Thursday, June 18, 2015

Discernment and Structure

Student at my Washington Island writing retreat last week.
Discipline is a word I try to avoid using in my teaching.
It is a word that one of my teachers, Natalie Goldberg, does not use.
Most of the time we associate the word discipline with punishment.
Very few people respond to the word discipline with the gentleness I believe we need to continue practicing.

Usually I use the word structure to replace it - meaning, the positive parts of discipline (knowing where/when/how you will do your practice(s)) without the negative (punishment, cruelty, self-denigration). 


However, recently another favorite author/coach/teacher Jeffrey Davis of Tracking Wonder* posted on Facebook about the word discernment. Discernment, I thought, is even better than structure, though a more abstract-seeming word. Discernment is used a lot in meditation, particularly in the Vipassana/Insight schools, to indicate when we have learned enough about ourselves and the world through stabilizing our practice to make good choices. In other words, there's more agency in discernment than in the word structure, even if we use structure as a verb, and not just as a noun. 

I also like swapping out words with words that start with the same letter. Instead of discipline, discernment. You are the agent, not the recipient. Discernment is a softer word, a bit longer and kinder. If you've done a lot of dharma reading, it's associated with being precise but kind. If you haven't, and the word is uncommon, that has its benefits, too. Discipline is a way-too-familiar word, one that has lost a lot of meaning (comes from disciple, which means to be a student). I am not in the school of getting back to original word meanings and trying to re-gain them. I'd rather find another word that works now. For me, discernment, when paired with structure as a verb, suits really well.

And a side, but related note: more and more it is clear to me, especially after teaching a seven-day contemplative writing retreat, that what Ann Patchett says about forgiving ourselves continuously in the creative process, jumping across the gap of what we imagine we will make versus what we produce, is crucial. I cannot suggest contemplating her words on this enough. It is key to not just getting going, but keeping going. Keeping going is where the hard work is at. Anyone can start a large creative project. Very few can keep it going and many fewer can finish it. This isn't because we are inherently faulty, or not brave. It's just scary as hell. The harder and deeper we work, the more choice and kindness we need.

*Jeffrey has developed a wonderful 7-step process to actively practice discernment, choice and structuring. I am not affiliated.  I just really love this tool. Check it out - its affordable and useful.

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