This month our Paramita, or practice on the path towards happiness, is patience. The practice of patience involves a shift in our perspective. Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein says patience “…remains present as long as the mind remembers that things end…when their conditioning causes end…” Conditioning causes are the elements that are coming together in this particular place and time that are causing us stress. In other words, have patience, this too shall pass.
Stress could, in fact, be celebrated as the only opportunity we have to practice patience. Of course, our habitual tendency is to react against stress rather than greet it with enthusiasm, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do so. Try it sometime.
We sometimes object to the idea of patience, as if it will make us passive patsies and “someone will get away with something” (oh, no!). Holding this attitude, we ignore the depth of harm we do in our impatience, and also misinterpret the actual practice of patience. Patience isn’t standing by while harm is done to us or to someone else. It is not about letting someone take advantage of us or abuse us. Patience is the capacity to calm the mind under stress so we can see our way clearly. In an abusive situation, for example, patience can lead us to make a plan for our safety, and come up with an exit strategy that will actually accomplish our freedom. Impatience can lead to running out of the house without clothes or money or any support at all, and where does that end up? Not in a good place, usually.
What Does Patience Have to Do with Happiness?
Patience is the antidote to anger. If we are irritated or angry or even feel violent impulses, we can actually learn to wait until the feelings pass, which they will. Anger can be difficult to work with, because it so strongly compels us to action. We often feel we will have no relief until we let it all out. In truth, we always do harm when we act out of anger, whether towards another being, a circumstance, or ourselves.
Patience comes from having confidence, born of awareness, practice, and experience that the storm will pass, and that if we ride it out, all will be well again. I recently heard a woman on the radio describing her radical approach to conflict in intimate relationships; instead of “Never go to bed angry” she suggested just going to bed, and seeing if you are still angry in the morning. Given the impermanent nature of all emotions, this approach makes sense. If there is something you can do about it, no need to get upset. If there is nothing you can do about it, there is no need to get upset.
When I put some effort into practicing patience in one area, such as in traffic or with a person I might find irritating, then patience is more likely to arise spontaneously, without effort, when I need it most. I was on an airplane recently that had been delayed by weather. We were two hours late taking off, and most of us were going to miss our connections. The man sitting next to me was extremely fretful and frustrated and tense, and I found that I was actually quite relaxed. We chatted a bit, and I tried to cheer him up, but I could see how deeply attached he was to feeling upset. He told me he traveled a lot for business and it was just getting worse and worse. I agreed that air travel has grown pretty unpleasant for most of us, but I noted to myself that, above all, we have the experience we create for ourselves. That day I realized that my efforts to develop patience had paid off—I felt patient without even trying!
What does patience feel like? For me it is relaxing, energizing, with a clear tone, like a bell, and a view that goes on as far as the sky. Patience is the willingness to stop stirring the water of the pond we are trying to look into. Patience sets down the stick and waits for the natural clarity of the settled water to arise. (Of course, as a teacher of mine noted recently, then we can see all the junked tires, tin cans, and skeletons down there on the bottom!)
Patience is trusting our natural minds to know what to do when we stop disrupting and distorting what is actually happening in the here and now, and practice mindfulness.
Now, I eventually ended that plane trip in a miserable heap, having missed too many planes to reach my destination and having a respiratory illness that forced me to make a last-minute decision to just go home. So, patience is not the answer to everything, nor is it guaranteed to stick around all the time. What stands out in my mind is the contrast between myself and that fellow steeped in anxiety on the airplane, and the knowledge that it is possible to feel calm even when our impulses drive us strongly toward distress. The reward of patience is, in fact, patience!
Five Steps to Cultivate Patience:
- Meditate regularly, for 5, 10, or 15 minutes daily.
- Count ten breaths (yes, ten) when feeling stressed.
- Remind yourself that the other person is acting out of pain or ignorance and needs your compassion.
- Remember that this too shall pass.
- Give yourself 24 hours before you act.
What other ways can you find to practice patience?
© Copyright 2011 by Ker Cleary, LPC, therapist in Eugene, Oregon. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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