We had a lecture on discipline this week from Master, which dovetails nicely with my own recent reflections. While I was in Hunan teaching that summer program for kids, the effort of trying to get them to rise to an acceptable discipline level had me thinking about how discipline is taught. I think it is a great mystery to me still, but I am starting to get a few ideas.

There are, of course, two kinds of discipline: external discipline and internal discipline. External discipline is when someone else is yelling at you and punishing you when fail to meet expectations. China in general, and our kungfu school in particular, is a great place for external discipline. When one steps out of line, there are shouts, lectures, and ultimately a cane to put one back on course.

Internal discipline is the real prize, however. It is self-discipline, self-control that lets one do what one needs to do when no one is there to motivate you. This is what a human being needs to live well, and this is what we train kungfu to find. It is the superior kind of discipline; a self-disciplined individual thrives even in an external-discipline environment, but an externally disciplined individual withers without their discipliners.

I have come to believe that we in the West misunderstand the role that external discipline plays in developing internal discipline. It is logical that if one is always externally disciplined, one never develops the responsibility to be self-disciplined. This is certainly true. But I think this leads people to try to teach self-discipline with a kind of sink-or-swim approach. We throw ourselves, our students, and our children into deep water, trusting to instinct or chance to teach them the right self-reliance. If they sink, we drag them out, but just chuck them back in the deep water at the next opportunity. Without incredible luck, failure cycles downward into more failure, and discipline is lost altogether.

I feel that external discipline is like the shallow end of the pool. It’s true you will never truly learn to swim if you never leave the shallows, but there are valuable lessons to be learned there: comfort in the water being foremost, but also coordination. In terms of discipline, comfort in the water is just confidence and an understanding of the benefits of discipline.

Coordination means fidelity between the part of your mind giving commands and the part carrying them out. This is critical. When I first came to Wudang, getting up at 5:00 AM was a huge challenge. I would tell myself to get up, but the part of me receiving the command didn’t believe it would happen, and this lack of faith made self-discipline impossible. I didn’t believe I would do what I told myself to do. So I would be late for training. Punishment pushups and the humiliation of being punished are not fun at 5:15AM, and after a while I learned to get up on time if only to avoid them. But in that process, my lower mind began to believe that it would do what my upper mind told it, and this was an important step for me.

So I have come to believe that teaching self-discipline needs external discipline. Opportunities for self-reliance must be given, but the time in between must be used to practice the coordination that makes success possible.

Teaching in Hunan

For the past three weeks, I was away from Wudangshan, teaching a summer program for kids at a new Wudang Kungfu school. My younger kungfu brother’s new school is located in Yiyang city, in Hunan province. The summer program is a 40 day session, but because I am still a student and need to continue to work on my own kungfu, my classmate and I agreed to split the time in half. I did the first three weeks, he will do the next three weeks.

It was a pretty interesting experience. Over the last few years I have settled into the rhythm of life in Wudang, where we have a nice expat community to take the edge off of the culture shock of living in China. This assignment in Hunan was my longest period spent alone exposed to China. For three weeks, I saw no foreigners, I had no fluent English conversations, and I had to try to be comfortable with Chinese culture in all its unblunted glory. To make matters worse, Yiyang’s local dialect is completely incomprehensible to me, and colors the local’s Mandarin so strangely that even that is painfully difficult for me converse in.

The teaching itself was fine. I taught basic kungfu and English to a group of ten kids ages 8-11 for four hours a day six days a week. I am growing more and more comfortable as a teacher, though starting out with a fresh batch of students is always hard. They have no experienced students for role models to imitate. Every detail of training and behavior that is so ingrained in me requires real effort to remember to explain them. For example, being ready for class. Often we would start class, and the kids would still be in denim shorts (to tight to stretch or kick in) with no shoes on, and have not eaten breakfast though they had been sitting around for an hour previous doing nothing. In Wudang, the standard is set and understood, that when class starts, you must be ready to train and if you are not you must live with the discomfort. To have to step back and teach that surprised me. This is something that the kids’ parents need to understand as well, but communicating with the adults was difficult for its own reasons.

Honestly, all my biggest problems were with the adults I dealt with down in Hunan. In my observation, mainstream Chinese culture seems at times to revolve around gaining face by pushing food, drink, and other indulgences on other people to demonstrate your own generosity and express your affection for them. The aspect of Chinese culture that I am studying, kungfu and Daoism, is much more healthy, restrained,  and disciplined. As a foreigner, it seemed impossible for me to make the adults I met appreciate these qualities in the way they treated me or the way they approached their children’s studies. I constantly walked a line, trying to be friendly and help promote the fledgling school, and still trying to avoid all the cigarettes, beer, rich food, and excess that was so insistently thrust at me.

As I re-read what I have written, I think it is funny that an American is complaining about the excesses of Chinese people, American life being what it is. What can I say, it’s the kungfu talking 🙂

Child Safety: How to Stop a Nose Bleed

Teaching our children that they can help themselves and others in an emergency situation builds their knowledge and confidence. Stopping a nose bleed or other bleeding is one area of safety that every child should learn about.