I remember a conversation I had with a student when I was teaching high school. I think I said something like “you have to be more patient.” And the student responded, “Why should I be patient? I want what I want now.” I probably had the same thought when I was a teenager.
Why be patient? With political and social issues, what does patience even mean? This is an important question today, as there is so much that needs to be challenged and changed. Does patience mean you should let racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, greed, etc. continue as it is?
If so, I think patience is misunderstood. How is patience helpful when you can’t get what you think you need or can’t understand a situation, another person, or yourself?
The root of patience is the Latin ‘pati’ meaning ‘suffering.’ Patience is the ability to endure adversity, discomfort, stress and even pain. In any life, if you want to do something challenging, you will face stress and adversity. If you can’t face this, how deep a life can you have?
Here is a practice of mindful inquiry into what patience means to you:
Take a moment to close your eyes partly or fully. And just hear whatever arises in your mind, or feel whatever feelings or sensations come to you. Then say the word ‘patience’ to yourself. Say it again. What feelings, thoughts, and memories come to you? Just notice them. You need do nothing else but notice.
What does the word mean to you? What purposes does patience serve? And how often do you feel it? When don’t you feel it?
Do you get impatient when something is happening that gets in the way of what you want to happen? Or gets in the way of your image of how things should be?
Simply sit for a moment with the feeling of patience, that you can face what you need to face.
Then take a deep breath and return your attention to where you are seated.
What goes on in you when you’re impatient? When you’re impatient, you might feel you can’t wait for something to happen or something to end. You feel a contradiction between what you are looking at and what you want or imagine should be true. You are uncomfortable or dissatisfied with the now. But the impatience is not just about the contradiction. It is about feeling that if it isn’t true now, it might never be true. And you don’t like it.
Likewise, you might define yourself, and define reality, in terms of the distance between your image of who you should be and the reality. When you’re impatient you might define the world or yourself as somehow lacking. You might think you are not strong enough to endure the difficulties and challenges necessary to accomplish what you think should be accomplished. And you think your definition of yourself is true now and for the future. You have no clear sense of how change can occur.
You might feel impatience when you notice someone in pain, or someone suffering, and you want to stop or lessen the suffering. When you have a physical pain, it gets worse when you don’t know what the cause is. When you know the pain in your chest is from a pulled muscle, you respond very differently than if you think you are having a heart attack. Likewise, you are more likely to be impatient when you are unsure of what is causing the suffering or unsure of your own ability to work for change. Your thoughts and explanations about any experience affect how you feel in the moment you experience it.
In contrast, what happens when you feel patient? For me, patience is linked with a sense of equanimity, another word my teenage self revolted against. ‘Equanimity’ means being able to meet, accept, and live with both triumph and disaster without getting blown out of shape. By ‘accept’ I don’t mean allow to continue. I mean you notice and take in whatever occurs. You are then better able to see yourself or the world for what it is. Mindfulness and compassion practice is one way to develop this ability to notice and see.
‘Patience’ means allowing yourself to perceive more calmly and clearly. It means thinking of yourself as strong enough to persist and endure. It means understanding that you are not defined totally by any one act, any one moment, or anyone change, but more by how much of your life you take in and how aware you are of how everything changes.
It means when you feel an unpleasant sensation, or face a frightening reality, you don’t prematurely label it as a threat and turn away from it. Even if you feel impatient, you greet it with patience. You feel what you feel, or you study what needs to be studied. You take the moment as an opportunity to learn. You take your whole life as an opportunity.
If you have to leave a situation, you leave, quickly, and without self-doubt. If you can be helpful, you turn even impatience into considered action. And in this way, moment-by-moment, you make your way through whatever occurs with more strength and clarity and you are more likely to take actions to make life better for you and for others.
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