The Purpose of Discipline

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Discipline is the least understood word in the world. The purpose of discipline is simply to be able to guide the expressions of the mind. We know how the mind functions. We know that it becomes easily distracted, that it is subject to likes and dislikes, that it has very strong ideas, emotions, convictions and beliefs. We know that it is subject to the gunas - sattwa, rajas and tamas, and that when the mind is influenced only by its own behaviour, it functions in a very erratic way, without clarity.

The role of discipline is to condition the mind so that it is connected with positivity and creativity. Normally we may wish to become positive and creative, but our mental conditioning does not allow it. There are too many distractions; there is a continual struggle with oneself. Disciplining ourselves means choosing to encourage and support our own inner peaceful nature, rather than the greedy acquired and acquisitive nature we habitually use in interactions.

Discipline can be defined as the ability to observe the mind and make it still. But to begin with, in order to become more sensitive so that we can perceive our mental behaviour and realize the nature of the mind, we have to follow disciplines that are imposed upon us from outside. Why? Because eventually these disciplines create a conducive environment in our personality.

Mouna is a regular discipline in ashram life. Mouna has a very simple meaning - silence - but at first it is very difficult to practise. As long as the mind is not practising mouna, as long as it is continuing to chatter, we will be forced to chatter amongst ourselves also. But when the mind becomes relaxed and quiet, then mouna becomes natural, spontaneous and easy, and we begin to observe the restless nature of the mind from our own peaceful centre. That is one example of how an external, imposed condition can help to improve the quality of our self-perception and understanding, so that we can manage the mind.

How we take to such a discipline, whether it will help us or hamper us, and how far we progress on such a path, is up to us. But the purpose of all discipline is to make us realize the nature, the attitudes and the behaviour of the mind. Being subject to the influences of the mind is the normal state of behaviour, but when we are able to direct the mind according to our wishes and choices, that is known as discipline, and it leads to the subtle disciplines of yoga.

Throughout our life we do as our mind demands, according to likes and dislikes, wisdom or ignorance, maturity or immaturity. But simply following the nature of the mind leads to distraction and dissipation. However, those who have been able to control and guide the mind say that discipline is important in order to reclaim inner peace and contentment and to express creativity and wisdom.

From this perspective, discipline simply represents management of the mind. In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, the first sutra is Atha yogah anushasanam, meaning "Now, the subtle disciplines of yoga." This sutra gives the direction in which yoga moves to provide the ability to observe and direct the mind with wisdom, knowledge and understanding. Ultimately, discipline is an expression of harmonized emotions and attitudes in a balanced personality.

In order to create this condition we have to start by regulating the lifestyle and mental behaviour. We need to understand what is appropriate or inappropriate for our development and growth and for the environment in which we live. Then we can improve the expressions of our personality, our interactions and behaviour.

How is discipline important for success in life?

If you want to succeed in life, you have to gear your personality to excel in your situation or environment. If you want to create good music on a stringed instrument, it is necessary to tune the strings first. If you want to get good sound from a drum, you have to tighten it. If you want to excel in life, you have to focus yourself to achieve your purpose. That effort is discipline.

Subtle discipline is not something which is imposed from outside. External imposition gives a routine, not discipline. Daily routine and discipline are two different things. Discipline expresses itself in the way you think - how you think, what you think, whether it is negative or positive, right or wrong, detrimental or constructive. It is expressed in what you say and how you say it. It is expressed in actions, in behaviour, in all the dimensions of life.

The aim of discipline is to lead you to sanyam, where discipline and self-restraint become balanced and spontaneous. Discipline and sanyam are the beginning and the fulfilment of the same principle. Sanyam starts with discipline, especially the effort to guide your moods and expressions so they are positive, creative and constructive.

A simple example is when you have to live and work with other people. Each person may have the same aim and focus, but still there is conflict, differences of interest and disagreements. What is the priority here? The vision we have in common or the personal relationships which can flare up and subside in a moment? Usually, the personal interaction takes priority and that momentary flare up can make us dislike or hate the other person, not for a short while but for a long time. It takes precedence over our shared aims and vision and continues to affect our behaviour.

If each one of us beats our own drum and blows our own trumpet without any thought for rhythm and harmony, what kind of ruckus will we create? But if we play in tune with each other, we will create a very beautiful and powerful symphony. The creation of this symphony is the aim of discipline - in thought, in attitude, in behaviour, in belief, in action, in participation, in being happy, optimistic and dynamic. These are the symphonies of life.

For example, if you break the rules while you are staying in the ashram, it makes no difference to the ashram environment, because no one person makes the ashram environment. However, the environment can make a difference to you. If you disregard the rules, it means you are not utilizing your time as training. It really shows, not a disregard for the rules, but a disregard for yourself, a lack of conviction and faith in yourself. It is caused because you lack the perception to realize the nature of the process. So who is the loser?

If this lack of self-perception remains, you will not be successful, no matter where you are or what you do, because you lack faith in your own mental strength. But you have that strength, so why lack the faith? The moment you start believing in yourself, you will see a great transformation come over your life. Believe in yourself, believe in what you do, believe in what you stand for if you want to be happy and successful in life.

However you may want to explain it, every expression of personality and behaviour, when disciplined, becomes more simple, constructive and beautiful. Disregarding the concept of sanyam or self-restraint represents weak willpower, an unclear mind and lack of inner strength. When you have sanyam, you are free, you experience joy, happiness and expansiveness, and other people are uplifted.

What are the differences between normal desires and spiritual desires?

Desires are desires. Both are born out of a need for fulfilment. If there is no need for satisfaction, then there will be no desire. Desires only indicate a need for satisfaction in a person's life. Whether our attention is towards material gain or spiritual gain is another matter, but desires provide a motivation for one's actions, one's karmas. Appropriate desire combined with action leads to fulfilment. The question is how to guide and direct the desires, and that is the real training.

In yoga, desires are not just blindly followed, but rather are used to uplift the personality. In normal life, people blindly seek to experience contentment by fulfilling every desire, no matter how insignificant it may be. As we progress in spiritual life, we learn to contain the aspect of our nature which craves fulfilment through whatever means possible.

The masters have said that one way to measure progress on the spiritual path is that the desires become less. Desires won't finish, but their grip on the personality which forces us to look for emotional, sensual and intellectual fulfilment will reduce. Involvement with desires gives birth to feelings of attraction and repulsion, to possessiveness and rejection. The push and pull of duality which arises as the result of desire is the factor that creates confusion and conflict in our priorities. So to become stable in spiritual life, it is not a question of transcending desire, but knowing how to channel the direction of the desire that is important because this leads to your growth. In fact it is not even necessary to be concerned with personal desires or aspirations. It is sufficient to have a goal, a focus, and keep on walking that path. Remain true to the goal.

It is like being on a journey from one city to another. On the road we may stop many times, for something to eat, because of accidents, to admire the scenery. We can stop as many times as we like, but the aim is still to reach the destination. Similarly, once you have set your aspirations and direction for life, then keep that aim in mind. Continue to walk towards the fulfilment of that goal, and at the same time manage all the desires as and when they manifest, by determining their usefulness for your own fulfilment and growth in life.

How we can remain calm and balanced in painful and adverse situations?

The only way to remain calm and tranquil in most adverse situations is through wisdom. Wisdom is applied knowledge, applied understanding. When you apply your knowledge, it manifests as wisdom. Through wisdom you can observe the areas of your mind, emotions and feelings which give you the experience of pain or pleasure. It takes a long time to develop this kind of wisdom, but ultimately, when you are able to understand a situation by applying your wisdom, you can overcome pain and suffering and maintain your equanimity, your tranquillity and your balance. This is one of the greatest sadhanas that a person can have in life.