Discipline vs. Self-Discipline

By Sensei George M. Rego (4th dan)
Jukido Academy of Martial Arts – Palm Coast, Florida

“An artist uses different medium such as clay, paint, or music as a means of artistic expression, a martial artist uses his own life.” – Sensei Richard Kim

In the world of traditional martial arts one often hears about the discipline that separates the real martial artist from the hobbyist, or worst yet – those who disguise themselves as the epitome of the traditional martial artist, but their discipline isn’t to the arts but to their own interests, ego, and insecurities.

In fact, what really separates the two is discipline and self-discipline.

Discipline can be forced on us. Parents often discipline their children into cleaning their room, doing homework, or their least favorite chore. The result of this discipline is a child who ends up taking care of the responsibilities – but not from a self-motivated and self-disciplined pro-active stimulus. In addition, the child in all probability finds, over a period of time, the balance between doing the chore as fully as it should be done and how much they need to accomplish and “get away with it” without their parents reprimanding them.

This dynamic is not exclusive to parents and children. Many individuals, for example, go through their workday in the exactly the same manner. A young employee is told, “Show up to work tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. or you’ll be fired.” The employee shows up at 9:00 a.m., not a minute earlier and not a minute later. The discipline was imposed and on the surface the employer achieved what he wanted – an employee who arrived to work at 9:00 a.m. and on time. In reality, however, the employer simply wants an employee who is self-discipline enough to show up to work on time without the threat of termination – he wants a self-disciplined employee who doesn’t’ need to be reminded, or worst yet, disciplined into basic responsibilities such as arriving to work on time. The employee might show up at 9:00 a.m., but one wonders how long it will take before this lack of discipline will result in the employer once again making another threat before a “surface level” response is achieved – once again, being forced to impose discipline.

Those who lack self-discipline usually refuse to look in the mirror and acknowledge this as the source of their troubles. Rather it becomes, “mom is mean” or “my boss is a jerk” or “This diet is to hard.” The more often they experience a lack of self-discipline, the more “second nature” it becomes. Fad diets are a major source of less then desirable self-discipline in many segments of our culture. The self-discipline to exercise regularly, maintain a healthy diet, and take the daily steps necessary for healthy living – as simple as it might sound, is an area in which many individuals lack self-discipline. Instead, like the child who tries to find the balance between satisfying mom & dad, but yet not wanting to take all the time to do the chore correctly – the adult tries to find a “quick and easy” way to lose weight, or stop smoking, or make a million dollars on e-bay. On the surface level, it looks like it is working for a while – but before long they fail and reinforce, through repetition, the lack of self-discipline and the ever-growing need for discipline to be imposed upon them.

A traditional martial artist isn’t perfect and like all individuals they have areas in their life in which they are extremely self-disciplined and other areas in which discipline needs to be forced upon them. The difference should be, that in recognizing the area’s of relative weakness, the traditional martial artist, doesn’t’ blame the co-worker, the parent, the boss, or the spouse – but rather they have the self-discipline to look into the mirror and see an accurate reflection of their strengths and weaknesses, before reassigning blame.

This is a process that traditional martial artists should apply to their daily training. One looks at their basics, nage-waza, or kata and assesses the areas that need the most work and constantly strives to make the “basics” or the foundation of their training strong. Sure, they should be working hard to honor their Sensei’s commitment to students, to honor the dojo and the system they represent, but also they must have this self-discipline for themselves. Among the simplest procedures in a Kokondo dojo is the two traditional methods of sitting down while receiving instruction. In the more traditional posture, seiza, the student’s posture is absolutely straight and they should be a picture of discipline. Although this sitting posture becomes more comfortable with practice, it is never completely “comfortable.” There are many purposes for traditional dojo insisting on this posture, despite the fact that it isn’t comfortable. Among them is the simple idea that a dojo is a not a living room – it is a place in which one studies the arts of war – and like in war or any form of combat – it isn’t comfortable. The lack of comfort keeps you constantly aware of your position and ensures that you never become vulnerable. To those with a lack of self-discipline, they view this as an archaic and out of date practice. They miss the point. The sensei in the dojo insists that students sit correctly in this posture, in fact, he is imposing militaristic discipline. Nevertheless is the student self-disciplined enough to practice the proper sitting method without the “imposed” discipline. Seiza is a good test of very basic discipline vs. self-discipline.

Some will take the posture and make it a definite point to ensure that they are the straightest back in the dojo while the sensei is looking – however, once the sensei’s back is turned they become the “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” This, in my view, is even worse then never having had the back straight at all. At least in that case, the student might be ignorant and not know better. The student, who maintains his back straight, even with his sensei’s back turned, has true self-discipline. Sure, the rules require that he sit in seiza – this is a part of the discipline the sensei requires in his dojo, but more then that the student has enough self-discipline to keep his back straight to not only honor his sensei and dojo, but more importantly because he knows what needs to be done and does it – for the betterment of himself, not just to impress his sensei. In fact, his sensei – should he be a true sensei – will be impressed more with the student’s quest and self-disciplined approach to bettering themselves, then they would be with the student keeping his back straight just tSeiza – Traditional sitting position & posture within the Japanese martial artso “comply” with the rules of discipline.

When one’s sensei has them stand in a kokutsu-dachi for an extended period of time –does one force themselves to stay in that kokutsu-dachi for as long as they are supposed to, whether their sensei is watching them or not, or is their so-called “self-discipline” only present when the sensei is watching? This is what separates discipline from self-discipline. It isn’t easy, but as the Shihan says so often, “nothing good comes easy.”

Discipline, in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, discipline is necessary and often leads to the road of “self-discipline.” However, it is important to remember that discipline for simply “discipline’s” sake is not productive and is only getting the job done on a “surface level.” Many of the world’s dictators have “surface level” support from their populations. In reality the populations “support” is being imposed by discipline – “support me or face retribution” is the approach. This is important for all those leading traditional martial arts, from young shodans to experienced higher ranking sensei, to realize. Discipline for the sake of discipline only goes so far. Our goal should be to instill within ourselves and within our students the ability to have self-discipline. Make your zenkutsu-dachi better not because your Sensei will start barking at you if you don’t – but rather because you want it to be as good as it can be. If you tell someone you’ll be somewhere at an appointment at 6 o’clock – then be there on time, not because that individual will be upset because you are late – but rather because your word is who you are and you have enough self-discipline to follow through on your word, not for them but for you!

This is especially true for Sensei and others in positions of leadership to remember – because it is us who are given the honor and responsibility to help instill the behaviors and traits of self-discipline through Bushido. There are those who are more then happy to train when in front of their sensei or when they can get “public” attention to the fact that they are training – but how many kata are they practicing at home on their own, alone, when no one is watching – when it requires self-discipline, rather then someone yelling at you to “sink your stance?” Unfortunately, there are some in lead positions in every field who not only allow it to happen, but by giving a blind eye to it – encourage it, just like a parent who buys a child a toy every time they scream in a shopping mall for a toy. In order to keep the child happy, they break self-discipline and buy the toy, to keep the kid happy on the surface – but the toy is the least of the problems, it’s simply the “medium” of the day…but the parent can always say “Well, you know how kids are….” – refusing to look into the mirror and acknowledge their own lack of self-discipline and how they reinforce it not only in themselves but in their offspring, or in the case of the sensei – in their students.

We are traditional martial artists, not only when our gi is on, or when our “sensei” is watching us, or when it seems convenient for ego’s sake to be training, or to be “diplomatic” for politic purposes – but rather, true martial artists – regardless of their rank – are not those who have enough self-discipline to not follow “part time” bushido to keep those on the “surface” happy…they are the select few who try their best to follow the self-disciplined path of Bushido because it is worth following and the most powerful way to live.

“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of the deed could have done better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, who’s face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows the great enthusiasms and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and at worst if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. His place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

-Theodore Roosevelt