Mantra Monday: A Fresh Start – Discipline and Personal Power

It’s a Brand New Week

First – no; I haven’t abandoned the saga from last week. But neither will I hijack this week’s posts because of last week’s failures. Instead, we will carry on with our regularly scheduled collection of posts for this week as planned, and get back to the last to parts of last week’s saga as soon as I can.

Using Discipline to Build Personal Power

Typically, I write about stuff like personal power on Thoughts for Thursday posts, Today, however, I want to write about it in relation to the cultivation of discipline – which is, after all, what Mantra Monday is all about.

The cultivation of discipline is a process. We’ve been over that before. It starts with small steps that you can take regularly in order to build habits. Once you build the habits, you can build upon those habits until they become routine. Discipline isn’t about some towering schoolmaster in a black robe with a ruler in his hand saying “You! Yes, You! Stand still, laddie!” You don’t cultivate discipline for anyone else but yourself.

In school, or in parenting, we think the word discipline as punishment coming down from an authority figure in order to keep us in line with social conventions. Freud would have called that the super-ego version of discipline. That’s not discipline; it’s compliance.

Discipline isn’t an outside force making you fall in line. It’s an internal voice that says, “I must do this to get better.”

Kids don’t have fully developed prefrontal cortexes in their brains yet, so they lack the abilities adults have to self-regulate. That’s why we have to “hand down” discipline to them. I guess. I wish we’d call it something else, though, because it’s really screwing up the connotation of the word.

Adults, on the other hand, can understand the connection between present behavior and future results, and they can use that information to direct their behavior. What I mean is, if you’re in your teens or early twenties, you might be forgiven for not having the best sense of discipline yet, but if you’re forty, you have no excuse.

Discipline Is Actually the Source of Personal Power

Where do we use discipline in our own lives? Some of us use it to keep our bodies fit and healthy. Others use it to control their financial destiny. Still more rely on it to calm their mind or spirit. Let’s look at each of these examples and see how cultivating discipline in these areas leads directly to personal power.

Personal Power from Health and Fitness Discipline

This is obviously the easiest connection to make, because when you become disciplined in the realm of fitness, you are literally making yourself – your physical self, anyway – more powerful. There are opportunities I have available to me that aren’t available to people who aren’t as fit. I will never have to worry about buying two seats for myself on an airplane, or feel worried about trying to go on an amusement park ride.

I told a story before about how when I went on my honeymoon I was worried that I would be too heavy to take the helicopter tour of Maui that we’d booked. That thought will never cross my mind again. In fact – and I’m pretty sure Kevin Smith would back me up on this – if I were standing in line to go on that tour next to a rich fat person, no amount of money would make the difference between which one of us got to go up in the air that day (well, unless the fat prick bought the helicopter and wanted to fly it himself).

In that situation, despite the differences in our socio-economic statuses, I have more personal power than that guy because I run two miles three times per week. (Also, in case you didn’t know, Kevin Smith is much slimmer these days, and I would never refer to him as a fat prick. Good on ya, Kevin!)

Of course, the same is true with health. I don’t smoke cigarettes anymore because I know that no matter how much money I make, cancer is cancer and it doesn’t give a fuck about the money (only the doctors, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies care about that part). Think of a rich old man, on his death bed, who still breathes and controls millions of dollars, but can no longer control his bowels. Now think of Jack LaLanne. Take care of your bodies, people.

Personal Power from Financial Discipline

This one should also be a no-brainer. I will now tip the tables and discuss the ways that having financial discipline can get you things that nobody else can get.

Having money doesn’t get you happiness. That’s what we’ve all been told, right? Well, try telling that to anyone working a minimum wage job (or substitute teaching). The research suggests that money does improve happiness up to a point – the point at which basic needs are met and people are “comfortable.” Now, that point may be different for each person, but the idea is, once you’re past that point, more money isn’t going to make you any happier.

You have to get to that point, though, otherwise every day of your life is going to be a struggle to figure out how to meet your basic needs – or how to please your creditor masters. I’m pointing all of my fingers at me, here, so just know that. Up to this point, I’ve had a hard time cultivating discipline with regard to finances, because frankly, I hate money and I wish it didn’t exist. I do, however, understand that I need it, and that it’s not going away, so I want to get enough of it to be secure and have the ability to do the things I want to do.

So what do I need to do? You guessed it. I need to cultivate some bloody discipline around my finances and start saving money. If I can work up the discipline to go to the gym three times a week, I can certainly work up the discipline to put a percentage of each check away. It’s a challenge for me, but it’s one that I know I can beat, because I know the formula to cultivate discipline, and I’ve got tons of good advice around me.

Now, obviously, having the money will improve my social power, but cultivating the discipline to get the money will improve my personal power, and that’s worth more to me than any six-figure savings. The number’s not as important as the habits I build to get to the number. I mean… the number’s still important, but… you get the point.

Personal Power from Mind Discipline

Last week, I gave a coworker a ride home. As we drove, he and I got to talking about the military. It turns out he was in the Army, and I was talking to him about my experience in the Air National Guard. At one point in the conversation, he asked me what I thought about my overall military experience. It’s a question that comes up among vets who didn’t necessarily serve together every once in a while. My answer is almost always the same.

“I’m really glad I did it,” I said, “and I’m really glad I’m out.” He laughed and said “Me too, man. Me too.” and then we started talking about why we both felt that way.

The reason is, going through basic training, no matter which branch of service you’re in, will push you to your limits. In my case, I went through BMT just after 9/11, and Air Force BMT was still only six weeks long. So I literally went through the easiest physical version of basic that the military had to offer at the time. That didn’t mean I wasn’t pushed to my limits, though.

I had never run as far or as fast as I had during basic training. I’d never been so scared for such a long and sustained period of time. Never had I been as sick as I was during week five when I came down with the notorious BMT cold – the cold everyone gets in basic because you get exposed to germs from all over the country (including Guam). I’d never experienced the level of utter physical and mental exhaustion as I did during basic.

My co-worker and I both said that the reason we were able to get through it was that we had trained our minds to go to a place where the physical reality doesn’t matter, and only your willpower does. For me, that place hinges on the idea the transitory nature of reality. In other words, the fact that everything is temporary. My co-worker described a type of meditation where he imagined himself at home instead of wherever he was – a kind of displacement meditation, if you will. For both of us, though, the principle was the same: If your mind is disciplined, you can get through anything.

Mental Discipline Takes Training, Too.

Many people meditate. I don’t. I want to, but I’ve not gotten to it yet. For millions around the world it’s a medically verified way to manage anxiety and stress, and I think it’s something that I should be doing. One step at a time, though. In the mean time, there are other things both you and I can do besides meditation to make sure that our minds are in shape.

  • Learn to Recognize Negative Self-Talk. You know that voice inside? I know you do. I hear it, too. It’s the one that says, “I can’t do this.” It’s the one that says “You’ve no business doing this.” It’s the one that says, “You’re too (insert appropriate negative adjective here) for this.” For some people it’s the voice that says “Well, I was just born big, and I’ll never be skinny/be in shape/have abs, so why even bother.”
    • Fuck that voice. Sorry for the F-bombs today, but that voice is bullshit. You can always make changes to your life. You can always kick old habits and make new ones. When you hear those thoughts, put them out of your mind as soon as you recognize them. Don’t hold on to them, and don’t believe them.
  • Take Time For Reflection. If you’re like me, you often go back over your day, analyzing what you did right or wrong. The key to this one is to keep it positive. If you made mistakes, acknowledge them. Don’t hide from them, but recognize them for opportunities to learn and grow. Of course, if you really screwed the pooch, it’s okay to have a proper freak out about it, but once that’s over, you’ve still gotta live, so you’ll need to reflect and figure out how to be better. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to be proud of the positive things you’ve accomplished. I remind myself all the time about my running achievements because it inspires me to keep going.
  • Help Others. I wrote a bit about this a couple of weeks ago, but if you want to feel better, help other people feel better. Do something nice for someone and accept their gratitude. It’ll lower your stress levels and help you to feel good about yourself.

Time to Wrap Up

By making the decision to set goals for ourselves and committing to achieving those goals, we give ourselves personal power. I’ve worked hard over the last few months to get back in good shape again, and it’s paid off. Because I’ve been running so much and weight training, I feel like Jason Bourne when I think about what I can do. Not that I’m a CIA ninja or anything yet, but remember that scene in the first movie when he says “I know at this altitude I can run flat out for a half-mile before my hands start shaking?” Yeah, I feel like that a little bit. Just a little.

I want to get to a point where I know I’m in good enough shape to do any activity I want to try – from rock climbing to trail hiking to windsurfing. That’s personal power. Nobody can take that from me. I want to get to a point where I know my finances are in order and that I’ve got some security set aside. While the money might lose its value or go away somehow, I know I’ll have built the discipline to save resources. No one can take that. I want my mind to be a fortress against self-doubt, anxiety, and fear. That is the ultimate personal power.

And now I’m going to the gym, where I can put my headphones on, release a shitload of endorphins, feel amazing, and become an even better me. Hope to see you there!