Zen and Discipline

At Half Price Books this weekend I picked up Zen: Tradition and Transition, a great little essay collection by modern writers. One author talks about his own experience becoming a Zen monk: being refused entrance to a monastery (which is traditional), and persisting for three days as he was beaten with a stick, over and over, until they finally let him in. Another story tells of the legendary master Bodhidharma, who refused to take on Dazu Huike as a student. The latter waited for weeks, sitting in the snow, and finally hacked off his own arm with a hatchet to show his sincerity, before Bodhidharma took him in.

It strikes me that Zen monasteries are all about seeking truth and a deeper understanding of reality, yet daily life in a monastery involves little debate or philosophical discussion, and has almost nothing in common with, say, the life of a typical American studying philosophy at college. Instead, monks spend all day working hard, meditating, following careful rituals with absolute strictness. The way to truth centers not on talking about truth, but on disciplining the mind.

Writing is similar. I write because I love stories, because I’m excited about coming up with my own stories that others might enjoy as much as the ones I’ve read. But the actual practice of writing is only partly about stories. Mostly it means learning a host of technical rules and when to apply them, a commitment to write regularly (and especially when you don’t feel like it), a willingness to put out your work to have it critiqued again and again, rejected over and over. I do all this because I love stories, but a love of stories isn’t how it happens. The real magic, the turning-ideas-into-books magic, is all about mental discipline.

Mental discipline is a tricky thing. On the one hand, I think that I personally, and we as a society, need much, much more of it. I worry that we spend so much time ingesting entertainment – movies, TV, video games, and yes, even books – that it becomes part of our identity, that we begin defining ourselves not in terms of what we’ve done, but what we’ve consumed. I know this makes me sound like I’m eighty-five, but I don’t care.

Yet on the other hand, too much mental discipline can make you stupid. Hacking off your own arm, for example, is not actually a good idea, if only because you risk bleeding to death (and then no enlightenment for you!). Similarly, sometimes a restless mind seeks out new pathways that a determined mind misses, like a samurai who spends a lifetime mastering the sword and then gets shot with a machine gun. So I think that, while more discipline is good, there is eventually a point of diminishing returns.

Thus pondereth Buckley on this warm July morning. What do you think about all this? Let me know in the comments.

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10 responses to “Zen and Discipline

  1. If nothing else, this post gave me ideas for Halloween costumes!

  2. “I worry that we spend so much time ingesting entertainment – movies, TV, video games, and yes, even books – that it becomes part of our identity, that we begin defining ourselves not in terms of what we’ve done, but what we’ve consumed.”

    I completely agree! I find myself falling into that trap myself, and I don’t like it.

    Very insightful post! I think you’re already more enlightened than the guy that cut off his arm.

  3. I’ve given over to a complete lack of mental discipline. I check my facebook when I want, and I let my mind wander as often as I feel like it. Thus is the joy of research and physics, often times my mind wanders to that which I’m researching, on a problem to be solved. Then it does not become work, but something I Want to do. So maybe its less about the discipline and more about truly wanting to do what your doing. Or maybe I just have so much willpower I don’t notice it when I’m making myself do work.

  4. The problem with mental discipline that it needs to be established into a habit. I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t just say I will be completely disciplined and focused and expect that to happen right away, no matter how determined I am.

    I think mental discipline is just like every other skill that needs to be practiced, but it’s definitely a skill I agree is very needed in this day and age.

  5. You made some excellent points about mental discipline. At least, I think so. Admittedly, I did become slightly distracted while reading the post (sending a couple of texts, and breaking for a cupcake). But I’m guessing you were right on the money.

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