Eating bitter

Since I started studying taiji and doing a little reading about Chinese martial arts, there’s a Chinese saying I’ve encountered a few times: “eating bitter.” It refers to the idea that in order to progress at learning kung fu, you need to be willing to undertake the hardships of training, to work hard, to accept pain, to be mentally focused and tough. Western cultures have their own ways of expressing the same idea: that in order to pursue something difficult but worth achieving, discipline and work are needed. And these are things which frankly, I am terrible at.

I am not good at picking big challenges and taking them on. I’m not even good at little challenges. I don’t hold myself to very high standards; I feel like I let myself off the hook a lot. And the consequences of my slacktitude surround me, they are weighing heavily on my life right now. I’m not making a point of practicing my taiji regularly; I’m not making a point of spending regular time in prayer and meditation and quietness; I’m not eating well and overeating and gaining some weight; I’m spending too much money stupidly; I’m putting off basic chores around home that need doing, that would make me happier if they were done; I’m not getting through my work as quickly as I would like to, just because I get distracted too easily and don’t keep focused on doing what is needful. None of these things in themselves are necessarily anything to be overly hard on oneself for; life is what it is, and too much “should” and “ought” are poisonous. But the common thread, the thing that I am struggling with, is a lack of self control. It is the fundamental undercurrent that shifts everything off balance.

There are other internal consequences. I struggle with a lack of self-confidence and often doubt my ability to accomplish things, and I believe it’s directly related to the fact that I don’t often push myself to try new challenges and risk either failure or success. I don’t well believe that I am in control of my life, that I can choose to do something and carry it through. And a fairly big part of this unbelief is that I lack discipline. I try to make changes and can succeed for a few days, maybe a week, while I’m still excited and focused and feel positive. But then I forget, or I have a bad day, or I just let myself slack off a little bit because I’m doing so well, and then it all goes away. I get distracted and don’t continue. Every time I do it, a little bit more confidence erodes. Right now, I don’t feel like I want to take on anything, any kind of changes, even though I feel like I badly need to change some things — I don’t want to face another disappointment. I feel like I’m doomed before I even start.

There are other things. Life feels to me really unfocused now, muddled, aimless. There are some pleasant distractions, but no purpose underneath, no drive, no passion. Nothing to look toward as a goal, nothing to draw me on. I don’t know if this is cause or effect, if the lack of self-control I feel is muddling things, or if I am muddled and lack self-control because I don’t have anything to help focus me, to define what is important.

When life is too easy, nothing matters as much as it should. When possessions come too easily, they’re not appreciated and taken care of. When everything is convenient and available, one never learns how to “make do,” either by hacking something together or just going without. In many respects, my life has always been easy. But I feel flabby and dull and ineffectual inside my habits and creature comforts.

Maybe there are some people who are naturally gifted at being disciplined, but it seems to me that most people have to learn it. Some are trained in it by their families when they are children, some put themselves in situations that teach it to them later in life, some have dire circumstances thrust upon them and are forced to learn how to cope. I am wondering tonight, is it ever possible to teach discipline to oneself? Is it something possible to get better at on one’s own, or would it be fruitless to even try? Because I feel very deeply today that I need to get better at this area of life, and I don’t know how to go about it. I believe that if I want to ever do anything that’s hard and worthwhile, I need to come to grips with working hard and making do and accepting pain, physical or mental or emotional — not in a masochistic sense, but just weathering the hardships that naturally come as a result of pursuing something hard. Like strengthening a muscle: if you never feel any strain, then it’s not getting stronger.

I don’t know how to put myself into a place of strain, of tension, in order to grow in discipline. I don’t know where to find more training in it, in the situations where I most feel its lack. I know that growth comes out of hard times, but I am human and want to be safe and comfortable, even while I want to also be sharp and strong and experience new things. I don’t want to eat bitter. But I know that many things I do want lie on the other side. I’m looking over there with longing, hoping that I can find a way across, and simultaneously hoping that it won’t be too painful. How terribly, confusingly, touchingly human.


2 comments so far

  1. Mardi on

    Oh, oh, oh – I could write this post every day of my life. I am you, just not quite as smart and much older. Srsly, these are thought that occupy me Every, Single. Day. We insecure undisciplined types will have a BIG hug at NYS&W and maybe a beer or three.

  2. Lynn on

    Oh, like Mardi’s undisciplined, she who plays viola professionally and is skinny and gorgeous and spins like a goddess without a single lesson.


    It is definitely possible to learn discipline as an adult. It is, however, a long, hard road, much like learning how to spin. It can be made easier by choosing a goal that you really, really, REALLY want to attain. Say, writing, just to pick the first thing that comes into my head. If your goal is to become a better writer, then one step (along many) might be to say to yourself I shall write a page at least five days a week (not necessarily here on the blog, just somewhere). Well, everything will go fine till the second week, when you have three night classes/meetings, you desperately need to go grocery shopping the fourth night, and writing a page a day completely escapes your mind. You only write two pages that week.

    Do not let yourself off the hook because you screwed up. Notice you were not able to meet your goal, recommit to it for the third week, and think about how you can feel up the time.

    In other words, just do it. Like learning to spin, just practice 15 minutes a day for a month and shazam! you’ll have more discipline.

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