In a time where we have come to expect everything to be instant, we can all use a reminder of the attitude and virtue of patience.
Instant messages, instant feedback, instant results, instant gratification… Think about it; we can have anything delivered right to our door within the day, we can have any food we want at any time, we have access to entertainment and information by the click of a button. We are so used to this way of living that we have come to take it for granted. We get very few opportunities to practice patience. Without realising it we actively develop habits of impatience, which has serious consequences.
Patience is not about doing things slowly, or becoming passive. It is about the ability to let go of frustration, the ability to wait and to know when it is time to act. It is also a recognition that without patience, we miss out on a lot of the depth and meaning that our lives can potentially hold.
Studies have consistently shown the relation between patience and well-being (both hedonic and eudaemonic). As psychiatrist Judith Orloff says:
“Patience is a lifelong spiritual practice as well as a way to find emotional freedom”.
Too impatient for meaning
Why is patience important? First of all, any meaningful skill or undertaking requires patience and persistence. Think about it. You need it whether you want to learn to play the guitar, learn to cook great food, build a company, nurture your relationships, or walk on a spiritual path. Simply put, without patience, it becomes really difficult to reach our goals and realise our visions.
The problem is that by expecting instant results and gratification, we’re likely to become discouraged whenever we meet resistance. And we run the risk of dismissing the project as being boring, impossible, “not meant for me”, etc. We divert our attention to something that gives us gratification. We stray off the path.
Over time, this can take a toll on our self confidence, because we don’t investing in long-term skills, relationships, and dreams. And these are exactly the things that bring a sense of meaning to our lives and help us grow.
The “in order to mind”
I don’t know about you, but I often find myself leaning into the next moment. This is what Joseph Goldstein calls the “in order to” mind. We do whatever we do in order to get to the next thing. When we are having lunch, we are already thinking about the upcoming meeting. And once we get to the meeting, we are already onto the next thing. This goes on and on. We rarely allow ourselves to be fully with what is happening.
And you might ask, “what the big deal?”, “waiting in line is boring”. When we rush – when we’re impatient – we are never where we actually are. If we always live in the future, we never get to it. There can be a great sadness when we realise that we rarely show up to our lives. We recognise that we habitually miss out on what goes on in the present moment, which is where life happens. This is why Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to “wash the dishes to wash the dishes” (not “in order to…”). It’s not about the particular activity but about the state of mind.
Mindfulness provides a re-training that develops our habit of presence and increases our capacity to show up for our lives.
Patience as a key to resilience
Patience also helps us accept the ebb and flow of life. It helps is deal with the ups and downs of life without getting thrown off course. So when we’re feeling down, we can learn to see the transience of the situation. We don’t panic, believing that this will last forever. Through the cultivation of patience, we can even be open to what we might learn from this adversity. And when we’re on a roll, we don’t try to grasp at it, expecting that it will stay. We don’t become depressed when things change, because we see that everything has its time and we can find peace in the midst of it all. This is how patience can help us cultivate wisdom and resilience.
Patience is not something we possess – it’s something we cultivate and practice. When things are out of our control or we get stuck, have a choice. We can get irritable, or we can use it as an opportunity to practice patience. A good place to look for these opportunities is wherever we find frustration.
We first need to stop and remind ourselves of the opportunity. We have to recognize the situation, “I’m stuck in this line, there is nothing I can do about it”. Taking a few conscious breathes and feel the presence in our bodies. “Can I allow myself to be OK with this? Can I see it as an opportunity to practice patience?”. Perhaps we can even enjoy the moment – a break from the incessant rush of life. We can practice mindful presence, we can look around and acknowledge the people around you who are also stuck here. You can tap into the shared experience of waiting, perhaps even practicing some Metta – extending compassion to the cashier who may be even more stressed out about the line. Patience enables us to seize these opportunities that occur naturally in life. As a practice, we can even seek out these opportunities by selecting a longer line or taking a detour on our way home.
Food provides another great opportunity to practice. To be patient when waiting for food, preparing or enjoying food. This is easier said that done. Sometimes we feel we have to have food NOW, or that distractions get in the way of enjoyment. Or we eat so fast that we’re not getting the sense of fulfilment or satisfaction until we have already over-eaten.
Perhaps the most profound way to learn about patience is through contemplation. By reflecting on the natural rhythm of things, there can be a recognition that certain things can’t be hurried but unfold in their own time. And if we can align our expectations with how things happen naturally, we can avoid a lot of frustration and get a more realistic view on when we can expect results from our actions, which makes us less likely to give up on our long-term goals.
In my experience, Nature is one of the most powerful teachers of patience. Spending time in nature really helps bring about a felt sense of this natural rhythm. Surrounded by oak trees that are hundreds of years old. They stand firmly as the seasons come and go. You life has a rhythm, the trees have a rhythm, the insects have a rhythm. You can get a felt sense that going against this, trying to force things to happen, often leads to frustration and wasted efforts. So again, it’s not about being passive, it’s about seeing things as they are and using your energy wisely.
The virtue of patience
This attitude is about gentleness, but it is also about power. As Mingyur Rimpoche says:
“Patience is like water, flexible, soft. But also strong: even the rocks can be shaped by water”.
Patience is an important and powerful companion on our path through life. It is a virtue that helps us inhabit the present moment with comfort and confidence. It makes us more resilient (ability to handle the twists and turns of life). And it’s a a practice that invites meaning and wisdom into our lives.
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