pain.
Relaxation exercises often involve selective tensing of the muscles, one at a time or all at once. Against our intuitions, we must tense our muscles to remind ourselves – body and mind – that we are in charge of them. We do the tensing and we do the relaxing. Once we feel in control again, we can make the choice to relax. We remember that we are the ones who tensed the muscles in the first place. Sometimes it takes doing the exact opposite of what you thought you wanted…
This process of tensing to relax has hundreds of applications, but today I want to apply it to freedom and discipline. This word “discipline” has a bad reputation in modern culture, particularly in association with religion. In my experience, Millennials (but also GenXers, and Baby Boomers) are afraid that discipline, thinking of it as an external imposition that will limit their freedom. Ideological “individualism” and increasingly “libertarianism” have taught us to value freedom above all else. A conversation with a stranger today reminded me of this very issue. We recognize the need to get out of our rut – our bad habits in politics and economics and health – but feel unable to overcome the problems. We want the freedom to change.
We can have this freedom, but it will require a little discipline. It will require surrendering a little power over the moment to control the future. It may even require surrendering a bit of personal freedom to give our community the freedom to change. You may not believe me. Indeed, I suspect most of you will not believe me in some of my examples, and many will not believe me in even one. I said it was counter-intuitive. Indeed, one of the benefits of martial arts has been the teaching of counter-intuitive truths – convincing not only your body but also your mind – that some of its habits are not helpful. So, from my time in martial arts and in the church, let me give you a few examples, in the hopes that at least one of them will make sense. And, having understood one, perhaps it will illuminate the others.
I start with time because it is the hardest for me. I feel like time slips through my fingers. I am, in fact too free with my time. I have found that the discipline of devoting my time, dedicating it to daily activities, gives me greater freedom. Undisciplined time slips away from me – sometimes joyously, but most often in a fleeting chaos of unfulfilling moments. When I do not offer up my time in sizable chunks, I fail to get what I want from it. So I choose to pray every day at waking and sleeping, and I choose to practice Tai Chi every day at morning and waking. I often don’t want to do it, but I do it anyway. I dedicate the time so that when I look back over my days I can say that it was indeed my time and not just time that happened to me. I give up time in order to gain it.
A Penny Saved
Monetary discipline can be another counter-intuitive route. It is very popular in our culture to pursue money, but how many of us manage to gain control over our fortunes? Economists have begun thinking seriously about the irrational ways we spend our money. I strongly recommend picking up Nudge by Sunstein and Thaler or a more recent book on behavioral economics. We can become much more proactive in our finances by setting aside money early. It seems we will have less freedom – we give up the immediate control – but we end up having more control farther down the line. More radically, I think the tithe (giving up 10% of your income to the church) can be an empowerment. We lose individual freedom in spending the money, but gain a community as we spend the money together. [For the record I am not a fan of giving money to a church that spends it without consulting you. I am a fan of democratic and representative churches in which the money represents common life.] Perhaps one day, I’ll be wise enough to give up all money and live day to day as the Bible suggests. I’m not there yet, but I sincerely believe this represents a victory over money, rather than a loss. Whatever your discipline, the exercise of letting go of money can help you more consciously hold on or let go.
Fast and Food
Nutritionists have known for some time that we are healthiest when we eat little more than our bodies need. Our bodies reset themselves, burning fat, recycling damaged tissue, and strengthening the immune response. Limiting calories and even cutting fasting for a day or two a week (with proper medical advice!) can increase energy, make us healthier, and extend our lives. It turns out Medieval Christian practices of fasting on Wednesday and Friday are more than mortification of the flesh. They are ways for taking possession of our eating. They remind us that eating is something we choose. It can be terribly hard to remember, but that may be an even greater reason to remind ourselves, especially when our environment tries very hard to encourage us to eat poorly – often by satisfying the craving of the moment. For my part, I will be eating less this year, in hopes of enjoying and making the most of what I do eat.
The hardest discipline will be letting go of personal freedom. We know it’s true in education; sometimes we must hand our choices over to a teacher. Sometimes we must allow someone to push us into uncomfortable growth. How many such teachers do you have in your life? I have fewer than I would like. It takes trust and it requires good teachers, but I cannot believe the latter are so hard to find. I would guess most Americans give up teachers altogether after college. We want more power, but we fail to recognize that even power must be surrendered on occasion (thoughtfully) in order to be gained in life. We must lean into the discomfort, not only as children but as growing adults.
New Year’s is now a month behind us, but it is not too late to make a resolution. The one I am making, I’m telling you about and encouraging you to make with me. (BTW, the behavioral economists recognize a loss and gain of freedom in such public statements when they lead to accountability.) I commit to giving up more of my time and pennies, eating less, and powering down in the hopes that all of this will make me more free with the time, money, food, and power I have.