Buddhism’s definition of discipline is that we consciously bind ourselves to a code of conduct. Not because we absolutely believe in right or wrong, or in some objectively determined good and bad. Such black and white distinctions don’t ultimately hold up on the level of universal interdependence of all concepts.
We develop a personal code of conduct because we start to see—for ourselves—that some activities lead us to feeling fulfilled, productive, creative, and whole while others make us feel cut-off, isolated, fidgety, addicted, and generally worthless—to ourselves and the people around us. Practicing discipline means that, for our own benefit, we create a code of conduct, a means of staying connected to our own ripening wisdom about what to do and what to avoid.
In Buddhism, discipline is formally encapsulated in taking vows. With a vow, we make a spoken commitment to work with our destructive habits. Taking a vow is not offering our personal guarantee of perfection. It is much more practical than that. When we take a vow, we know, from the beginning, that we will break it—and probably pretty often. The formal Buddhist vows are designed that way. We can stray a long way from the home base of our commitment, but at a certain point the recollection of the promise you made snaps back, bungee-like, and you’re brought back to the path with elastic force. The vows function as reminders to deal with our anger, our laziness, our selfishness, and all our damaging habits.
The discipline that leads to an intelligent and non-oppressive code of conduct comes from beginning to witness the functioning of habit. We develop firsthand awareness of all the things we do that take us away from meaningful living. At the time of the historical Buddha, his community took vows not to consume intoxicating substances, for instance, but not because there was something inherently evil about beer. Rather, he and his monks agreed that being too hungover to meditate would be a bad thing. Meditation was their most meaningful way to spend time. If they hadn’t personally understood the painful consequences of drinking alcohol (a hangover), the monks probably would’ve rebelled against the Buddha’s code.
For those of us who are twenty-nine or thirty or even forty and still addicted to PlayStation or Xbox, Buddhism is not telling us to give up the video game because video games are inherently mindless. There are stories of ancient practitioners becoming enlightened just by sweeping the floor again and again; with the right intention and viewpoint, a person could probably even become enlightened by playing Vice City. It’s unlikely, though.
What Buddhism might say about these games is more like this: “If you have found, honestly in your own experience, that you’re addicted to your controller and glued to the screen for six hours a day, and it turns you into a drooling zombie with zero friends, no job, and no relationship, and you feel like you’re wasting your life pretending to be a virtual Jedi made out of digitized bytes and pixels, and all your real-life clothes are stained with pizza sauce, and you don’t have any voice messages from people you care about, and you haven’t been out of your house yet this week except to buy Ramen noodles and toilet paper, and all of these facts actually bother you, instead of just hitting that reset button again, you might want to develop the discipline to do something more fulfilling with your time.” (If video games are not your thing, insert personal poison above.)
If our habits don’t bother us, then there really isn’t any point in practicing discipline, no reason to even contemplate crafting a code of self-conduct. Discipline is about limiting the harm done to our own mind and making choices that create a supportive environment for our development. Then we can also create supportive environments for the people around us.
We all need time to relax. Sometimes your brain just gets fried like a sweet plantain. We all have our escapes. We all have those little things (or big things) we do to escape the blunt and sometimes harsh toil of this present moment: coffee, cigarettes, marijuana (which we called “Buddha” as kids in New York), MySpacing, websurfing, popcorn-eating, DVD-renting, reality TV–watching, nosepicking—on and on and on.
We’re a society of entertainment junkies, hooked from birth, individually and collectively, fed the sugar-high dazzle of entertainment through an intravenous cable tube. And the cruelest joke of any bad habit is that when you’re hooked, you don’t really even enjoy the fix anymore.
Any escape can rapidly morph into a vicious addiction. We might not even notice we’re addicted until the fix is taken away from us. As an experiment, if you normally surf the Internet and check your email multiple times every day, try not going online at all for just three days. Call it an Internet Cleanse. Commit to it and see how you feel during and after the experiment.
When we’re addicted to anything, whatever it is, we wrap our minds up in a thick haze, unable to ever find real rest in the present moment. The strength of the addiction and the density of the haze seem to be directly related. Within a mind that needs to constantly escape, the prospect of boredom is the worst nightmare. Boredom is the most obvious symptom of withdrawal from the fix of entertainment. This withdrawal symptom is why meditation is often so difficult. And so powerful.
When we get bored meditating, we can’t really blame it on anyone else, because we’re sitting there alone with our own mind. We’re actually addicted to the fundamental escape of never wanting to he alone with ourselves. This is a tough fact to face, but you confront it repeatedly in meditation practice. Meditation might be the only period of time in a day when you are both awake and completely unplugged. The only home entertainment center left is the mind itself.
When we practice, we catch on pretty quick that our usual m.o. is always needing an entertainment fix and needing it right now: another drink, another puff, another flick of the remote, another click that opens an already bookmarked page in the same old browser, yet another empty download. Many people I know—myself included—have destroyed ourselves in ways small and large, just to avoid the realization that we’re unbearably sick of seeing that same old face ill the mirror.
The pain of knowing that we’re not actually doing things that fulfill us can drive us to develop some pretty intricate and brilliant mechanisms to justify our escapes into entertainment. How about the witty nihilism of convincing ourselves that how we spend our time doesn’t really matter at all? Wouldn’t that make everything so much easier, if cause and effect lived galaxies away from each other? We could say that any notions “creative” and “destructive” or positive and negative habits are just clichéd value judgments. The idea that there’s really such a thing as helpful and harmful habits is just a culturally relative notion that somebody pulled out of a hat because they had nothing better to do with their time, right? Once again, this is the “Whatever” mentality in all its glory. As if our very existence could be summarized with an ironic shrug of the shoulders and an apathetic laugh.
Having the discipline to stay present doesn’t mean there’s no joy, no time to relax, no fun. There’s a very subtle and elusive line that no one else can find for us: we have to draw it ourselves. It’s the line between enjoying oneself and being addicted to escapes, between appreciating real creativity and witnessing the subtle damage of entertainment. And just to be clear: a path with no joy is nihilism, not Buddhism.