"Through discipline, we domesticate our instinctual side without breaking its spirit."

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Episode 43 -- August 15, 2020

Between Chaos and Discipline: A Path to Serenity

Craig Nakken knows that we live day-to-day in the tension between opposing impulses or poles, which he calls Spiritual Principles. While right and wrong are sometimes clearly defined, much of the time we must wrestle with different perspectives and pressures in order to do the next right thing. Finding our way in each situation we encounter requires knowing where we are in relation to these poles and choosing where to invest our energy. In Finding Your Moral Compass: Transformative Principles to Guide You in Recovery and Life, Nakken offers tools we can use to both discover our options and make moral choices. In this excerpt, we explore the tension between chaos and discipline.

It has been edited for brevity.

In Greek mythology, Chaos was the dark abyss from which everything came--a beginning point, not a place of refuge. In everyday life, however, chaos is that groundless, rudderless state that results from endlessly (and mindlessly) chasing after things--sensations, thrills, experiences, objects, people, prestige, power, or even comfort. In a life ruled by chaos, busy-ness means everything. But chaos makes it hard to put a coherent life together, for our energies never coalesce to push us in a purposeful, disciplined direction.

Chaos can be very seductive. We can use its ongoing sense of urgency--the strong desire to run after and acquire the next thing--to avoid the responsibilities of finding meaning and putting together a life. People who fear responsibility sometimes use a lifestyle of chaos to help them avoid responsibility--and to block out their fear of it.

The noise of chaos often drowns out our internal voices of meaning and connection. Keeping busy can become a goal in itself, rather than a way to harness our energies in service of others and positive Spiritual Principles.

But a life of chaos cannot be sustained indefinitely. Eventually, our energies run down, the whirling slows, and the fears, pains, and hollowness we have been trying to avoid are right in front of us.

When a client who had lived a life of chaos first came to me, he said, "For over fifty years, I've been getting up early each day, running off, and chasing things just for the sake of chasing them. But nothing means anything. I can't tell you one person I'm really close to, including my wife and three children. I love them, but if I stop and think about it, I know nothing of who they are--what their favorite colors are, what brings them joy, or even if they like me. Hell, I don't even know if I like them." That admission was his first step in slowing down enough to start to recover from chaos.

Discipline enables us to create and stay within a structure, to direct our energies toward specific goals, and to stay connected to positive Spiritual Principles. Discipline is a form of love.

Our self-centeredness can make us distrustful of discipline. We may feel like discipline will take something from us or cheat us out of something. Indeed, discipline goes against our instinctual side, which mostly wants to be fed well, taken care of, waited on, and provided with pleasure, comfort, and gratification. Discipline is taking responsibility, then training and directing one's energies through positive Spiritual Principles.

Through discipline, we domesticate our instinctual side without breaking its spirit. We protect ourselves from our own impulsiveness and keep our drives for pleasure, power, and meaning in balance.

Discipline--like tolerance, patience, and concentration--changes our relationship with time, slowing down difficult and emotionally charged moments, so we act less from impulse and more from positive Spiritual Principles.

Discipline requires us to create a healthy relationship with the word no. No is not just a word; it is a vehicle to freedom. Yes speaks to the things we embrace and bring closer to us; no is about things we have decided to pass by. No often requires extra thought. Discipline requires us to look at our choices and determine whether they will benefit or harm our connection with positive Spiritual Principles. We need to say no to people, places, and events that weaken our connection with these Principles, even when saying yes might seem fun, enjoyable, exciting, or comforting.

Discipline tells us to say no to the frustration we feel as we watch our children struggle with a simple math problem. We may want to give them the answer to end our frustration, but discipline tells us to wait silently and give them time so they can learn. Discipline tells us to say no to the desire to flirt with our neighbor (and to say yes to our desire to flirt with our partner). Discipline tells us not to answer the phone when our best friend calls, because we're having dinner with our family and our kids are telling us about their day.

Hagar's Story
Hagar was a Cherokee elder who consistently lived a life of discipline. Hagar dedicated himself to his job at a food processing plant and to serving his community. He carefully carved out time each week to volunteer on the reservation, assisting people who were sick and dying. He also went to all his son's high school football games. He did not drink or smoke, except for his prayer pipe. He also served as a mentor to my friend Andy.

Andy lived a fairly chaotic life until he met Hagar. Hagar took Andy under his wing and pushed him to see his energy as a gift to be used for the betterment of others and himself. Hagar sometimes took Andy deep into the woods and made him sit very quietly for long periods of time. The longer and more quietly they would sit, the safer the forest animals would feel. Then the forest would come alive with movement and sounds. Hagar had Andy continue his discipline of sitting and being quiet until one day a deer walked by them no more than ten feet away.

Once Andy had disciplined himself to the point of being still, Hagar encouraged him to start helping and giving to others. Andy started volunteering at the local food pantry one day a week and reading to a blind man at a local nursing home.

As Hagar told Andy, "To have an undisciplined life is to have a life with no center, a life with no purpose, a body with no heart. It is through the quieting of ourselves that we learn to hear the voice of the Great Creator. It is through the disciplining of our energies that we can offer ourselves up to be of service to the Great Creator."

  1. Think back to a time when you used chaos as a way to avoid a relationship or a responsibility. What did you tell yourself in order to keep the noise going? What were the results of this time of chaos?
  2. Write down three aspects of your life that could be improved by practicing discipline. What would more discipline look like in each case? How would things be different once you applied that discipline for a few weeks or months?
  3. As of right now, where do you place yourself on the continuum from chaos to discipline?

About the Author
Craig Nakken, M.S.W. a certified chemical dependency practitioner, is a lecturer at the Rutgers School of Alcohol Studies and the Florida School of Addictions. A worker in the field of addictions for more than 25 years, Nakken has a private practice in St. Paul, Minnesota and lectures nationally and internationally on topics related to addiction studies.

© 2011 by Craig Nakken
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