A right discipline: Daily practice

A right discipline is not a regime that one imposes upon oneself from without. A right discipline begins with lived experiences of what is best, of intimations of the elongation and prolongation of what is best. Taking the idea of prolongation seriously, a right discipline makes explicit to one how it is possible to maintain oneself in the way of what is best.

The following is an example of right discipline from my own life. This thought I first expounded upon, in more generals terms, in this short post on living according to nature.


Waking with love before dawn

Walking meditation with love before and during sunrise

Preparing and eating a light breakfast in silence

Writing as spiritual exercise (ascesis(as I do now)

Philosophical conversation with conversation partner

Brief rest and stretching (taciturnitas)


Preparing and eating a light lunch lovingly, in the spirit of laughter

Mysore ashtanga yoga or climbing alone (tranquillitas)

Light snack


Philosophical conversation with conversation partner or Writing as spiritual exercise

Reading as spiritual exercise or Enzo as spiritual exercise


Making dinner as spiritual exercise

Eating dinner with spirited, lighthearted conversation


Walking meditation with love before and during sunset

Reading aloud in bed as exercise in natural eloquence or Eros as beautiful expression of love

Sleeping gently

Reconsidering discipline and discipleship

Let us begin with Henri Nouwen’s careful reflections on the mutual dependency of discipline and discipleship. Discipleship, he writes,

calls for discipline. Indeed, discipleship and discipline share the same linguistic root (from discere, which means “to learn from”), and the two should never be separated. Whereas discipline without discipleship leads to rigid formalism, discipleship without discipline ends in sentimental romanticism. (Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit 18)

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Cultivating discipline: A forthcoming manual

I’m beginning to think about the contents of a short guide, Cultivating Discipline, which I’ll likely be using in some upcoming educational workshops. One chapter, I believe, will be on spiritual exercises, which I plan to arrange according to categories. Pierre Hadot suggests that a spiritual exercise is a meditation aimed less at informing the pupil about a state of affairs than at transforming the philosopher’s perception of the world. The ‘habits’ Hadot speaks of are more like a way of being.

I include a preliminary list below.

Change in Perspective

The aim of these exercises is to move from the first-personal to the impersonal, a transition I describe in ‘Preface. The One who Philosophizes.’ In this piece, I urge that the ‘oneself’ is the perspective from which one can philosophize.

1. View from Above

2. Learning to Die

3. Philosophical Conversation

4. Transience (or: Impermanence)

Being Present

Presentness is at once a temporal and a phenomenological notion. Temporally speaking, the one who is present has learned not to focus his thinking on the past or the future or on his relations to the past (regret, e.g.) or to those of the future (e.g., anxieties, anticipations, hopes). Phenomenologically speaking, he is directing his focus pointedly and lucidly on the words, deeds, and features of the world around and before him.

1. Attention

2. Vigilance

3. Lightheartedness (or: Humor)

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The rigor of meditation practice

There is a rigor involved in meditating regularly that calls me back to meditate well before dawn in spite of the passing desire to stop or the urges to make an exception today. The rigor of a meditation practice emerges only for the one who, like the Pyrrhonian skeptic, would not live according to dogma. Dogma sets down grooves and shows the way ahead; a life without dogma makes no concessions and accepts no metaphysical supports.

Thus I do not claim that the aim of meditation is to have no thoughts at all or that it is to reach the divine or that it is achieve peace of mind or that it is to bring about something else entirely. For me, meditation’s aim is an open question, not one to be decided or insisted upon and certainly not a question to be begged. Its aim may arise while meditating–or it may not. Moreover, the means by which one meditates, quite apart from the practical matter of whether one is seated or standing or walking, are not to be taken as givens; they are essays or experiments and typically exercises as much in learning something unfamiliar as in the exhibition of courage. Other risks may be noted in passing: all the mornings I simply go through the motions with the result that meditation has become a task or a ticked-off item on a list rather than an activity; all the moments of laziness or lack of vigilance evinced in certain tedious lines of thought.

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On the discipline of eating: Open questions

What is it like to put food in your mouth? To chew slowly? To look around and see warmed others beside you? To look down and find long-limbed wine in your glass? To have picked the vegetables, now in your mouth, thick from your garden? To have cooked the masticated sinews for hours beside those friends listing leftward beside you?

Is there a hearth? If so, what is it like? And the rituals–what of these? What actions? What words? What chants? What libations?

And what–shall we reference Braudel here? Yes, let’s–what longue duree is here–or not here? What form of life  is this after all? Does it exist, or is it all conjured?

What, ultimately, would a “discipline of eating” (see David E. Cooper) actually be look? How to make food into “cuisine” (Cooper again) just as we make grapes or tea leaves into practical arts?

I’m not sure what a “discipline of eating” would look like in the early 21st C.–after the rise of industrial civilization, after the Green Revolution, after we moved en masse to the cities. I’d like to gather together a few thoughts, though, as a kind of background to the questions.

1. From my short essay, “Wistfulness in These Strange Times”:

In the early 21st century, can we, as Epicurus insisted we must, do more with less? Can we examine our set of desires in order to distinguish the natural and necessary (good work, aesthetic appreciation, leisure) from the non-natural and unnecessary (excessive wealth, high status, extreme vulgarity)? Can we surround ourselves with friends for whom food is not just energy but that which is mouthed and tongued, for whom books not just fetishes but textures and shadings, land not just resource but earth and soil, home more than refuge, hosting a venerable art of welcoming? And can we, for a time at least, turn down the volume on all the buzzing and all the hurrying, all the anger and the strife, and can we, in this stillness, relearn self-sufficiency and self-reflection as well as the social virtues of honesty and sincerity?

2. My dissatisfaction with environmentalism with respect to food conceptualized in utilitarian terms. Industrial farming is bad–yes–but food only as calories? Food understood only in terms of health? Food only as good or bad treatment of animals? See, e.g., Jonathan Safron Foer’s unhelpful book Eating Animals.

3. My recent conversation about food, spirituality, and rituals with one conversation partner. The place of food at the center of a well-lived life. (But how?)

4. My recent edits of a forthcoming set of letters for the journal Philosophical Practice. Entitled “Letter Writing as Spiritual Exercise.” Spiritual exercise: the reference is to askesis and to the work of the ancient scholar Pierre Hadot. (Hadot is dead now. What libations?)

5. My foray into the work of the farmer-poet Wendell Berry.

6. My recent reading of David E. Cooper’s articles about “discipline of eating,” the importance of gardening and home cooking. Necessary conditions these, but are they sufficient?

He opens the tin and mixes the cool fish with the warmed green beans. (Fish slide out of tins.)  His fork clinks against the bowl. He reads the news on the screen.

He knows this is not a meal.

Open questions, then: What would a phenomenology of “cuisine” be like? And what kind of literary account could one give that might capture the experience of living with others in this way?

Any suggestions?

Further Reading

David E. Cooper, “Food and Spiritual Reflection: The Daoist Example.”