The Dilemma of Discipline Vs. Spontaneity
The dilemma of being human comes from having a prefrontal cortex in an animal body, from having both animalistic desires and the power of will to control those desires.
I believe that almost all human beings make some sort of a distinction between the self that wills and acts, and the subconscious self that manages our hearts and glands and nerves. Such words as self-control and self-consciousness suggest this division of our being into two parts […]. To the degree that we feel this division, we are always trying to control and understand and dominate our subconscious self with our conscious and willful self. But in Lao-tzu’s philosophy, this is quite literally to be all balled-up—to be in a desperate and utterly frustrating condition of self-strangulation, falling over one’s own feet, and perpetually getting in one’s own way—which is, of course, not Tao, the Way of Nature. This is why our principal problem in life is ourselves—why we are so tormented with anxiety about self-preservation and self-control. (Alan Watts, Become What You Are, p. 22)
This is the dilemma of discipline versus spontaneity.
If we follow our emotions, we become more social, spontaneous, creative, and authentic. The magic of self-trust.
If we control our emotions, we become more dominant, rational, proactive, and successful. The magic of self-discipline.
On the one hand, we have freedom of enjoyment: the freedom we experience when we loosen the cortical obsession of achieving goals. Flowing spontaneity.
On the other hand, we have freedom of self-mastery: the freedom we experience when we overcome the limbic obsession of acting out feelings. Prudent proactivity.
This raises the question: Is self-control natural? Does willpower disrupt our natural flow of life? Could our discipline keep us from living true to our nature?
We find our true nature in our body’s intelligence. We shall trust our body, for its wisdom gained from human evolution is greater than all the wisdom our mind could ever extract from experience.
We also find our true nature in our will’s intelligence. We shall discipline our will, for its inner values and moral principles are more precious than all the degenerating distractions that come from the outside.
There are four ways how we can solve this dilemma.
Four Approaches to Solving the Dilemma
We can solve the dilemma with balance.
Balance between discipline and spontaneity.
I know, when action gets real and decisions get complex, balance gets complicated—but that’s life.
Another approach to solve the dilemma emphasizes the mindset we are coming from.
Our force of will can express desperation, and it can express inspiration.
With a desperation mindset, we compulsively control ourselves to protect our ego; we worry hard to stay strong and avoid shame.
With an inspiration mindset, we creatively control ourselves to realize our potential; we spontaneously express our desire to attack a challenge and our will to persist in struggle.
The third way of thinking about the dilemma is to see force as a path to flow.
Rigid discipline provides a structure for creative spontaneity to happen.
- We force ourselves to sit down without distraction in order to write with spontaneous creativity.
- We force ourselves to go on stage in order to speak with spontaneous creativity.
- We force ourselves to approach women in order to flirt with spontaneous creativity.
- We force ourselves to sit down in stillness in order to meditate with spontaneous creativity.
A fourth solution employs the notion of personal development.
Willpower and self-control could be an essential part of a certain life phase, marked by a certain paradigm of thinking.
Flow and spontaneity could be an essential part of a subsequent life phase, marked by another paradigm of thinking, in which self-control is still important, but no longer in the mind’s focus.
Personally, I feel that I’m between paradigms at this point in my life (which would explain why I’m writing this blog post), and what I suspect is this: We need the phase of will to develop skills, acquire good habits, and overcome fears before we can enter the phase of flow where we creatively hone and spontaneously express those skills and habits. But that’s just my personal conjecture. I guess life will tell whether I’m right here or mistaken.
- How to Live Your Life: On the Glory of Flow
- Will Vs. Flow: Can You Force Yourself to Do Something?
- Alan Watts on Self-Discipline and Self-Acceptance