text © Jonathan Zap
Keep a firm grasp on what keeps you alive and gives your life meaning. Don’t abandon yourself to anything. We’ve all had lapses of discipline, but it is crucial to learn from them so we don’t perpetuate mistakes. Here are some things I’ve learned from my own struggles with discipline.
The problem with letting yourself slide is that the likelihood is that you’ll keep sliding. If you start sliding off a mountain you gather downward momentum. In actual mountain climbing, you might have a window of a couple of seconds to self-arrest with your ice axe before a slide becomes irreversible. When driving a car, a moment of letting go of the wheel due to nodding off or inattention can easily be fatal for you and others. But there are many other areas of life where letting go of the wheel leads to slow-motion crashes or lesser destinies but not necessarily to any dramatic short-term consequence. It is these slow-motion slide zones that tempt us toward downward momentum because there is no crevasse waiting to swallow us up, no tractor trailer waiting to slam into us if our attention lapses for a moment. Fast-motion slide zones — sides of mountains, busy highways, tend to wake up our bodies and survival instincts and innate, animal intelligence will usually keep us vigilant enough to survive.
Slow-motion slide zones, however, often lure us with the sweet, siren call of tragic magic. They give us room to slide, room to get a bit of a rush from downward momentum before any impact. The new credit card I just received in the mail today, for example, wants to give me room to slide. This is not a metaphor, but a carefully engineered, slide-friendly, opportunity to fall into debt. I got it as an emergency back up, but it arrives with a glossy, red coupon with a tempting offer: “$100 in cash back for the first $500 you spend!” The first-year, introductory APR is 0%. That’s a one-year, slide zone that’s been made as comfortable as possible. The cliff, 365 days and nights away, is the 27% APR that kicks in after the cleverly greased slide-into-debt zone. It’s just like that friendly slide zone called a casino that will comp you drinks and a room to make it as comfortable as possible for your life savings to slide away from you.
Even more tempting for many of us, are the slide zones that live in our bodies, those inner metabolic casinos. Any substance that can slide across the blood brain barrier can make itself into a metabolic casino. White powders, including sugar, are metabolic slide zones. Ads for blood-brain-barrier-slider products, such as beer and energy drinks, typically show you buff athletes surfing giant waves, and beach parties abounding with bikini-and-speedo-clad hotties in states of sugar-rush euphoria. “Catch the Wave” as Coke used to say. Go for the rush of that introductory slide zone, obesity and type-2 diabetes come much later.
Consumer culture has brilliantly engineered slide zones available everywhere. We live in a 24/7 food carnival overflowing with ads, storefronts and free samples of the latest fat/sugar/salt combos concocted by industrial food science to give us “mouth feel” and to light up the pleasure centers of our brains. To slide or not to slide? is a question that we have to answer hundreds of times a day — Do I get a salad or a slice of that stuffed pizza oozing with melted cheese? Do I risk an unpredictable, live human interaction or go for some online pornography I can control from my track pad? Do I read an in-depth article or go for a rush of info-distraction and social media voyeurism? To slide or not to slide? moment-by-moment, day-after-day.
We can’t put all the blame on consumer culture, because slide zones are built into human incarnation and are as basic as the first law of thermodynamics. Entropy means that things slide toward disorder unless energy is exerted in another direction. For example, think about where you live — house, apartment, vehicle, or tent. If you’re homeless, then it could be your outfit of clothes and a backpack. (This example won’t work, however, if you have a personal staff. Sorry 1%) Your home base gives you hundreds of to-slide-or-not-to-slide opportunities a day. You’re about to crash — do you throw your clothes on the floor or put them in a laundry bag? If your room is already a mess, you’ll probably throw them on the floor. That’s an example of how downslides gather momentum. The more disordered your living space gets, the more heroic an effort it would take to put it right. The entropy hole just gets deeper and deeper. Downsliding in one area, makes it much more likely that I will downslide in others. If I just had several drinks, I’m not likely to tidy up the house a bit before I go to sleep. If I wake up in a messy house, I feel demoralized and I’m less likely to use my time efficiently.
Relationships are potential slide zones. Do I lash out at my friend who has annoyed me in some little way or hold back, be diplomatic and deal with issues thoughtfully? Do I respond to this email, or let it slide? A tendency toward carelessness in a relationship — not returning messages, not making certain efforts, neglect, leaving a dirty dish in a communal space, can all be instances of relational downsliding that can lead to friends becoming former acquaintances and so fort
While I’m typing this, I have to keep correcting my posture, because if I don’t, I tend to slump a bit. So posture is a slide zone if you don’t stay mindful of it.
Human incarnation is a slide-friendly zone. We don’t always like to confront this because there’s no easy, permanent answer. Many people prefer to hear about easy ways to slide upward — a magic diet pill, five hours of energy for just $1.99, how to get rich quick, three things to do to achieve total success, etc.
The price of freedom from falling into the myriad, daily opportunities to downslide is eternal vigilance. Unfortunately, most of us, including me, are not eternally vigilant. If downsliding weren’t a problem for you, you probably wouldn’t still be reading this. If downsliding isn’t a problem for you, it’s unlikely that you are having a human incarnation.
Some will use the inevitability of downsliding as an excuse to diss the whole possibility of a disciplined life. “Lighten up, live a little, c’mon down and chill out with us in margaritaville http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/jimmybuffett/margaritaville.html.” If you make efforts at self-discipline, it makes the citizens of margaritaville a bit nervous and uncomfortable. Unconscious envy may surface as a disparagement of the disciplined person as uptight, repressed and a party-pooper. But to be fair to the margaritaville perspective, discipline can pathologize into workaholism, becoming fitness crazed or turning into some sort of pleasure denier with an anxious, white-knuckled grip on life. Such people have over-corrected for downsliding and become fanatics in certain areas while allowing other areas to slide into neglect. Pathological discipline is essentially a form of over-caffeinated downsliding.
The opposite of downsliding is not hyper-discipline, but living a deeply fulfilling, meaningful and whole life. Hyper-discipline pathologizes when it involves making extreme efforts in some areas — career, productivity, fitness, finance — while neglecting one or more other crucial areas such as soulful relationship and creativity. Some people are both highly disciplined and wise enough not to neglect a major sphere of life, and these people can have active, engaged, adventurous lives that involve wholeness and deep fulfillment.
While I know a very few people who suffer from pathological discipline, I know many more who suffer from downsliding. I’ve watched friends of great promise slide into diminished lives and even suicide. Downsliding is governed by laws of momentum and that means that the more you downslide, the more you are likely to keep downsliding. You’re stressed and you let your diet slide. You put on weight and feel bad about it, and that loss of morale causes you to let other things slide. Downslides in multiple life spheres gather collective momentum until people hit bottom. Sometimes people who hit bottom work their way back up, but other times they flat line, and sometimes that’s all too literal.
Tips for Dealing with a Downslide-Friendly Incarnation
Work with Momentum
Fortunately, the principle of momentum works in other directions than downward. Work with momentum by summoning all your will to get positive momentum going in various life spheres and then maintain or intensify it gradually. For example, for the first few days of returning to exercise, I have to overcome this speed bump of lethargy, but after a while I start enjoying the endorphin high and now I want to do it and it gathers positive momentum. I’m psyched to see my house clean and looking good and that motivates me to keep picking up and finding ways to make it look even better. See: Working with Momentum
Beware the What-the-Hell Effect
You break your diet with one cookie so you might as well eat the whole bag. Sound familiar? Psychologists call it the “Abstinence Violation Effect” (AVE). From the sliding metaphor, we could call it the “I-slipped-so-I-might-as-well-keep-sliding effect.” Slipping is inevitable; the key thing is to catch yourself before a slip becomes a full-on downslide. As the Chinese say, “There is no harm in falling down, only in not picking yourself up again.” Another analogy that’s been suggested is taking a wrong exit off the highway. When would be the best time to turn around? Answer: As soon as possible. Avoid the trap of being either in hyper-discipline mode or downsliding mode. For example, if you are faced with the choice between pizza and a salad, it doesn’t have to be a choice between a salad and eating an entire pizza. You could choose to get pizza and a salad. You could get a large salad and a single slice of pizza which you cut up and put in the salad. Be clever, use positive trickster energy, and avoid the tendency toward all or nothing.
Willpower is a resource, recognize when it’s low.
We used to hear willpower disparaged as illusory. “I don’t believe in willpower!” became a diet book cliché. Actually, a body of research shows that willpower is a measurable resource with many neurological aspects. (Willpower — the Greatest Human Strength is a great synthesis of this research.) Willpower is a resource that tends to diminish during the course of the day as we use it up to hold back from certain things and to get ourselves to do other things. Typically, it is at its lowest ebb in the late evening and that’s when people are most likely to raid the refrigerator, drink too much, send regrettable emails, etc. Understanding how willpower waxes and wanes can help you to recognize and prepare for zones when sliding is most likely. For example, let’s say a couple both have frustrating 9-to-5 jobs. By the time they get home from work and have not yet had dinner, willpower is likely to be very low. They’ve used up lots of willpower to be polite to an irritating boss and in dealing with many other stresses. They haven’t eaten in a while, and low blood sugar has been shown to reduce willpower. This is a time when they could be very likely to get into an argument because the willpower necessary to holdback from expressing irritation is critically low. Insufficient sleep also dramatically lowers willpower.
Be aware of when you are choosing to slide or not to slide. Instead of just defaulting into downsliding actions, recognize whenever you come to a choice nexus. You go into the bank and find they have put out a plate of free cookies. That’s a choice nexus. If you don’t recognize it as such, then your hand may just reach for the cookie while your mind is preoccupied with something else. Choice awareness expands free will and keeps us from becoming mechanical creatures doing things on autopilot. There is a self-monitoring movement where people attempt to track and quantify various of their behaviors. Some few people may do this obsessively, but often self-tracking is very helpful. Research has shown that dieters who keep detailed, accurate food logs lose more weight.
Life Sphere Momentum Check
It’s a good idea to keep track, on a daily basis, of how we are doing in all major life spheres — social, health, creative, financial — to see which we are giving our time and energy to that day, and which, if any, we are allowing to slide. Try to catch any major life sphere starting to roll downhill and give it some love and attention.
Look for keystone disciplines, disciplines that help you to be disciplined generally. For many, exercise is a keystone discipline. Exercise raises mood, confidence, energy and creates a feeling of health that may make you less likely to want to indulge poor eating or abuse intoxicants. For some, creatively managing their time is what keeps everything else in balance. Positive momentum in one discipline can work synergistically with others. For example, if your kitchen is clean and refrigerator well stocked, you may be more likely to make yourself a healthy breakfast. If not, you may be more likely to grab a sugary latte and pastry from the nearest coffee shop.
Consider this a propitious time to be aware of the slide status of all major life spheres and take corrective action where needed.
My major essay/podcast on the Warrior stance: The Way of the Warrior