Natural Discipline

by Jennifer Paros

May 2013

Some people regard discipline as a chore. For me, it is a kind of order that sets me free to fly.

~ Julie Andrews


As writers (or creative people of any kind), we often contend with the need to be “disciplined”. And often being disciplined is about making ourselves do things - on a schedule with dedication. The portrait of discipline is painted with a sense of sternness and having to take a hard line. Though there are many examples of people who work happily, regularly, and effectively, if it seems too easy, commonly we no longer use the word, “disciplined” to describe them.

The notion of discipline reflects two root ideas. One has to do with learning and knowledge (disciple is related) and the other has to do with punishment. As creative people working each day, we decide what discipline means for us. That definition can determine whether or not we thrive.

When I was in art school, I swayed between approaching my work as an opportunity or a chore. Attention to fearful thinking or lack thereof determined my approach. The less I focused on fearful thinking, the greater my connection to discovery, learning, and opportunity, which led me to show up and be “disciplined”. With more active fearful thinking, I invested in the idea that discipline was something I needed to inflict upon myself. As time went on and the fear factor increased for me at school, this demanding dynamic took a toll on my body.

First, it showed up in my lower back. I was at the chiropractor’s twice a week and couldn’t sit comfortably for more than ten-minutes at a time. Then, it was my weight – I lost just over ten pounds – a lot on an already very slender person. Then it was my feet. By the end of my time at school, I was hobbling through the hallways with numerous people concerned I had an eating disorder.

All this physical suffering was a product of not knowing how to work with the energy of fear. I thought I had to take what I perceived as the frightened part of me and make it sit down and do the work, then make it put itself “out there” and GO! Without me bossing it, whipping it, and, kicking it, I would never do anything.

In the documentary, Buck, Buck Brannaman (inspiration for The Horse Whisperer), reflects upon fear in horses and its expression in their behavior. From a fear state, the smallest movement can set off a horse to thinking it needs to save itself. When someone feels threatened, there is slim chance for cooperation. But when we know we’re safe, when gentleness, firmness, and clarity are used to lead, there is no need for force. Discipline is only hard when we are wrestling to control fear, rather than nurturing its release. With trustworthy leadership, being disciplined transforms back into the pursuit of discovery and learning; discipline becomes about cooperating easily with the loving intelligence of life translated through another or us.

“A leader's role is to raise people's aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there.”

~ David Gergen

There are three energetic stances we can take in life. The first is to provoke, the second to react, and the third to lead. Most of us do not wish to submit to, nor do we trust provocation or reaction, but nearly everyone recognizes authentic leadership.

Recently my son conducted a social experiment on a YouTube comment page. He “trolled” – posting an inflammatory remark designed to provoke. For a day he delighted as anonymous reactors lashed back. The more they commented, the more he prodded them on. He soon grew tired of the dynamic, however, and led with a bit of honesty, confessing to his fellow antagonists he was “only trolling”. As quickly as it began, it ended. He put down his end of the rope and the tug of war was over. That’s how energetic exchanges work; without the distraction of pulling and pushing, provoking or reacting, energy naturally follows the lead of the most balanced force, it becomes “disciplined”.

Natural discipline is not the imposition of a schedule or approach on us. It is a byproduct of gentle attention and leadership from within. But it cannot express itself while we’re in battle with our thinking. If we are trying to make ourselves or anyone else do anything, we’re trying to control by provoking or reacting. But when we lead with calm and clarity, the energy of life lines up and we follow. It just makes sense.

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at