Patience is a practice, not a virtue

by | Apr 2, 2017 | Mindfulness

Patience is the guardian of faith, the preserver of peace, the cherisher of love, the teacher of humility; Patience governs the flesh, strengthens the spirit, sweetens the temper, stifles anger, extinguishes envy, subdues pride; she bridles the tongue, refrains the hand, tramples upon temptations, endures persecutions…

—George Horne

It was quite by accident that through my mindfulness practice I learned a little bit about being patient. As it turns out the practice of mindfulness is closely related to patience. The dictionary defines mindfulness as a mental state in which one focuses one’s full attention only on the present, experiencing thoughts, feelings, and sensations but not judging them. And it defines patience as the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like. They sound a lot alike, don’t they? Not only do they sound a lot alike, in Full Catastrophe Living Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “developing one’s skills for mindfulness IS how you builds patience.”

The funny thing is I thought patience had something to do with happily accepting things that I don’t like. But by definition that’s not the case. Accepting the moment as it is, however, is the real key to being both patient and mindful. So when something happens that I like or don’t like, the mindful thing to do is to accept however I feel in the moment. I can even look at it, examine it and question how I feel to become more familiar with sensations. As I become more aware of both what is going on within myself and what’s going on around me for that matter, I practice being more mindful. Through the process of appreciating and engaging with all the narratives, the sensations, the feelings of my life from beginning to end, the good, the bad and the ugly —I become more patient. In a sense, to become more patient we should try not think about being patience at all. Patience is a consequence of presence.

Abraham-Hicks says words don’t teach, experience teaches. I interpret that to mean that words provide us with the knowledge about the concept and experience turns that understanding into usable tools that we can call on when we need them. Applying that same logic to mindfulness, I find it super comforting knowing that mindfulness is a craft that I can look to and that patience is the off shoot I can engage on and off the mat. Realizing that, it’s not surprising that, Saint Augustine says, “patience is the companion of wisdom.” Kabat-Zinn illustrates this idea using the analogy of a child trying to help a butterfly out of its cocoon by slitting the cocoon open. While it could seem like a good idea to help the caterpillar out of tight and possible uncomfortable situation, it could be fatal if the butterfly isn’t ready to emerge (33-40).

As a consequence, as Kabat-Zinn says, when we practice mindfulness, “we intentionally remind ourselves that there is no need to be impatient with ourselves because we find the mind judging all the time, or because we are tense or agitated or frightened. We give ourselves room to have these experiences. Why? Because we are having them anyway!” This experience is what’s happening in the present moment. “When they come up, [whatever they might take the form up] they are our reality, they are part of our life unfolding in this moment.” They present an opportunity to practice and build our mental muscle. So we practice noticing what impatience feels like. We treat ourselves as gently, with as much care and compassion as we would treat the butterfly. Why rush through some moments to get to other, “better” ones? After all, each moment is the life we have in that instant.

None of this means I must be perfect and Zen all the time. That pressure is lifted from me. I still feel what I feel when I feel it and that is my experience. In fact, I actually feel more and sense more because I am aware of more. Sensations are so much stronger because I’m so aware of them. Life is denser than it ever has been before. Instead the key to finding some semblance of peace from the realizations that I am not my emotions. They come and they go. They are transitory, fleeting, lasting only a short time. Thanks to my wandering mind, the flare up of my emotions and the inevitable itch during my meditation session, I have countless opportunity to practice coming back to the moment.

When we practice mindfulness we learned to accept and trust that things will come to bear in their own time. Moreover I’ve also come to understand that more often than I’ve needed the experience to be ready for the next phase of our lives. Mindfulness is a craft used to create or not create, as is appropriate, and patience is an expression of that practice. So when we acknowledge what’s going on around us on purpose, we have the tendency to respond wisely. Sharon Salzberg further assures us that “patience doesn’t mean making a pact with the devil of denial, ignoring our emotions and aspirations. It simply means being wholeheartedly engaged in the process that’s unfolding, rather than ripping open a budding flower or demanding that the caterpillar hurries up and get that chrysalis stage over with.” Happily, there is no sin in the practice of mindfulness. The object is to be present, not perfect.

I, as Paulo Coelho so beautifully writes in The Alchemist “have seen many storms in my life. Most storms have caught me by surprise, so I had to learn … to look further and understand that I am not capable of controlling the weather, to exercise the art of patience and to respect the fury of nature.” Surely more challenges will come my way. But now I breath deeply out of habit. I accept that my mind is going to think, even when I don’t want it to. I’m Ok with feeling what I’m going to feel. And I’ve gotten over that voice that chides me when I squirm from time to time during meditation. That’s just how it is. Even still, Dieter F. Uchtdorf dispel any lingering doubts with these words of encouragement; “patience is not passive resignation, nor is it failing to act because of our fears. Patience means active waiting and enduring. It means staying with something and doing all that we can – working, hoping, and exercising faith; bearing hardship with fortitude, even when the desires of our hearts are delayed. Patience is not simply enduring; it is enduring well!”

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