On many retreats, I experience the energy of discipline (I'm going to use the word "energies" to describe various aspects of personality, but I don't mean to suggest the existence of any particular force or 'energy' in the physical sense; see previous article.) as intensely frustrating. I felt like some kind of yoked animal, being forced to drag a burden that was not of my own making. Other times I felt more caged than burdened -- restrained, held back, like Rilke's famous panther, pacing around in circles:
There's an aspect of the melodramatic in Rilke's poem, which matches the way I overdramatize even the simplest acts of discipline. Surely, a privileged young man on a voluntary meditation retreat is different from a caged, lamentable panther. But so what? There's this mistaken notion that if we know the reasons for our feelings, we can judge them justified or unjustified, and then act accordingly. But most of the time, these "reasons" are not the causes but the explanations. They do not precede the raw emotion; they proceed from them. So, the melodrama gets it exactly right: the itch to break free, the resentment of the scolding voice that tells me no.
And then the doubt. Why are you doing this? What's the point? Why don't you just do whatever it is you want? The stories of doubt are so compelling, and they do usually flow from some real concern in the mind. This is why they are so dangerous; they seem to be purely reasonable responses, when in fact, they are like snakes in the service of selfishness.
Mystical Judaism links doubt with Amalek (the words have the same gematria value), the arch-enemy of Israel. You're supposed to cut off its head, slaughter its descendents. In its way, Buddhism also cuts off the head of doubt too -- by shutting it up and seeing it for what it is. But I find doubt is much more insidious than these simple images suggest. I cut off its head, but it's a hydra. "This is stupid," says the voice of Doubt, and so I cut it off. And so it becomes replaced by lacerating self-criticism: "No, you are stupid. You have no discipline. That's why you have accomplished so little. Your friends are on the covers of magazines, and publishing successful novels. Where are you?"
What an absurd cycle -- and yet, it's one I find myself in on a daily basis. And of course, I have my response: "Discipline is repression. We need more freedom, more life. Why accomplish anything?"
And then back and back and forth until I've finally worn myself out.
It's easy to see that the cycle of discipline stories is more than merely tedious; it is also filled with hostility. There's something in the process of self-discipline itself, I think, that elicits anger, and that anger seeps into the way these tales are told. It's as if the situation of discipline is inherently one of conflict -- notice the metaphors of yoking an animal, cutting off heads. Sometimes it feels like an internal wrestling match, or actual battle, between the id and the superego -- and in many models self-discipline is described, approvingly, in such ways.
Personally, my own inner battles have progressed well past wrestling. My feelings have weapons. My id has grown up and gotten a degree, so now it's armed with volumes of Allen Ginsberg and the slogans of sexual liberation. My superego, not to be outdone, has ditched its paternalistic "I said so's" and now beats me over the head with envy and desire. The arms race has really gotten quite sophisticated: the id, which is supposedly infantile, can quote poetry. And the superego goes for the jugular. "Don't you want to be like _____?"
Freud's model, which is of course more complex than the conventional version adduced here, is inherently one of conflict. Discipline is like taming a beast, and that takes confrontation.
Then again, conflict seems irreducibly opposed to feeling "spiritual," doesn't it? Spirituality is about feeling liberated, pleasant, and at peace -- discipline is about restraint, working despite unpleasantness, and... yoking. No wonder so many spiritual seekers throw aside rules and discipline as one of their first steps toward "liberation."
I find both of these models -- subdue your inner child, or set him free and sing -- to be wanting. In the case of "spirituality," surely any spiritual aim worth pursuing requires discipline. Spiritual practice is just like any other kind of practice -- it takes practice. (In the new print issue of Zeek, I develop at some length the distinction between "spirituality" and religion on the one hand, and contemplative practice on the other. I hope you'll pick up a copy.) So even if we do junk some of the codes and strictures of our native religions, we can't imagine doing without the entire notion of discipline itself if we want to actually get anywhere along the spiritual path. Including, as I've suggested above, just being here now.
Nor does the simplified-Freudian model, I think, do justice to the ways in which discipline unfolds in the individual. So, at the risk of losing some readers, I'd like to suggest a look at a different model of what discipline is, and how it can be reconciled with a life of rich experience: Kabbalah.
3. Why be subtle
In the Kabbalistic worldview, what we call discipline is actually an amalgam of two very different internal processes. Internally, discipline comes from the aspect of gevurah, or strength. Gevurah is that which reins us in. It sets limits and boundaries. It's that aspect of the self that keeps you from telling off your coworker, smothering your relationship partner, or eating the second (third?) piece of cheesecake. Too much gevurah, and you're a repressed authoritarian. Too little gevurah, and you're an indulgent flake.
Gevurah, though, is only half of the story. It's the energy in the mind and the heart that operates when you hold yourself back. But there's also the aspect of netzach, literally "eternity" but also sometimes rendered as "endurance." Netzach is gevurah's complement on the plane of external manifestation. It's gevurah in action, you might say; it's what channels not our feelings or desires but our actions into a form that actually leads to results. Netzach is the aspect of our behavior that does the laundry, gets to work on time, meets our partners at the airport. Gevurah's complement is hesed, lovingkindess; netzach's is hod, inspiration, splendor, wonder. It's really not that splendid to do the laundry. But if your life is only peak experiences, how does it endure?
These Kabbalistic motives do not map onto a traditional psychotherapeutic map. Sometimes it is the principle of gevurah that is selfish -- this is mine! -- and its complement of hesed which is more aligned with superegoic principles of sharing, morality, and so on. Other times, it is hesed that is selfish -- look what I can do! -- and gevurah which feels like repression, conformity, and respect for society's boundaries. Nor do netzach and its complement, hod, fit cleanly onto more familiar models, though they may come close to the "classical" and "romantic" modes from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Crucially, it is not one "energy" (remembering that I am using that term in a deliberately ambiguous way) that contains the aspect of repression or expression, and not one sefirah that is meant to be prized above others. Each flavor of emotional reality has its function, and each can fall out of balance.
The richness of the Kabbalistic language had, for me, direct experiential benefits. First, netzach is not the same as gevurah, and -- here the Kabbalistic terminology and the Buddhist contemplative practice converge -- it is possible to perceive directly the difference in these two "energies" through experience and attention. Doing walking meditation one day, for example, I saw how I was treating each step as requiring gevurah: my rhythm was something like restraint, plod, restraint, plod, doubt, restraint, anger, plod. But with a little more attention to the actual feeling of "discipline" in the body (tightness in the chest, or constriction in the arms, or a bobbing of the head), it became clearer to me that there were actually a wealth of feeling-tones going on beneath my notice. There was netzach, there was yesod... and they all felt different. It became interesting to try to characterize and categorize these feeling tones, rather like a sommelier attempts to discern and describe the notes of flavor in wine. "Discipline" was much too broad. It was a label, and not a particularly helpful one, for a multitude of phenomena operating within the self.
Neurotic Visionaries & Paranoid Jews
April 7, 2005
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Messianic Troublemakers: Jewish Anarchism
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The Merchant of Venice and the New Ruling Class