Discipline or Compulsion

From time to time I’m asked when talking about my art practice or my writing, “how is it you have such discipline to do that on top of everything else?”. I’m still taken aback by this question every time I get asked because I really don’t consider myself a very disciplined person. After many times feeling left without an adequate response I started to think about what was going on in my life that gave everyone this impression, the idea I’m some well-oiled machine. I rapidly came to the conclusion that I wasn’t disciplined but compulsive.

When you find a passion in your life, it becomes a thread of your being, and you are driven to pursue that passion no matter the distractions or competing priorities. Supporting your passion is less about being a strict disciplinarian with yourself and more an involuntary act you can’t control, that you don’t want to control. You wake up in the morning and you are compelled by this passion. You can’t stop thinking about it any more than you can stop breathing. It becomes what I like to refer to as a healthy obsession—an inner drive for an experience that feeds your humanity. If you’re fortunate, your compulsion also feeds other’s as well.

I don’t particularly like the word discipline. To me being disciplined is a kind of prison for the soul. A relationship either internal or external that is less about satisfying your soul and more about satisfying something because you feel beholding to that thing. Discipline is often a word we use when we are talking about a struggle, a necessary evil. It’s a reference to rules that we have convinced ourselves makes us better people. Look, that person can follow a strict regimen, therefore, they are superior due to their extraordinary discipline. Following rules is indeed necessary for life if society is to work but mastering conscription isn’t an enriching experience unto itself and it doesn’t by default make you a better human being. There are countless examples of very terrible people who are or have been extraordinarily disciplined. In fact, I might argue, regulatory behavior can blind us from experimentation and creative thinking which not only leaves us ultimately emptied of rich experience it also makes us less empathic and participatory. The act of discipline becomes its own defining principle.

Alberto Giacometti in his studio

Compulsion can have it’s own issues if it becomes an unhealthy obsession. If you are compelled to do something out of blind desire you’re not feeding your inner life you’re draining it because your focus is on an object, not an experience. Most artists will tell you their art practice is something they have to do. The ideas are there and must be dealt with or it begins to gnaw away at their life. This experience of creative expression is an experience that feeds them in an inexplicable but necessary way. The act of making, of attempting to manifest ideas that otherwise are just thoughts is the fuel that makes artists who they are as human beings and hopefully gives back some of those discoveries to people who interact with their art as well.

Being an artist is not a requirement for positive compulsive behavior. Artists are the example of the strategy but their professional practice is not the necessary component to a healthy obsession. The fisherman who awakes every day before dawn during fishing season and heads out into the cold sea and sometimes stays out there for days, weeks on end is can be compelled by that experience. For some fisherman, that experience is an important part of who they are and their behavior isn’t driven by money or duty but by the pure experience of fishing itself. We must live our lives for the experience of it and let the winds of our passions guide us, compel us, but with all our might resist the idea of innate structure and enforced discipline because that is a road that only leads to emptiness.

“We know that those things which most profoundly
and most permanently affect us
have come not out of deliberate calculation,
however intricate or stupefying to the brain,
but through labyrinths of feeling
whose multiple entrances tend to elude detection;
which only much later, if at all, can be admitted.
No man likes the deep purposes of his nature
held up to study.”

—Evan S. Connell, Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel

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