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June, 2002

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by Leonard J. Pellman

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What is discipline? We speak of it often in martial arts classes. It is mentioned in our Dojo Kun ("One: Always behave with respect and discipline."). We generally agree that discipline is a good thing to have. Yet, discipline seems extremely difficult to both define and develop. In fact, in our opinion, discipline is the single most widely misunderstood concept in the martial arts -- and perhaps in life in general.

Parents often bring their unruly children into the dojo and say, in a stern voice, "I want you to teach my son/daughter discipline!" But, what they usually mean is really, "I want you to teach my child to behave better." Or, perhaps even more accurately, "I want you to teach my child to obey me."

Without question, obedience and good behavior are parts of discipline, but they are really only the outward appearance of true discipline. In simple terms, true discipline has three basic elements:

  1. doing what you're supposed to do
  2. when you're supposed to do it,
  3. without anyone reminding you.

Most people call this type of discipline "self-discipline." However, as we'll see shortly, the only true discipline is self-discipline! If someone else has to instruct you or remind you to do something, you don't have discipline; you just have good supervision!

Another misnomer associated with discipline is summed up in the phrase heard all too often: "Someone needs to discipline that child!" More often than not, what they really mean is, "Someone needs to punish that child," or "Someone needs to make that child behave." Being punished for doing something wrong is not discipline. Neither is being allowed to suffer the adverse consequences of improper behavior. Nor is being forced into submission a form of discipline. Any of these can be used -- if used judiciously -- to help someone learn discipline, but they are not discipline themselves.

If you think about it, discipline is almost synonymous with maturity. It is taking responsibility for your own actions, and acting responsibly. It is reaching a point in life where no one else has to watch over you to make sure you do what you are supposed to do. It entails knowing and accepting your responsibilities and placing more importance on your responsibilities than on the things you enjoy or desire more. It also means having the strength and courage to recognize when you have behaved improperly, make up for your mistakes, and deciding on your own to improve in the future.

And, in its fullest form, it is considering the consequences of our actions (or inaction) ahead of time, then doing only those things that are beneficial while abstaining from those that are detrimental . . . to either ourselves or others.

No wonder people confuse discipline with punishment: true disicipline a rigorous and difficult regimen of self-sacrifice -- and it's seldom fun! Instead, it is a mature, proactive approach to life that manifests itself in such attributes as diligence in work habits, planning ahead for our needs, setting wise priorities, establishing habit patterns to enhance our health, taking initiative in maintaining good relationships with others, taking proper care of the possessions that serve us, and setting aside time for spiritual development.

In our Dojo Kun, the Japanese word that we translate as "discipline" is setsudo. Like most Japanese words (see " Symbolism"), it has a multitude of subtle meanings, but one of the most accurate translations to encompass most of them is "to preserve [high] standards." When we establish a set of standards to live up to, then diligently pursue a lifestyle that preserves those standards in our daily actions, we are indeed living a life of discipline.

In today's society, it is painfully obvious that few are following a course of discipline in their lives. One of the hallmarks of martial artists -- one of the key factors that sets them apart from, and allows them to accomplish deeds beyond the abilities of, the average person -- is discipline. Time and again, we witness the tragic results of undisciplined talent . . . talent gone to waste, because of a lack of discipline in its use. Probably nowhere is this more evident than in professional sports, where failures are so heavily publicized.

A person of only average talent, but a high degree of discipline, will always accomplish more in a lifetime than a person of exceptional in-born talent who lacks discipline. This is certainly the case in martial arts, where most of the famous masters have been individuals of only normal physical talent who have developed exceptional personal discipline. If you have dreams and aspirations for making a difference with your life, then the single most important attribute you can develop is a lifestyle of discipline. An outstanding book on the subject of disciplining good habits into one's life is Steven Covey's book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He has also written a companion book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens, that presents these same principles in ways younger people can more readily put to use in daily life.

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2003   Leonard J. Pellman

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