Saturday, March 26, 2005

A Disciplined Life

Key to being a contemplative is adopting some kind of spiritual discipline. This is an idea that fascinates me, and has attracted me for a long time. The reason it has attracted me for a long time, I think, is because I have never quite come to where I would really like to be in this respect. I have this idealized image of what my life could be like, and it includes a sense of my going through my days following a soothing, predictable rhythm that instills in me a sense of centeredness and peace. And, in fact, the academic life can create something of a predictable rhythm that approximates what I am looking for: the weekly rhythm of classes, office hours, and regularly scheduled meetings. Yet there is something about the frenetic pace of it all that keeps an edge of perpetual anxiety in my life instead of the peace I seek.

Others often perceive me as a person who seems reasonably at peace, at least relative to many others! I think I am perceived this way because part of the spiritual discipline I have adopted for myself is to try not to talk very much about feeling stressed or busy, but to shift attention instead to something good, meaningful, or exciting going on. So when I run into colleagues in the photocopy room and we chat, what I will share is a recent good interaction with a student, or an enlightening moment in the classroom, or my relief at having just finished a draft of a paper I am working on, etc. I'm not doing this to mislead people into thinking I'm more at peace and on top of things than I usually feel -- I do this because I think it is far more important to share with each other the substance of what our lives are all about than merely to vent our chronic restless dissatisfaction. Our culture is already too much a culture of complaint. I don't hold it against people to complain -- human beings may in fact be problem-seeking and problem-solving beings. I just prefer to keep trying to focus attention on the positive side of that tendency (what it is like when problems are solved) instead of the negative side (a listing of the currently pending problems).

So the idea of a disciplined life is more than having a good, healthy rhythm to life that keeps you reasonably healthy, happy, growing, and engaged in meaningful activity and relationships. Spiritual disciplines also keep you oriented within those rhythms in positive, helpful ways.

There is so much that is troubling in our world today that it is too easy to feel discouraged. We often feel powerless to effect positive change. We don't know how to begin; and besides, we are too busy.

And yet, we can question the forces that keep us too busy. We actually have more choice and more power in our lives than we are led to believe -- we can make choices within our lives to focus our attention more clearly on what we really care about. This is what the idea of a disciplined life is really all about -- your chosing how to spend your time, how to structure your days, to ensure that you are focusing most effectively on what really matters to you. And as your vision of how you would like your life to be clarifies, then you keep asking the question, "how can I make this possible?" instead of measuring, over and over again, how large the gap is between where you are and where you would like to be.

As Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."


  1. After reading this tidbit, I was refreshed in my thinking. Becoming more disciplined is something new I am striving for; and I know once I acquire and practice this new habit, my life will change for the better.

  2. I'm glad you found this helpful. It is a continuing challenge to remember these things and stay focused and stay positive, but it is well worth the effort.