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!

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

2 thoughts on “Exercises in Self-Discipline”

  1. 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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