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Life as a Monk: How I Discovered Self-Discipline Is the Road to Freedom

13/10/2014 13:54 BST | Updated 11/12/2014 10:59 GMT

When I was a young boy, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I read about the discovery of the ancient cities of Troy, Tiryns and Mycenae, and dreamed of excavating the legendary golden city of Dwarka, lost under the Arabian Sea off the coast of India.

This dream took me to India, where I lived in temple monasteries for ten years, studying ancient Sanskrit texts. I slept on the floor, only a thin straw mat between me and the cold stone. I shaved my head like the other monks too. It was a simple life with no heating, warm water, washing machine, TV or radio.

Every day, we would rise at 4am. I would sweep the temple courtyard and continue with my studies. I applied myself diligently, eager to understand the deeper meaning of the ancient texts. Gradually, my interest in digging up forgotten ruins or retrieving lost artefacts from the seabed dwindled. I began developing a new focus in life: the archaeology, or uncovering, of ancient wisdom.

Lessons from a Master

In the morning, my teacher, an elderly master practitioner in the Bhakti tradition, would have me and the other students recite the Sanskrit verses we had committed to memory the previous day and explain their meaning in detail. He would correct our mistakes, and then elucidate the deeper teachings of these verses.

One morning my teacher turned to me and asked, "I give you so many verses to memorize. Why?"

"So that we can have a proper understanding and grounding in the principle of Truth?" I proffered timidly.

"So that we can see where we are?" another student suggested.

"The reason I ask you to learn these verses is so that you will perfectly practise them in your life," my teacher said simply. "At that time the fruit of learning will manifest. Remembering alone will not suffice. Whatever you memorize, practise in your life."

My teacher understood that I was trapped in the realm of concepts. I could ponder deeper truths all my life, and even explain them eloquently, but until I actually applied them, they held no real value.

Wisdom reveals itself in its living practice. This perhaps explains why so many of us know a lot, but so few are truly wise. We accumulate knowledge, but little changes in the way we lead our lives. To alter the way we live requires self-discipline.

The Dharma Principle of Discipline

Thousands of years ago, the sages of ancient India formulated the Dharma Code, a system for making enlightened choices in everyday life. It was formerly used by kings and queens, to make wise decisions in ruling kingdoms. Expressed in its simplest form, the Dharma Code is four timeless principles for living more consciously: Truth, Purity, Non-violence and Discipline.

Discipline, the fourth Dharma principle, refers to the focused effort that leads to personal transformation. The sages expressed this fourth dimension of Dharma using the Sanskrit word tapas - which means, literally, "heat". It is self-discipline or austerity willingly undertaken to manifest our purpose, which exists as unexpressed potential.

Discipline generates great freedom in our life, allowing us to manifest our purpose. As Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, explains:

Most people equate discipline with an absence of freedom. In fact, the opposite is true. Only the disciplined are truly free. The undisciplined are slaves to moods, appetites and passions.

Can you play the piano? I can't. I don't have the freedom to play the piano. I never disciplined myself. ... What about the freedom to forgive, to ask forgiveness? What about the freedom to love unconditionally, to be a light, not a judge - a model, not a critic? Think of the discipline involved in these.

In my own life, I have learned that Discipline, when applied together with the other three principles of Dharma, is a potent "change agent" that doesn't actually feel like a hard struggle. When we live with a burning heart in accord with our purpose, our efforts feel almost effortless.

In nature, everything happens effortlessly, without straining. The rivers don't work against their own process as they flow to the sea. The grass doesn't strain to grow. We, however, are always straining. We work against ourselves. Discipline in the Dharma Code is about doing what accords with the law of our being. What we do then generates vitality, rather than saps strength.

The Greatest Gift of Discipline: Living Wisdom

If I sit on a bicycle with my hands on the handlebar, my act of steering has no potency or effect unless I am moving forward. Similarly, the Dharma principles are principles in action. We invoke them by living them. When we no longer live them, they withdraw.

Embodying wisdom in our everyday life is the hardest thing to do. It requires Discipline. We cannot buy "living wisdom" in the way we might purchase a university education or a book. Academic study will not yield the desired fruit. The teachings of any wisdom tradition are therefore more like a map. The journey itself is one only we can take and it may well take us a lifetime.

This is what my teacher was trying to explain that morning: until the Dharma teachings are perfected through practice, they remain only good ideas.

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