Attitudes of Mindfulness: Patience

Photo by Sean Ochester
Photo by Sean Ochester

Patience is one of the seven interdependent fundamental attitudes of mindfulness that are consciously cultivated during practice, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn. In his book Full Catastrophe Living, he calls these attitudes “the soil in which you will be cultivating your ability to calm your mind and relax your body, to concentrate and to see more clearly.” He defines patience as the understanding and acceptance of the fact that “sometimes things must unfold in their own time”.

Impatience is low tolerance for people (including ourselves) or things that get in the way of desires.  This leads to feelings of frustration and restlessness – even anger.  In this fast paced world of instant gratification, we can be quick to become impatient and frustrated when things don’t happen right away.

In studying Shantideva’s text The Way of the Bodhisattva under the guidance of a teacher, the chapter on Patience stood out to me.  Shantideva wrote, “Those tormented by the pain of anger [impatience or frustration] never know tranquility of the mind”.  In other words, impatience interferes with equanimity.

Shantideva says it makes no more sense to be angry with people who get in your way than it does to be angry at a tree that falls on your house.  The tree did not act on its own – factors related to its particular species or DNA, wind, drought, pests, disease, old age, pollution, climate change, or changes in the earth holding its roots – may have contributed collectively to its demise.  Many causes and conditions may have come together to lead to the tree’s action.

Shantideva would say it is similarly illogical to be impatient with people, even when they appear to be willfully doing things against us. Be angry at what? Struggle against what? Everything arises from conditions and we are as guilty as those who thwart us. Given this point of view, it would be irrational to hate others who, just like ourselves, are also victims of their own afflictive emotions (such as fear, anger, jealousy, and desire).

     Thus when enemies or friends
     Are seen to act improperly
     Remain serene and call to mind
     That everything rises from conditions 
– Shantideva

Shantideva teaches that the unpleasant or unwanted things that happen to us occur for reasons – though it may not be possible for us to directly know the myriad specific causes, which may even predate our birth.  He urges us to see suffering as an opportunity to rise above – or as the Buddhists would say, attain merit (that which builds resulting from good deeds, acts or thoughts). It is a radically different way of looking at things than we are accustomed to in this culture.

When we notice impatience arising, we can refrain from immediately reacting to any related urges and just observe. In the space that is made between stimulus and response there is much to be learned. Through this process of allowing things to unfold in their own time, we often find that our interference only serves to increase suffering and obscure reality. Why not discover this for yourself by experimenting with patience in your daily life? You might be surprised by what you discover!

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