The Pathless Path

Wayne C. Allen – a simple Zen guy – writes about living and relating elegantly


Exercises in Self-Discipline


exer­cises in self-discipline – One of the things I’ve noticed is how quickly self-discipline gets hooked with some kind of torture.


It’s all about balance

First of all, thanks to all the people who commented after last week’s arti­cle. I’m pleased to know that these arti­cles are impor­tant to you. Just as a side note, our 10th anniver­sary of writ­ing these arti­cles got missed completely (it was back in May.)
Hard to believe — that’s a lot of writ­ing.

Anyway, I want to unpack the whole self-discipline idea

One of the things I’ve noticed is how quickly self-discipline gets hooked with some kind of torture. In other words, the ego, ever look­ing to main­tain the status quo, imme­di­ately starts rais­ing all kinds of red flags.

The most typi­cal is the, "But, it shouldn’t be this hard" argu­ment. As if the cosmos is set up so that, like a juke box, we press a certain button and, because we want to hear it, out comes only that song.

As we endlessly say, what happens in real life is just the oppo­site. You can push the button as often as you want, and occa­sion­ally or even often the "right" song will play. However, quite often you will push, and noth­ing happens, or you push and some­thing completely unex­pected happens.

And those odd twists of reality might even come in groups.

What happens, happens. It doesn’t mean anything, and assuredly doesn’t mean you did some­thing wrong. It also does not mean that the cosmos screwed up. What is means is, "This is what is happen­ing right now. Deal with it."

This is where self-discipline comes in.

I’ve been having an e-mail conver­sa­tion with a new Australian friend, and was talk­ing about self disci­pline. I wrote:

"Let’s look at it his way: what kind of effort was involved for you, as a kid, to learn to ride a bike? If you were like me, you fell a lot, and then rode but didn’t know how to stop, so you fell, and then later, when you didn’t pay atten­tion, you fell. But once you learned, it stuck.
Same with learn­ing to walk, to run, etc. We forget that it was differ­ent and chal­leng­ing. However, we persisted. This was self-discipline. There was noth­ing force­ful – it was simply doing what was required."

Now, imag­ine think­ing, "I won’t bother to learn to ride a bike until I need to ride one." What happens? Well, some­thing "bad" happens and you leap to your bike, jump on, and promptly fall on your ass.

This is how most people live their lives.


Boy, this is starting off well!

They get into a mess (or messes) and then attempt to do some­thing differ­ent to fix it. Mostly they fail because they have not had time to master the new way of being, or they decide in advance that the effort is way too much.

On the posi­tive side, this is also the AA model—the approach taken by people who use hitting bottom as the impe­tus to think about doing things differ­ently. Painful, painful.

Far better, like learn­ing to ride a bike, to simply start, for no other reason than to start. You start with­out drama, because you simply want to learn to do an new thing. In this way, the drama is elim­i­nated from the process of being self-disciplined.

Remember, no matter how "bad" things are, the only way your life will change is if you do.

Despite all the whin­ing about "It’s difficult—it’s chal­leng­ing." Of course it is! Waiting for "things to change" for exte­nals to coop­er­ate, for others to get their act together is a monu­men­tal waste of time. Things are as they are, others are as they are, and none of that is under your control.

What is under your control is how you live your life.

So, let’s look at some things you can do, right now, to begin to shift your­self off of dead centre.

1. It begins with language

OK, language is key. And that’s not just seman­tics, he says with a grin.

Examples of silly language:

  1. "How can I get ahead? This situ­a­tion is putting so much pres­sure on me, and the dead­line is stress­ing me out. I’m in pain, and that’s shut­ting me down and depriv­ing me of enjoy­ment."
  2. "My husband is an idiot! All he ever does is misbe­have, and that makes me angry. And when he makes me angry, I have no choice but to yell at him, cut him off, and demand that he change."
  3. "My kid misbe­haved, so I yelled at her. What else could I do? I have to teach her right and wrong."

Now, I hear vari­a­tions of these all the time. In each case, such language comes from "ego," which is invested in 2 things:

  1. blam­ing exter­nals, and
  2. keep­ing you stuck (and there­fore predictable, as your ego hates change.)

The begin­ning of exit­ing this drama is to change your language so as to disem­power your ego.

Zen, by the way, is not about elim­i­nat­ing the ego. It’s about learn­ing how it works, so that you can stop doing its bidding. The ego no longer is able to pull the wool over your eyes, and you stop living under its illu­sions.


  1. "I am choos­ing to see my life as I always do when I feel stuck. I am putting intense pres­sure on myself, and blam­ing the situ­a­tion. I am spend­ing so much time blam­ing the situ­a­tion that I’m behind on a dead­line, and I’m stress­ing myself over this. I’m dredg­ing up painful memo­ries that support my belief that some­thing is happen­ing to me, shut­ting myself down, and doing every­thing I can to deprive myself of enjoy­ment."
    Then, "So, I’ll have a big breath, let go of the stories for a minute, and do a bit of work on the project."
  2. "My husband is not behav­ing accord­ing to my fantasy, and I am making myself quite angry that he won’t live his life the way I want him to. I use anger to try to manip­u­late him into doing what I want, and if anger doesn’t work, I up the ante by refus­ing to have sex with him. Rather than work on my own life and issues, I make it "all about him," and contin­u­ally demand that he spend his life making things better for me. I never, however, consider doing the same for him."
    Then, "So, I’ll have a deep breath and tell my husband how I am upset­ting myself, and then let him know what I will choose to do next."
  3. My kid is a kid, and kids say and do ‘kid-things.’ Sometimes she doesn’t pay close atten­tion, and stuff happens. My ego gets involved, and I lash out and yell."
    Then, "So, I’ll have a breath, and rather than yell at her, I choose to invite her to notice what she’s doing, and to come up with an alter­na­tive."

head in hands

Woe, or woe are I!

2. Drop the "but… it’s hard!"

This really is a follow-on for the above point.

The norm with behav­ioural shift­ing is for the ego to clev­erly list off all the reasons why the shift will be either

a) hard,
b) take a long time, or
c) require some­one else to do some­thing first.

So, listen to that ego voice with compas­sion, have a breath, and shift some­thing.

Remember, you learned every­thing you’ve learned by actu­ally doing some­thing. Now, we’re work­ing on learn­ing and enact­ing new behav­iours to coun­ter­act what you’ve learned that does not work. This means, quite simply, that persis­tence, with­out whin­ing, is the only way through the silli­ness.

3. Stop making excuses

Similarly, you’ll need to notice how quickly you excuse contin­u­ing to enact ways of doing your life that you say you want to shift. Again, notice how quickly you blame either the behav­iour of others or "genet­ics."

This is your crafy little ego, setting you up to stay stuck.

After all, if some­one else has to do some­thing first, then you excuse your­self, and sit back and wait.

Same with genet­ics, only "more so." If you think you can’t control your temper or your complain­ing, or what­ever, because that’s what mom or dad did, again, you’re stuck, only this time, perma­nently. It’s conve­nient to try this, and with it comes the explicit or implied, "That’s just the way I am—you’ll just have to put up with it" gambit. When I try this, Darbella just laughs at me.

Stop making excuses, make another choice, and do it.

Right now. Pretty soon, all that "genetic block­age" baloney will be a distant memory.

Next week, we’ll look at some or all of the remaining ideas.

4. begin a prac­tice

5. be your­self – accept your­self

6. open your­self up

7. use "don’t know mind"

Make Contact!

So, how does this week’s arti­cle sit with you? What ques­tions do you have? Leave a comment or ques­tion!

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  1. Yvette

    Hello Wayne, I find your arti­cles to be rather enlight­ing and help­ful and I look forward to them every week as I look to them for guid­ance in my Zen jour­ney and I wanted to thank you for your dedi­ca­tion and hard work every week. With that said, in this arti­cle you talk about people who say "That’s just the way I am—you’ll just have to put up with it" which I have person­ally expe­ri­enced with some­one close to me and I find myself not want­ing to "put up with it". But if I am prac­tic­ing Zen then am I judg­ing them or letting my ego get in the way because I find myself being resent­ful because I do put up with it but I really don't want to? Can you give me some insight on how you would handle that sort of situ­a­tion.



    • What compels you to do what you do not want to do? You stay/participate because you choose to. So, it's "Here is an oppor­tu­nity to choose, and I choose to do what I say I dislike." Zen, by the way, recog­nizes a differ­ence between eval­u­a­tion and judge­ment. "I do not like the taste of bananas: is an eval­u­a­tion. "I hate bananas! They are disgust­ing! No one should eat bananas!" is a judge­ment.
      During the last 2 years of my mom's life both Dar and I found that we became uncom­fort­able around her after 30 minutes or so. We there­fore left when either of us noticed discom­fort. We didn't stay and "put up with it," nor did we demand she change, nor did we gripe. We just got up, said, "Good seeing you, mom, we'll see you next week" and left.
      Now, had I commit­ted to some­thing, to a specific time I'd stay, then I'd stay with­out complaint, because I'd agreed.
      Zen is tough precisely because you are always completely respon­si­ble not only for what you do, but for your feel­ings. Therefore, in your ques­tion, I must ask myself, "What do I want here?" If I want to say no, I say no. If I want to leave, I leave. And if I choose to stay, I stay, with­out complaint or judge­ment.
      The non-starter choice is to choose to do some­thing you do not want, and then to make your­self resent­ful, judg­ing, and blam­ing. Nothing is happen­ing TO you. Just have a breath and walk away.

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