Tools for Living

Self Discipline

“Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.” ~Elie Wiesel

It’s no wonder that some of us have learned to regard the idea of “self-discipline” as something unpleasant, a way to punish ourselves by beating ourselves up physically with demanding exercise regimens, psychologically with negative self-talk, depriving ourselves of something we need or love, or even going to such extremes as the ritual mortification of the flesh practiced in some religious cults. Fortunately, such punishment has nothing to do with practicing real discipline.

The word “discipline” derives from the Latin word disciplina, meaning “teaching” or “learning” or describing a body of knowledge—just as we still describe a field of knowledge or study as a “discipline.” And one who studied such knowledge, especially under the guidance of a teacher, was known as a “disciple,” which simply means “student.”

Discipline probably got confused with punishment centuries ago during the middle ages, when administering a beating was regarded as a means of teaching—a practice that continues in some places even today. While punishment as a deterrent may be a modestly effective training tool in some situations—the stick that accompanies the carrot—at best it’s a poor means to an end, and certainly should not be confused with the end itself, which is to “encourage” (or frighten!) the recipient into disciplining himself so as to avoid punishment in the future.

When we speak of self-discipline we are really talking about learning and the steps we must take to achieve it.  Furthermore, in addition to describing the methods or process of leaning, the idea of discipline includes our personal commitment to the regular practice of whatever is required to master our subject.  Musicians, athletes, and other professionals are familiar with this concept, for all must discipline themselves to practice diligently in order to learn their skills.  And even after mastering them, they must continue the discipline of regular study, training, and practice in order to maintain them, keep them sharp, and continue to improve them.

Hall of Fame baseball player Tony Gwynn was famous not only for his skill at bat, but also for his disciplined approach to hitting both on and off the field.  Even after winning eight National League batting titles he continued to take batting practice regularly, to analyze and refine his own technique, and to study the habits of the opposing pitchers he would face before each game.  Such discipline made him the most consistent hitter of the modern era, never hitting below .309 after his rookie season and finishing a 20-year career with a lifetime average of .338.

In order to take effective responsibility for our own lives, we must learn to discipline ourselves in learning life skills in much the same way that a great hitter like Gwynn practiced batting.  We must study our own habits and behavior, must continue to learn from both our own and others’ experience, and we must train ourselves to apply what we learn to improve our own attitudes and conduct.

It’s not enough for us to just reach an intellectual understanding of the virtue of spiritual principles like honesty and spiritual practices such as prayer.  Nor is it enough for us to resolve that we’ll try to apply them whenever it seems necessary or convenient. When life throws us a curve ball, we respond out of habit. If we hope to be ready to handle whatever comes our way, we must train ourselves to apply sound spiritual principles in every aspect of our lives, consistently, day in and day out. Self-discipline is the means of training ourselves to do just that—and it’s also the will to persist even when we don’t see the immediate benefits of our practice.

Such discipline lays the foundation for our progressive spiritual growth. It is fuel for our faith. There’s a reason that regular practice of traditional spiritual disciplines like prayer and meditation is a universally recognized way to discover our own essential spiritual nature and to expand our spiritual awareness.  Rather than taking something from us, such as precious time that could be spent watching TV or daydreaming about winning the lottery, these spiritual practices nourish our souls in ways that nothing else can.

Just as athletic success requires us to discipline ourselves to train body and mind for the rigors of competition, successful living likewise requires self discipline.  Through regular and consistent practice of time-tested spiritual disciplines, we improve our spiritual fitness and gradually become able to handle anything and everything life throws at us with both grace and faith.


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Links to more information about Self-Discipline:

From, “The Guide To Developing Self-Discipline That Lasts”

John MacArthur on “Learning Self-Discipline”

From, Peter Clemens’s “How To Build Self-Discipline”

Chuck Gallozzi’s tips on “Developing Self-Discipline”


Books about Self-Discipline:

Thomas Sterner, The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus Into Your Life  Shows how the practice of mindfulness, simplicity, and persistence can lead us toward effective change and personal growth.

Cheri Huber, Making a Change for Good: A Guide to Compassionate Self-Discipline
A clear and simple path to gentle self-discipline that includes a guided thirty-day program.

Phil Cousineau, Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement—Healing the Past, Making Amends, and Restoring Balance in Our Lives and World        A new collection of writings by several noteworthy spiritual thinkers on the nature of atonement and its importance for healing past wounds and restoring hope for the future.