Updated: Jun 14, 2021
The spiritual disciplines are commonly grouped into three groups of four after the work of author Richard J. Foster who wrote many interesting books on the value of discipline as the core of one’s spiritual life.
This piece will focus on the four Outward Disciplines (Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, Service).
The Outward Disciplines
We’re all savagely intellectual today. In many ways that’s the rot of our age, we’ve sacrificed wisdom, which always prizes simplicity, for knowledge, with our Foucault-inspired faith that ‘knowledge equals power’.
That notion sounds true and the quote is rather enigmatic, and in one sense it is true, yet as a reformed-hard leftie, I was at one time quite fond of Foucault and his work and therefore am aware the notion applies to hierarchical authority mandated by granular knowledge over the individual.
In one sense, this does give you ‘power’ over someone, but this is not true power. It is the power of the tyrant, the bully, the autocrat – the ego.
True power is beyond human status and domination. This power lays in inner peace, a force that armours you from the pains of the world and casts fear out of your soul.
This power cannot be found in relentless intellectualism. While rigorous study is a wonderful thing that blossoms into many great findings and brings our society forward, we must be cautious with such findings if we don’t have the wisdom to counter-balance it.
Wisdom doesn’t need intellectual proof, it doesn’t need to argue with the ‘what is’ of life, it merely accepts it simply and let’s life speak through your being, enriching you with all of life’s vastness and awe.
This is why simplicity is a core element of the spiritual disciplines.
Be mindful here that solitude doesn’t mean isolation, that most destructive of behaviours that is so often reported to be at the root of all manner of mental health issues and addictions.
So what is the difference between isolation and solitude? Well, put simply, isolation is unconscious loneliness stemming from fear, while solitariness is conscious loneliness stemming from a desire to face one’s inner fear.
In order to understand this better and how it relates to the spiritual disciplines, we can use the stories of two famous men – Narcissus and Jesus.
An oft-under reported element of the story Narcissus, the man who fell in love with his own reflection, is that he was a) separated from his tribe, and b) rejected a woman before being left to wander alone in the forest before falling in love with himself.
The deeply symbolic tale is a hymn for modern men.
So many of us hide away physically from our nourishing tribe in our atomised, digital smartphone mediated existences, and also lack the long-term bond with the feminine due to fear, trauma or the ease and lure of porn.
Just like Narcissus, we get trapped in our own minds, our thoughts being the only thing we see and we then fall in love with our egoic creations of who we think we are.
We feel misunderstood, afraid of the real world and fashion our pain into a powerful egoic narrative that aids us in beating ourselves up, but we’d be terrified to leave for fear of losing the last scrap of identity we have (even though this is what we need to do).
In some earlier versions of the Narcissus story, Narcissus kills himself, unable to cope with his own obsession with himself.
Again, this is a hymn to modern men, so lost in their own minds, with that being all they know, as the psychic power suffocates them like an anaconda.
Now let’s contrast that with Jesus.
In Jesus’s solitary existence, the situation is quite different. He wanders the desert not to run away from fear, but to face it head on, his is a solitariness on the offensive, not of escape.
Famously, out in the desert, Jesus faces Satan and is tempted by all manner of human desires.
Firstly, the devil promises a fasting and starving Jesus ‘bread’, which Jesus rejects.
Bread is often seen as a representation of the physical in the Bible, so one could deduce this is the temptation to believe in forms and labels over the underlying spirit of all things.
This would explain why Jesus responds with ‘One doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’
Secondly, Satan goes more directly at the spirit by challenging Jesus to fall to his human death, lest God save him if he really is the Son of God.
Again, Jesus is unmoved by challenges to God, he accepts what is and stays in his stillness.
Finally, Satan offers Jesus all worldly power, again, something Jesus rejects, seeing it as antithetical to true power, which is from God/the place of non-ego.
To sum this story up, it should be of particular note to men desiring wisdom and growth that Jesus must go through these things before he can begin his ministry.
The lesson here is that we must face the inner fear and conquer it before we are ready to return to life free of it as new, evolved men.
Submission is probably the most difficult concept out of the spiritual disciplines for the modern reader.
Every fibre of our being pushes back against this, and while this isn’t exactly new, it’s hard to think of a time when we’ve been so convinced that the intellect and science has all the answers and therefore requires relentless challenge.
Similarly, advertising and marketing convinces us from childhood that we should fulfill a certain role and consume certain things in order to speak the invisible language of status and identity.
Identity itself has become a core battleground too today as progressive intersectional politics reawakens as a sort of inverted collective ego to oppose ‘patriarchy’ and hegemonic ‘whiteness’, while not seeing it is opening the door to the return of racial politics by primarily defining individuals by racial factors.
All of this enhances the ego, the felt sense of self that the mind creates.
Yet this sense of self is always dysfunctional. Why? Because it is not real.
Many of us – myself included – have to smash ourselves up pretty badly to break this spell in order to find a moment of exposition.
In such a moment we can begin to see our lives narratives are just that, narratives. They have no objective truth outside of thoughts in the head.
On close inspection, we find our thoughts are about as much ‘ours’ as the body is. We claim these things subconsciously, but when we really, really look, we can see the body is a changing, dynamic piece of ephemeral matter.
Further, we don’t even control the processes it engages in.
We don’t digest food ourselves, we don’t pump blood around the body and we don’t grow a hair on our head.
Life takes care of all these things, yet our intellectual capacity sees our ability to move, to figure things out and deduces that our ego (another fiction) is what we really are.
So how do we find what we really are? Well, we submit to what is before we identify it with our limited mental constructs and reasoning capacities.
That is not to say we should never use these faculties, they are incredible things, it is to say that to find the truth we must go deeper to discover that driving force of life that is ever-present, ever ingenious and literally infinitely more capable than we are.
After all, it created us.
Henceforth, submission is key facet of the spiritual disciplines that is practiced to bring us to the heart of truth.
It is an act of humility in a world run by the ego and it is the beginning of waking up to true reality, that which lies beyond the egoic sense of self.
Service is something we can’t truly understand unless we have ascertained the core truth of the prior spiritual discipline of submission.
We hear a lot today from self-help gurus, psychologists and Instagram influencers about helping others and that being the core of one’s life goals, yet this is a facsimile of true service.
Such a service as the above is, of course, admirable and far better than no service at all, but it is not the spiritual discipline of service.
If you have read Part 1 and the prior spiritual disciplines you will probably know what’s coming – the reason the aforementioned form of service doesn’t really cut it is because it is emanating from ego, not authenticity.
I think we all innately know this kind of ‘service’.
It’s admirable, but something doesn’t quiet sit right about it, you just seem to feel when true service is near; it is quite, penetrating and natural.
Why is it this way? Well, as it is emanating from a place of pure spirit, not egocentric identity of ‘I’m doing something good’, it speaks directly to the heart in the language of truth.
This is what true service is. While it is certainly good to help others in whatever way we can, true service comes from seeing each individual as One, and in that energy the pursuit of and illuminating of truth becomes second nature.
Scratch that. It becomes your nature.
Henceforth, through the lens of the spiritual disciplines, service is two-dimensional.
We have the egoic service, a good start and better than nothing, but it can masquerade as fake humility and trap you in an ego-spin of ‘how good am I?’
Then we have the service of the spiritual disciplines – that which emanates organically, where helping others and making sacrifices is a dimension of a conscious spirit that is resting in dynamic truth.