What can meditation teach me about the power of patience?
Modern society doesn’t know quite what to make of patience. On the one hand, patience may not seem to be assertive or driven enough, while on the other it’s known to be a virtue of the wise. As Master Po tells his student in the cult TV series Kung Fu, “Grasshopper, seek first to know your own journey’s beginning and end… But in this seeking, know patience.” The trick along the journey, even for an accomplished kung fu master, is to recognize when you need to speak up or take action, and when you should practice patience.
Sometimes, even when we know better, we give in to our impulses. We send off that email or text in anger and regret it almost immediately; we can’t resist buying that new gadget even though the one we’ve got is perfectly serviceable; we shout our annoyance at a friend, a child, a pet, or the driver of the car in front of us; we can’t wait to have that drink; the phone pings and we just have to look at it now. When focused on things we desire, impatience makes impulsive consumers of us; when focused on things that irritate, impatience can lead to disastrous results.
Those of us who are old enough may remember a poster featuring two turkey vultures on a branch in the desert. “Patience my ass,” one is saying, “I’m gonna kill something.” But contrary to popular belief, the quality of patience is less a matter of passive waiting and more a matter of recognizing our options. It flies in the face of impulsivity and lets us play the long game when that’s our best choice.
In his article The Lost Virtue of Patience, psychiatrist and author Neel Burton writes, “Rather than make us into a hostage to fortune, patience frees us from frustration and its ills, and affords us the calm and perspective to think, say, and do the right thing in the right way at the right time—while still being able to enjoy all the other things that are good in our life.”
Okay, I get it, patience is good. But how can I increase my patience?
We’re delighted that you asked. Meditation and patience are natural allies. You don’t need to seek out a specific meditation for patience, especially if mindfulness practice is on your radar. There’s no better training ground than mindfulness. Similarly, when you engage in mindfulness, you will need a healthy dose of patience to keep going.
In Zen Buddhism, patience is the second of seven “attitudinal foundations,” or pillars, of mindfulness. In his book Full Catastrophe Living, applied mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn presents these as:
• A Beginner’s Mind
• Letting Go
“Patience is a form of wisdom,” he writes. “It demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things must unfold in their own time.”
When we meditate, we experiment with how to increase or develop patience each and every time we notice that the mind has wandered, an itch is begging for attention, a memory or idea just won’t let us be, or an emotion such as frustration or boredom arises. How so? Because we’re cultivating the ability to accept what is arising in the moment and learning that we don’t have to act on it. We have choices. We don’t have to jump up from the cushion or chair; we don’t have to scratch that itch; we don’t have to disappear into a comforting daydream. We can experiment directly with the fact that everything is changing, all the time. The thought, itch, or emotion will pass and something else will vie for our attention. What are we going to do with that? Acknowledge it, apply acceptance and patience, and go back to meditation. That’s the practice.
Can meditation help me heal anger and deal with frustration?
Many of the meditation methods used today are rooted in ancient Buddhist teachings. And indeed, in classic Buddhist texts, cultivating patience is presented as the most effective antidote to anger. Frustration and anger are unpleasant and potentially destructive emotions; the good news is that when we experience them, we are naturally motivated to rein them in. In his seminal book on the bodhisattva’s way of life, the famed 8th century master Shantideva devotes a chapter to patience in which he writes:
There is no evil equal to hatred, and no spiritual practice equal to forbearance. Therefore one should develop forbearance by various means, with great effort.
One’s mind finds no peace, neither enjoys pleasure or delight, nor goes to sleep, nor feels secure while the dart of hatred is stuck in the heart.
Patience and its cousin forbearance are inclusive and accepting of what is. Instead of letting frustration, rejection, and ill temper rule the roost, we are learning to distance ourselves from them through our practice. As we become more comfortable acknowledging and letting go of emotions in our meditation, we find that this ability naturally extends into our everyday lives.
One reason why anger and hatred are considered to be so powerfully negative in Buddhism as well as in other spiritual paths is that these emotions temporarily sever our connection to other people and animals. Instead of wishing them well and being concerned with their welfare, we reject and often judge them very harshly. We are focused on what’s wrong with them instead of making the effort to handle our own emotions. And yet, even if we’ve managed to sidestep one unpleasant situation, another is likely to be lurking around the corner.
Working on ourselves through reflection and meditation is transformative. Reality doesn’t have to suit our fantasies of an ideal world. Through training in mindfulness on the cushion, we are training in patience. Each time we apply our training to the difficult situations we encounter off the cushion, we glimpse and fortify the true power of patience.