A.K. Reader: When Is Discipline Only Denial?

As I continue my ongoing project of unearthing and sharing old essays, both published and unpublished, I came across this piece which, I must admit, astonishes me, even now, thirty years later. One whole cycle of Saturn later! And what is its subject? Discipline and Denial — both Saturnine words! As usual, such miraculous synchronicities show up, splay themselves all over the place, laughing like crazy. As my mother used to say, when I got “too big for my britches”: “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?”

Yes, who DO I think I am. For I’m certainly no longer that 43-year-old, whose conscious capacity for subtle distinctions was building into my character certain daily routines now so integrated  that I no longer notice them.

Which makes me realize, once again, that unless we DO build this capacity into our characters, we will sooner or later become deadened to our aliveness.

Here is the sketch that I was thinking about incorporating into the piece somehow, were I to publish it.

Again, this sketch is 30 years old. In speaking about the present moment:

“Here the road splits in two, and the divergence between the two roads will increase as they proceed further and further out from their common source. This is the point of creativity, where, depending upon which choice I make, will tend to become either 1) more or less depressed, deadened to my life or 2) more and more disciplined, the passion within me channeling into full productive expression.”


“We in this new culture like to think it is radically new, a total transformation of the old. And yet, as usual, what seems new is often only surface dazzle, signaled by catchwords, consumer products, fads which blink in and out with dizzying rapidity. The old culture has an amazing ability to co-opt evolutionary advances almost instantly, streamlining for mass consumption. For everyone who truly changes form there are a hundred others who merely change clothes.

“Whatever cultural transformation we have initiated has only barely begun. And in order to continue to deepen our experience of this evolving situation it is necessary to continually question ourselves, especially noticing those situations where we think we have changed, but have not, not really.

Note: I realize that this piece is longer than usual. Mea culpa! But it kinda does need to stretch out, given that I share what I’m learning from messy details of my own long drawn-out experiences.




by Ann Kreilkamp

Unpublished essay, 1987



The “new age” is now so well established that anyone who undergoes the famous “paradigm shift” has a new cultural reference system with which to immediately identify. Gone are the days when each person underwent that awesome changeover alone, stranger in a strange land. Now converts enter a world which thousands, perhaps millions of others have been constructing for more than two decades.

We in this new culture like to think it is radically new, a total transformation of the old. And yet, as usual, what seems new is often only surface dazzle, signaled by catchwords, consumer products, fads which blink in and out with dizzying rapidity. The old culture has an amazing ability to co-opt evolutionary advances almost instantly, streamlining for mass consumption. For everyone who truly changes form there are a hundred others who merely change clothes.

Whatever cultural transformation we have initiated has only barely begun. And in order to continue to deepen our experience of this evolving situation it is necessary to continually question ourselves, especially noticing those situations where we think we have changed, but have not, not really.

I think of my work as a peace activist a few years ago, and in the middle of that, the sudden, terrible recognition: of my dogmatism, my righteousness, an insufferable need to convince people that I was right. I was, in fact, a violent peace activist, one particularly obnoxious example of what I was so determined to change.

In the following essay I present another example, from my own experience, of something which I think is all too common within the new age, our tendency to confuse true discipline with denial. In this confusion, we find ourselves still captured by the old world view which, we know all too well, has not only outlived its usefulness, it has become positively toxic to all living things.


I am introduced to yoga

It is the summer of my 29th year. I am a nervous, driven, high strung woman, smoking two packs a day. My emotional and behavioral patterns are strong, deeply rooted, and, unbeknownst to me, about to be plowed under.

Saturn’s long turning is arcing towards closure for the very first time. I am to complete one cycle and begin again, at a new level of the spiral, sowing different habits over time. Slowly, subtly, inexorably, these habits will bend me on a trajectory of increasing emotional and physical health.

As usual — though I don’t know it yet — my unconscious mind works its magic, attracts to me exactly what I need at this time. A yogi walks into my life. I am to share a beach house with him and several others for the summer. This man offers to teach me his discipline. Reluctant, but curious, I accept the challenge.

At first it is difficult, this “yoga,” utterly alien to my way of life.

I am an idea person. Ideas move swiftly: they fly, like birds, or arrows. Ideas swirl around, flashing streaks of light, evanescent, blinking on an off, in and out, mere thinking makes it so.

Yoga has nothing to do with ideas. Instead of expanding outwards, captivated by my own mental projections, I must turn around, face what’s inside. To practice yoga is to focus on the inner reaches of my own physical substance. Not a comfortable place to be.

This body feels heavy, dense, inert, like sludge. Its habits are fixed and immutable. They give me stability, continuity through time. They make me feel safe. I like my habits.

I hate my habits. I hate the fact that I cannot control my smoking. I hate my body. It feels so alien to me, the real me, the thinking me it zooms out, fast — like lightning! — to play with itself, spinning out airy tentacles in all directions, ideas spawning each other in prolific protean display.

And then eventually — so frustrating — the mind suddenly turns, zooms back in, to its anchor, its albatross, that damned body of mine, it doesn’t like to go anywhere, doesn’t want anything other than what it already is.

I zoom out. Aaaah . . . so exciting, so free! Swirling into infinity . . . sudden fear, terror . . . zoom back in. Whew. I made it. I’m still here. Quick, anchor myself. Light another cigarette, take another puff. Round and round. Just one more cigarette, one more puff. I hate myself. I want to be free. Free of this habit, this terrible constriction.

But at least I have my cigarettes! Without them I feel so afraid . . . so lost . . . My cigarettes measure my day, keep time like a metronome, guarantee my existence from moment to moment within an otherwise featureless infinity . . .

To begin to practice yoga is to begin to change my routines. Is to threaten an internal bodily security constructed so carefully over time. A security based on what is familiar, habitual. For no matter how pernicious, how destructive my habits, at least I know them, they are mine.

But something in me wants to change — despite the body’s resistance. Something powerful in me which I do not yet understand. Without consciously deciding to, I call upon the discipline I learned so thoroughly as a child. I generate the enormous resolve necessary to continue this new practice.

Instead of rolling a joint at around 4 p.m., for years my way of relaxing at the end of a day, I change into loose clothing and submit to instruction in the rigors of yoga, exactly matching the breathing to certain bodily postures.

When my mentor does the poses, they look supple, graceful, loose. As he moves, he changes, seems to become another person entirely, someone both utterly concentrated and yet completely at ease. I watch his face as it clarifies, becomes still, serene. He seems to go somewhere deep inside, and while down there generates an atmosphere so powerful that it alters my reality, calming me, enveloping me in an awesome, spacious silence.

My turn. Back to reality.

I try to remember when to breathe in, when to breathe out, how to time the breath to the complicated motions of the “Salute to the Sun.” No good. I lose my balance. I forget what comes next. I try too hard. I simply don’t have the strength, or the flexibility, to arch my back that way, or that far.

“Slow down!” he urges me quietly, placing a hand gently on my knee, or the small of my back. “Don’t reach too far, just stay with what is comfortable at any one time. There need be no pain.” The man is patient, subtle. And I am to learn to perceive and move the way he does, with full appreciation of subtle, at time almost imperceptible distinctions in attitudes of both body and mind.

We agree to practice each afternoon. Which means each afternoon I have to make another conscious decision, dedicate myself once again to this change in daily routine. Everything in me wants to forget yoga and roll that joint instead. Gritting my teeth, I change clothes and march on out to the porch.

After a few days it becomes easier. There is not quite so much resistance. The body begins to sense a pattern in the new — another habit, another safe place. The temptation to return to what I had known before is dissipating. My stiff body is beginning to flex and stretch, its former rigidity loosening, becoming more elastic.

After a few weeks I notice that my nervous system seems to be changing, balancing itself. The interface between inside and outside, between me and the world, feels less jarring, more flowing. I am not as much on edge, as nervous.

As the months go on, I notice that I’m not smoking nearly as many cigarettes as before. Not because I am trying to stop, but because my hand does not automatically reach for them as often. I have cut down from two packs a day to one without even trying! Ruefully, I begin to recognize my smoking as a negative “pranayama” (yogic breathing exercise), its deep inhalations a misguided attempt to balance a nervous system chronically stressed by years of hypervigilant perfectionism.

My body begins to feel lighter, more spacious, toned, a proper channel for the energy coursing through it. Sometimes now, when I put on my shoe, I do so while standing one-legged, like a stork, internally balanced. All parts of me feel like one thing, the energy moving from one part to another in continuous flowing motion.

This change radiates into every aspect of my daily life. Because the energy flows, because the physical channel for that energy is clearing, I no longer have to make those hundreds of tiny, seemingly insignificant, and mostly unconscious, yet energy consuming decisions — to get up, to sit down, to bend over, to reach for . . .

I begin to notice other people, those who “have energy,” those who don’t. I wonder what it would be like to be an enormously fat and sluggish person. I imagine how all his or her time and energy would be taken up first, in just deciding to, then in “getting up the energy” — to go up and down stairs, to get in and out of chairs . . . I begin to realize how “dead” most people really are, how numb.

I have settled into a routine, allowing thirty minutes a day for this exercise, sandwiching it in when I need its energy lift the most, right before dinnertime.

It feels good, this practice. My body feels better — and my conscience feels better too. I have actually managed to change a long-standing physical habit, creating a new and life-affirming space for myself for thirty minutes each day.


At the crossroads

Suddenly, unaccountably, after six months my body revolts. Or is it my will? All I know is I don’t want to practice yoga anymore.

I force myself to do it anyway, though I hate every single minute of it. Can’t wait to get it over with. My practice speeds up, becomes sloppy, loses tone. It’s doing me no good. I might as well quit.

I decide to quit for awhile. And then suffer pangs of guilt for making that decision.

“Finish what you start!” the old adage, repeated by parents and teachers from as long as I can remember, hammers my brain.

I have reached a crucial point in the history of my practice of yoga. This point will later be remembered as a crucial fork in the road I am on. It is a fork everyone reaches, sooner or later, after they have already overcome the initial inertia to establish a new habit, but that habit is still somewhat tentative, fragile. The consequences of this decision are both subtle in their origins and far reaching in their implications.

Here, inside the present moment, the road splits in two, and the divergence between the two roads will increase as they proceed further and further out from their common source. This is the point of creativity, where, depending upon which choice I make, will tend to become either 1) more or less depressed, deadened to my life or 2) more and more disciplined, the passion within me channeling into full productive expression.

The first choice, depression, is the consequence of what most people still call “discipline.” And the second choice, true discipline, is something most people in our culture have never even heard of.


Each point contains a choice

Let us remember, each and every moment of our lives is always the crucial one. The point of power is precisely in the present. At each point the choice is simple. We can proceed with fear or with love.

If I am fearful, then I contract, repress myself. If I am loving, then I expand, enter fully into my experience of the present moment.

The simplicity of this continually reoccurring choice is obvious at a theoretical level. It is also obvious in practice to someone who has been operating in a more or less expanded way for some time. For those who have been locked in fear, however — and that is most of us, until we “wake up,” and over and over again, we must wake up, must remember ourselves, who we are, souls, portions of divinity — the choice is not only not obvious, it is damnably difficult to both understand and act upon.

For here’s the rub. Unless one is already comfortable inside one’s body, attuned to subtle differences in both feeling tones and points of tension — unless one is truly thus “embodied,” so that one can instantly detect the tightening of fear, the expansion of love, the choice I am talking about does not even appear to be there.

Remember, at the point of origin the two roads are not yet divided. Once they do divide, for a while they are still quite close together, the difference between them subtle. Only over a more or less long period of time do the extraordinary differences between them become obvious.

Now let’s go back to my blockage, after six months, in the practice of yoga.


The usual choices

The choice appears to be obvious: either I can recommit myself to the daily practice of yoga or I can decide not to.

At this point in my life, I am still a creature conditioned by my culture, operating automatically within its assumptions, including those governing the meaning of the word “discipline.” Given those assumptions, I assume that, in order to return to yoga, I must use my “will power” to overcome the resistance. And if I do this, my conscious self will feel righteous, congratulating itself by showing such determination despite the body’s contrary pull.

To return to yoga, despite the body’s resistance — indeed, especially because of this resistance — is, I assume, to “build discipline,” a quality that everyone around me agrees is good.

This is one view of discipline, the one most of us learned as children. This understanding of discipline is embedded as one small thread in the seamless weave of the culture into which we were born, and which has been with us for at least two thousand years.

This view of discipline, where the body is denied in order to do something the mind deems worthy, has split us from the flow of our own body’s life. At this point in history, the ramifications of this split are both manifold and ubiquitous.

What we call “discipline” is, in truth, a form of denial. We deny the natural flow of our own energy; we damn it up. This is not love, this is fear. The more we deny it, the stronger it gets, the more energy it takes to continue the denial. Our energy, which would naturally be used to express ourselves creatively in the world, splits in two, part of it damming up, the remainder used against itself.

Eventually, as more and more of our energy is used internally, to keep ourselves from expressing ourselves naturally, we become depressed. We go around the world as if we are deadened to its effects on us; and in truth, we are. We are so unconsciously preoccupied with controlling our own internal functioning that we have shut down to the natural beauty and wonder of it all. The world outside begins to actually look bleak, flat, black and white — the same way we feel inside.

To return to yoga, then, while still feeling bodily resistance to it, is not a good idea. Well then, one might think, just decide not to do it! Forget yoga! But look at what happens when I make this choice.

Most likely, I would do this with guilty conscience intact, but denied. I would say to myself “I’m just too busy,” and this justification would mask the deeper feeling: “I should do this, but I am too weak, just don’t have enough will power.”

In this case, by choosing not to do yoga, I get caught in the same bias as in choosing to do it. Either way, I feel split off from my body. I identify with only a part of myself, my mind, which then either succeeds in controlling the recalcitrant body, or capitulates to its resistance. Either I feel strong (“have enough will power”) or I feel weak.

Thus, in the usual approach to discipline, both the choice to continue and the choice not to continue are essentially unhealthy in their effects. The first leads to a feeling of righteousness and power, the second to a feeling of weakness and guilt.

On the other hand, this same choice can be based on an entirely different attitude, or set of assumptions — about life, about the meaning of true discipline.


The same choices under different assumptions

In this other way of going about deciding, I do not identify myself as my mind (my will), having to somehow manage or control a recalcitrant body. Rather, I assume the mind and body are one integrated system, whether or not they experience it as such all the time. Indeed, it is such practices as yoga which lead us eventually, to the realization of that unity. (The very word, “yoga,” means union.)

Here, where I encounter a blockage inside myself towards a practice which had been flowing smoothly, I stop to ponder the meaning of its occurrence. Have I been moving ahead of myself here, getting out of balance in some way, so that this desire to stop is a symptom of my need to pay attention to what is happening? Am I feeling so distracted by all the stresses in my life right now that I cannot give yoga the attention it deserves? Do I really want to practice yoga, or have I finished what was essentially an experiment. (After all, my entire life is an experiment!)

As I ponder these questions, I also pay attention to the exact feelings that are coming up within my body. Do I feel like a little kid who is being asked to practice the piano every day when she would rather be outside playing?

This question rings a bell. I do feel this way! Just like when I was a little girl, practicing every day for eight long years! And I did so, having absorbed our usual cultural ideas about discipline. Forcing myself to sit down at the piano, I was subdoing a young vigorous body, sacrificing the natural physical growth of that period of life to the unnatural growth of “will power.”

As a result, my playing, though it became technically accomplished, was utterly mechanical, devoid of life. Indeed, not until I was in my late 30s did I begin to feel whole enough within myself to want to play again — this time with an entirely different attitude. Having opened to the full range of bodily feelings, I could now begin to express them expansively through the technical training I had received as a child.

Sometimes, as above, I can answer my initial questions, and this changes my entire relationship to the blockage, starts the energy moving. And sometimes I just have to sit for awhile with my questions.

Meanwhile, as I continue to pay attention to my body’s actual feelings, I notice the icky, yucky feeling of “guilt” that pervades the decision to stop. I remember back to other times — how many times! — in my life when I also felt guilty. I notice how guilt makes me feel — bad, worthless, almost paralyzed. It clouds my perception and my judgment to the point of inertia, where I am caught on a treadmill, running in place, getting nowhere. Guilt, when I get right down to it, is just an excuse to keep on doing the same damn thing.

Here is the atmosphere of death-in-life to which so much of the human race is still in thrall. We use guilt to mask our real feelings, because we think if we allow ourselves to really feel them, it would be so painful we would die.

What a paradox! We are so afraid of death that in order to avoid it, we deaden ourselves to life. Entranced by our collective dream of guilt, we stumble about like sleepwalkers, numbed to our actual experience. So wake up!

Each time we accept and embrace one small “death,” we wake up. We open ourselves, to enlarge the passage through which the life force flows.

Applying all this to my body’s sudden reluctance to continue doing yoga, I notice how tempted I am to split myself off from that reluctant feeling and force myself to do it anyway. And here’s the crucial point, the actual crossroads: because I notice the temptation on a mental level, because I notice both the reluctance and the beginning of the sensation of splitting on the physical level — because I notice both mind and body with my body/mind, I am no longer in either the temptation or the split in the same manner.

Something has changed. Something is moving, healing. I am becoming whole. Through my acceptance of what is actually happening, what is happening changes. I move with the changes. I process my actual experience of this blockage in my practice of yoga.

In my acknowledgement of the actual experience of both mind and body, I am weaving a conscious unity between them. And now, paradoxically, as I begin to feel that unity, I again feel the stirrings of the need to practice yoga, stirrings which originate, not in the “will power” (the mind); not forced, but naturally, as an instinctive bodily need.

I have moved through the blockage, rather than pretending to ignore it. Rather than contracting fearfully, denying my feelings, numbing myself to anything but preset expectations of what I should do, I have expanded, to lovingly include my bodily feelings, include and process them to the point where, of their own accord — what a miracle! — they change.


True discipline

This process of moving through the blockage to yoga took another six months. And when it was over, and I had begun to practice again, I began to feel the first stirrings of the long-range trajectory I was on via this practice. Because of the personal rewards I had already experienced, I knew yoga was “good for me.” And because of both the experience of blockage and the way I had worked with it, I knew also that any further blockages could be processed in the same way. That even if I would go for years, at times, not doing yoga, it was okay, I need not feel guilty. That this would be simply the point in my process which I was currently moving through.

Seventeen years have gone by since that time. I usually practice yoga five or six times a week, and those days in which I do not I hardly notice. Nor do I pay much attention to those days in which I do. Yoga has become a part of my life so thoroughly entrenched that when I do not do it for a few days I notice the first hints of a slackness in my body/mind and so instinctively move into it once again.

People say I’m “disciplined.” I agree. But what I mean by it and what they mean are usually two different things.

I am the point of origin between two roads which are continually proceeding out divergently from my center. Each moment of my life the choice is a simple one. I choose fear or I choose love. To fear is to contract, to deny what is really going on, and leads, over time to depression, and death-in life. To love is to expand, to include what is really going on, and leads, over time, to dedication, and ultimately devotion.

The discernment between the two choices, though simple, is difficult in the beginning. And we are always beginning.

Paradoxically, we beginners are always, simultaneously, more or less experienced. With experience comes fine tuning, and ultimately, the immediate, even instinctive, constant choosing of love over fear.

The usual cultural version of “discipline” is fearful at its core and creates the very split which yoga and other true disciplines are designed to overcome. To be truly disciplined, is to continually choose to expand — first, to include our own internal feelings, and ultimately, our entire world. The more deeply we sense our own feelings, the larger does our world become. As we center ourselves there, deep down inside, we balance at the still center point of our universe, and become increasingly aware of its endless radiation out from that inner core.

True discipline leads to the awareness of unity with all that is. This awareness itself, automatically creates and attitude of dedication, and ultimately, that utterly selfless devotion required during this sacred and momentous time of planetary healing.



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