Discipline

Here's another excerpt from "The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible", this one from Chapter 21, Attention.

"Most of us have grown up in a society that trains us, from kindergarten or even earlier, to do things we don’t really want to do, and to refrain from things we do want to. This is called discipline, the work ethic, self-control. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution at least, it has been seen as a cardinal virtue. After all, most of the tasks of industry were not anything a sane human being would willingly do. To this day, most of the tasks that keep society as we know it running are the same. Lured by future rewards, chastened by punishment, we face the grim necessity of work. This would all be defensible, perhaps, if this work were truly necessary, if it were contributing to the well-being of people and planet. But at least 90 percent of it is not. Part of our revolution is the reunion of work and play, work and art, work and leisure, of have to and want to.

Our discomfort with a teaching like “You don’t have to do anything” comes in part from our thorough indoctrination into the work ethic, which holds that without the discipline of doing, nothing gets done. If there were no grades hanging over their heads, no paycheck at the end of the week, and no internalized habit of work such devices have created, then most people wouldn’t keep doing what they do. Only those who work for the love of it would continue. Only those whose work gave them a palpable sense of service, of contribution, or of meaning. In preparation for such a world, and to prepare such a world, let us cultivate the corresponding habit: in whatever way makes sense, let us practice trusting the impulse to work, and when it is not present, let us hold each other through the panic, uncertainty, and guilt that may arise.

You may have recognized the discomfort underneath “You don’t have to do anything” as akin to the cynicism that challenges our belief that a more beautiful world is possible, or our belief that even the warlords and corporate CEOs have a desire to serve that world, or that our personal choices have planetary significance. All come from the same wound of Separation. You can’t be trusted. I can’t be trusted. They can’t be trusted. What I know in my heart can’t be trusted. There is no purpose, no unfolding wholeness, no intelligence in the universe outside ourselves. We are alone in an alien universe.

I will leave this topic with a paradox. You don’t have to do anything—why? Not because nothing needs to be done. It is that you don’t have to do, because you will do. The unstoppable compulsion to act, in bigger and wiser ways than you knew possible, has already been set in motion. I am urging you to trust in that. You needn’t contrive to motivate yourself, guilt yourself, or goad yourself into action. Actions taken from that place will be less powerful than the ones that arise unbidden. Trust yourself that you will know what to do, and that you will know when to do it.

Because our habits of self-forcing are so deep-seated and often quite subtle, it might help to have a way to distinguish where your actions are coming from. Sometimes it is not clear to me if I have done something out of a direct, uncontrived desire to serve, or if the real motive was to show myself or others that I am good, to confirm my membership in an in-group, to avoid self-censure or the censure of others, or to fulfill my duty as an ethical person. I find, though, that there is a lot more pleasure in the former. Because the desire to give is a primal expression of the life-force, actions taken in the gift bring a feeling of being fully alive. That’s the feeling to look for.

In case you think that this advice belongs in a self-help book only, let me share with you a story from my friend Filipa Pimentel, a leader in the Transition Town movement, who has applied this principle in an activist setting. She was involved in a Transition initiative in one of the most depressed regions of Portugal, itself mired in an economic depression with 25 percent unemployment. The group was suffering a lot of pressure, feeling burned out, thinking nothing they were doing was nearly enough, wanting to retreat inward in the face of the overwhelming enormity of the crisis and the need.

One day, she said, they had to admit that the group was collapsing. The main flame holders had a long discussion and after many hours came to the following consensus:

They would look after each other, caring and protecting, and if one is not doing well, the others would surround this person;

Their initiatives have to come from a pure intention, generosity;

They would continuously look into their personal development, supported by the group; and most importantly,

That everything they do must come from pleasure, real desire, and their epiphanies. They decided not to engage in sacrifice, nor to prioritize action based on what someone says is most urgent.

This last principle was a response to a situation in which one of the core team was organizing an activity relating to swaps. Maybe it was just a drop in the bucket given the town’s huge unmet needs, but she was having fun and really stretching her comfort zone. Then some people in the network began criticizing the project. It was inefficient. It should be a secondhand market, not just trading, because the impact would be much bigger that way. Soon she was questioning, “Is this really going to make a difference?” and became discouraged and paralyzed. In their meeting, they realized, as Filipa puts it, “This town needs a world of things to happen, a gift exchange, a secondhand market, a farmers’ market—all these things need to exist. We can’t do it all. But just because we can’t do everything, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something.” So they choose now by what connects them, and what gives them pleasure. She says, “This is the first criterion when we are looking to an enormous list of things that can be done, most probably most necessary. When somebody is showing signs of distress and tiredness in organizing a specific activity we always ask—do you feel connected with what you are doing? Does it make you happy or do you feel that you need to sacrifice for it? If this feels like ‘work,’ stop it!”

Doing only what makes them feel good, only what makes them feel connecting, only what doesn’t feel like work … does that mean they get less done than when they were driven by urgency and seeking to be more efficient? No. They get more done. Filipa says, “The group is much more cohesive; there is freedom in expressing our feelings without being on the spot or feeling that we are responsible for all the negative stuff. I feel that, in a way, with the people near me and myself, it is much easier to give ourselves to what we do without fear, with true joy and with a feeling of belonging. Somehow, I feel that the others around the group sense that and a lot of ‘situations’ are unblocked—if the group does not flow, things tend to get stuck at one point. Since then, we do much more, in a much more positive way.”

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