Weekend Meditations ~ On Patience

buddha tree


Patience doesn’t just come to us — we need to train to cultivate it.

by Katy Brennan

As passive as it seems, the practice of patience may be the most actively transformative effort we can make in our lives. In a sense, it’s the perfect response to whatever comes up. This somewhat radical idea alone may invite a long meditation. It also raises the question of whether patience is really the appropriate response to everything. The other options — ranging from mild irritation and disappointment to frustration, anger, and rage — are, clearly, not happy alternatives. Anger is madness. Yet it can be our habit to reject what is happening in our lives, developing an attitude that says, “No.” I’ve written about the destructive nature of anger here recently and found, not surprisingly, that I am not alone in my struggle to reduce my anger. Nor am I alone in finding that countering the delusion of anger with patience, what some Buddhists refer to as “the opponent force,” is deeply beneficial.

When we actually sit to meditate on cultivating patience, we can modify a simple breathing meditation, bringing to mind a recent situation in which we became angry, or a routine, repeating situation in which we tend to become frustrated or impatient, and then imagine how we might handle it differently with a calmer, more peaceful, and therefore more clear, rational, flexible, and even creative mind. We can envision breathing out anger, breathing in patience and think about the ways in which practicing patience may be of benefit. For this mediation to be effective, we may need to start with small frustrations, like missing the bus or the daily irritations with work and family.

But what about the much more challenging things life throws our way? I woke this morning from an anxious dream about my coming workday to the voice of sound of Celeste Corcoran being interviewed on NPR. “No. This couldn’t be happening,” she remembered saying to herself when she realized she’d been gravely injured in the Boston Marathon bombing. But within a few moments, she realized that she needed to deal with this unthinkable tragedy and somehow go on living. She had a family; she had too much she still wanted to do with this life. It may not seem like the mind of patience we associate with daily setbacks, but in that moment, she exchanged despair for patience.

Her story and stories like hers can motivate us to accept our own daily setbacks and consider how training in patience may help us to deal with the losses we will all inevitably face. After all, we will certainly grow old and die. It’s worth considering how much happier that process will be if we approach it with the mind of patience, also known as “patient acceptance.” Clearly we cannot just pursue happiness, hoping that if we do the right things, good things will happen for us; we have to create happiness out of what does happen. Easier said than done, for certain. This is why we need to train in patience, and why this is called a practice

I’ve always been fortunate to have older and wiser friends. When I was going through a particularly frustrating time in my young life, a kind neighbor and friend gave me a rather famous quote from the Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”  “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves …Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

How ironic that we naturally (though not always) become a bit more patient with age, when we have less time to look forward to and work with than when we were young and impatient. As we get older, we tend to take a more deliberate approach to setbacks and disappointments, to fret less and to consider more; we take our time. This is not just the body slowing down; it’s wisdom. As the 8th century Buddhist master Shantideva most simply and beautifully wrote in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, “If something can be remedied, why be unhappy about it? If there is no remedy, there is still no point in being unhappy.”

Please share your comments below.

Katy Brennan teaches Buddhist meditation in New York City and writes frequently on dharma and spirituality. Check out her previous Weekend Meditation column here

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