24 December, 2012

Discipline from an early age

I had the opportunity to watch my girlfriend's 6-year old in his Saturday morning karate class this week. I'd never been before, and it stirred memories from when I was a child and had briefly done karate. I don't know that I ever made it past a white belt, and I cannot recall if I went for more than a few months.

It was interesting to me to note how many of the "poses" that they were doing looked strikingly similar to the yoga poses that we do: Warrior I (a pre-punching stance), Half Moon (a side kick), Standing Head-to-Knee (a forward kick). It's obviously no coincidence that these postures appear in many different physical/mental disciplines, having all rooted themselves (at least as far as I can tell) in practices designed to make one ready for battle.

As I watched these kids, who ranged from the ages of about 6 up to 16, it occurred to me that this is the perfect time for people to learn the art of disciplining the mind. When we talk about discipline as regards children, we usually are talking about "punishment" for transgressions. While that is often a necessary thing, it doesn't really teach the same lesson as when one learns how to discipline their own mind and body. We start off not really wanting to do this tedious practice, and assume these awkward positions, remaining still and quiet, often while exerting a large amount of energy. But doing this teaches us so much. We learn to quiet our mind, because it becomes essential in order to withstand the practice (otherwise it's pure torture). And we also learn to set our sights on bigger goals. For a karate student, it might be the next belt level that motivates us. In yoga, it might be the ability to do a new kind of pose which is presently out of our reach.

All of these things we aspire to, if they're hefty aspirations, take time. Sometimes a lot of time. And practice, more than anything, teaches us that real progress is, by necessity, slow, and it may involve steps backward more frequently than we would like to think. When we understand, that is, learn that progress must be gradual, it sets us up for a lot more success and a lot less frustration in everything we seek to achieve.

And here's why I might assert that video games are such a problem. They subvert that development. Video games enable us to achieve new "levels" and "progress" in an albeit fictional environment, very quickly, and with very little real-world effort. The only physical effort is the clicking of a mouse button or two. "Leveling up" in a video game may take minutes, hours, or maybe a few days at the advanced levels of very elaborate games. But it still involves only sitting still and clicking buttons. And each time we do this, and "succeed," a little bit of that wonderful dopamine is released in our brains, signaling "reward," and reinforcing the behavior, as well as the perception that "this is what success looks like." Thus, one might argue, the artificial reward of achievement in video games sets us up to become frustrated when real-life achievements require substantially more time and effort.

Just some thoughts...

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