Discipline Zero

"I'm in the here and now
and I'm meditating
and still I'm suffering
but that's my problem."
(Van Morrison)

Do you want hear a joke about Immanuel Kant’s lesser known treatise on ethics, The Metaphysics of Sitting? (You may have just missed it.) I’ve long wanted to write a book that compares writing to meditating so that I could earn the right to use that title. Many years ago, I used it as the title of a blog post. But, at the end of the day, I just don’t know enough about meditating to pull it off. Fortunately, Tim Parks knows enough about both subjects to have written a very compelling book called Teach Us to Sit Still. I have used that Eliot reference myself to encourage writers to sit there and just listen to someone try to make sense of their paragraphs. In any case, this post is about doing nothing.

If you’ve been practicing my seven little disciplines, you have spent 27 minutes writing a paragraph at this point. Hopefully, you started on the half-hour, so the time is now 27 or 57 minutes past the hour. Take three minutes, and don’t do anything.

If you feel inclined, you can just relax your body, close your eyes, and empty your mind. But since it’s of course impossible to literally do nothing, there are many little activities you can consider.

Get up from your chair and walk around your room or down the hall for three minutes. Or roll your shoulders or swing your arms or stretch your wrists. You have no doubt been advised to do such things regularly anyway. This is a good time.

Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 6 in D minor from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier takes three minutes and one second to listen to. Close enough. There are any number of pop songs that will pass the time as efficiently.

Examples aside, I can offer you a formal definition of “nothing”: don’t keep working on the paragraph you’ve been writing for the past 27 minutes and don’t go on to the next thing you have to do today. (The next thing may be another paragraph. Don’t start writing it.) Don’t “accomplish” anything for three minutes, we might say.

You are trying to put a barrier between the writing you just did and the next meaningful thing you will be doing. You want to tell the part of you that writes that it’s over, but not because something else just became more important. The paragraph is not going to get any better, but the deciding factor isn’t some external pressure. You no longer have time to improve the paragraph, but it’s not because your priorities have changed. It’s because you have used the time you had set aside for this priority. That’s all. The three minutes of nothing drive this point home.

You are trying to teach yourself that the problem is never that you don’t have enough time. It’s how you organize and use your time that matters. The absolute amount of time you have is always arbitrary and has more to do with the quality you can expect (and reasonably demand) of yourself than with whether something is altogether possible or impossible. Discipline Zero is the ability to do nothing deliberately; it’s discipline reduced to its absolute essence. Discipline as such. It is training yourself in writing as a “liberal” art; indeed, it is the art of freedom. It makes writing a choice.

PS. All this does suggest a kind of ethics, and since we started with Kant let’s end with Heidegger. Remember that “being good,” even just good at something (like writing), means “finding ourselves correctly attuned in the apportionment of the moment”.

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