Learning discipline helps me make meditation a habit.
How much discipline do I need to meditate?

Discipline? It depends.

This is one of those questions that can be answered with the unsatisfactory, but seemingly true response of “it depends.” 

It depends on what you think it means to be disciplined. 

I can write what it means to me to be a disciplined person, but individuals can have varying visions of what that means.

I don’t see myself as disciplined or not disciplined. For me, being disciplined is a variable state. Sometimes I am, and sometimes I’m not. For example, I am disciplined about paying our monthly bills on time. I don’t necessarily enjoy that task, but I realize it is necessary. I am not disciplined about sweeping the kitchen floor. A small task, but sweeping is just not my thing, so I put it off and put it off until my husband gets the broom and does it.

For me being disciplined does not affect whether I meditate or not. I meditate not because I am disciplined, but because I want to meditate. I am motivated. The practice of meditation fits with the vision of how I want to live. Meditating is a practice that fits with my intention of wanting to live each day awake, aware, attentive. I have found that meditation deepens my capacity to live with compassion and love.

Meditation opens my mind to what is greater than myself. Meditation is not magic. Fulfillment of what is learned from meditating takes a genuine, whole hearted effort, and the willingness to look at myself honestly and with a commitment to myself to follow through.

Discipline means it’s important to me to meditate

There are days when I sit to meditate when I am fully present. Other days, not as much. On the days when I feel some resistance to meditating, I tell myself I’m tired or what’s the difference if I miss a day. There is no one looking over my shoulder. Yet, if I don’t meditate, I feel its absence. I feel as if something is lacking, which goes back to I choose to meditate. It is important to me.

Meditation for me could be seen as a small individual effort to bring a different quality to relationships and daily life. In the face of an ever changing, seemingly chaotic and adversarial state of the world, I choose not to perpetuate destructive ways of living. I meditate, knowing my small effort will not stop wars or poverty or social injustice. However, I hope that my practice of meditation and what I learn from it about how to live can feed into other caring, positive forces that are in life. Many, many people choose to meditate, following practices consistent with who they are. I find that to be a heartening thought.

What is Discipline?

For me discipline means doing what is necessary whether I want to or not. A daily example of doing what is necessary is to follow rules of the road.  For instance, stopping at a red light is not a question of discipline. It is doing what is necessary to keep others and ourselves safe. Another example related to car safety is once a year our car needs to be taken to a designated center to get an emissions test. I leave the reminder card about the emissions test on my desk for weeks because I don’t enjoy doing that. Eventually the moment comes when I don’t want to look at the reminder card anymore, and I drive the car to get an emissions test. I do what is necessary and what I am responsible for doing. A certain measure of discipline makes that possible.

Discipline helps me reach my goals
I need enough discipline to reach my goals

What do these examples of discipline have to do with meditating?

To practice meditation the same principle applies. To do what I have chosen to do because I recognize meditating is necessary for keeping on course with how I want to live. I don’t want to hurt anyone when I drive. Similarly, my motivations to meditate are connected to how I want to live. Not taking from life but giving is how I want to live. I want to live aware of how my words and actions affect others. Living with an awareness of how much more there is in life than I take in with my senses opens me up to a greater reality. I want to live wholeheartedly.

Each motivation is an aspiration. In my experience the process of meditating is an aspiration that I reach for. It gives me enthusiasm and energy. I’m not looking for perfection. Perfection is neither longed for or attainable. For me aspiration gives direction for my life and supplies endless topics to meditate about.

For example, I feel an aspiration to live with compassion and love; I meditate about listening without fear to another person who has a strong emotional reaction. Or I look at my own emotional reactions when words come out of my mouth with more agitation than I really intend. An orientation towards life is that even at my age of 74, I am not a finished product, nor will I ever be. Rather my life, as all lives, is in a continuous state of unfolding. Grounded in the practice of meditation is a continuous state of learning and applying what I learn to how I live.

Are discipline and having a routine the same thing?

My opinion is that discipline and routine are not the same thing. As expressed, I understand discipline as doing what is necessary whether I want to or not. I see routines as a dependable habit/behavior to orient and organize my life around what is most essential.

When I learned how to meditate, it was suggested that that I meditate first thing in the morning. I adopted that suggestion. Meditating in the morning is a habit and a routine.  I don’t set an alarm that goes off or a bell that rings. Because meditating in the morning is a routine, I don’t question when am I going to meditate today or how am I going to fit it in my schedule.  Morning is not the only time to meditate, but the practice of morning meditation is one of my morning routines.

I am not perfect in fulfilling this routine.  There are days when my husband (he also meditates) and I look at each other and ask, “Meditate or eat first?”  Most often we have breakfast together and then go to our individual places to sit and meditate.  Or on a recent road trip when we wanted to get on the road, one of us would drive, while the other one meditated. Meditation was not the first act of the day.

Which way to go?  Discipline comes from developing a routine.
Photo courtesy of Bob Magrisso

Why have a routine? Is that discipline?

 A typical pattern for some individuals is to have routines built into their lives. I am a person who likes routines.  Routines provide a dependability and a constancy to my days, a kind of internalized rhythm. For instance, I most often do the grocery shopping on Saturday, I schedule my work clients for Tuesday and Wednesday, every day I take a morning walk with our dog.

Routines help to anchor me. However, my routines are not rigid but can change depending on the needs and circumstances of the moment. In terms of the practice of meditation, knowing that meditation is something I choose to do is a routine that supports me in how I want to live during the day.

In our retreat house, we have a phrase on the wall: Silence, Patience, Routine. This is what our Founder taught as a necessary foundation of discipline for inner work.

What are other ways of supporting my practice of meditation?

I find that having a routine for when I meditate is supportive. The routine makes it easy. I don’t think about whether or not to meditate every day. I know that is what I want to do.

Other means of supporting the practice of meditation that I find helpful have to do with inner attitudes of honesty with myself, commitment and perseverance.

How is living honestly like discipline?

From the practice of meditation, I discovered internalized orientations, underlying beliefs I hold about how I aspire to live my life. For instance, I discovered that one of my deeply held values of inner attitudes is living honestly, authentically. How did the practice of meditation deepen my understanding of living honestly?

Meditation is a practice I do alone, and also once a week in a meeting with a few other people when we meditate together. Whether alone or in a group I reach toward something that is hard to define but I recognize as greater than myself. There are different ways to refer to “greater than myself.” For me “greater than myself” is the Divine or Divine Mother.  In meditation, I bare what is in my heart in the presence of the Divine.  To deceive myself while in the seat of that relationship seems antithetical to the intention of meditation. An intention to see what is as it is and to live with respect and reverence.

The goal is worthwhile. That's why discipline is needed.
It’s worth the discipline and the effort

Does discipline mean commitment and perseverance?

 In this blog I have written about choosing to meditate and meditating because it is important to me related to aspirations for how I want to live my life. No one makes me meditate, and no one checks to see if I do meditate. In a way, I promised myself that meditation is a practice I choose to do because it helps me to expand my understanding of myself, others and life, itself.

I promised myself to meditate because I aspire to change how I live from a life that revolves around me, to being conscious of other lives and to take in a bigger picture of life.  In order to change how I live, I need to commit myself to that effort, and I need to take what I say seriously.  If I tell myself I want to live with compassion and love, in order to fulfill that possibility, I need to follow through. I need to persevere in that effort.

An example may help.  From meditating, I am more aware of the thoughts that go through my mind. I notice that some of my thoughts begin with the phrase “I hate…” I think to myself “I hate winter.” Or “I hate waiting in line.” I meditated about the words in my thoughts, and discovered how unhelpful the words “I hate,” are. People don’t know what goes through my thoughts, but thinking the words “I hate…” makes me tense, sometimes agitated, often closed to someone else. My thoughts can affect my behavior.

Not perfect, but better

I don’t aspire to be a perfect person. I do aspire to live with thoughtfulness, respect, care and compassion recognizing I am imperfect and fallible. My thoughts of “I hate…” are opposite to my intention. In meditation I recognize the value of substituting other words for “I hate,” such as “I don’t enjoy,” or even to silently remember a quote with a different perspective. Pete Seeger wrote on the back of his guitar. (Pete Seeger was a folk singer and activist beginning in the 1960’s.) The line he wrote referring to his guitar is “This instrument surrounds hate and causes it to surrender.”

Why do I meditate?

In considering the question of discipline related to the practice of meditation, I find that if I think about discipline, I have a sense of restriction, of something I am supposed to do or instructed to do.  Both those directives come from outside of myself.

I find it helps me to remember why I meditate. I meditate of my own free will. That means I am motivated from within. In meditation, metaphorically speaking, I enter the inner space of my soul where I invoke the Divine. That space is different from my habitual state of mind. The inner state of mind of meditation broadens my orientation and understanding and guides me toward living in touch with my aspiration to live with love. Reconnecting with that orientation every day is not a matter of discipline, but a matter of love.

About the Author(s)

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Allegra Magrisso is a social worker, therapist, long time meditator, mother and grandmother.