Saturday, June 30, 2012

Meditating on Patience

Meditating on patience today, I had a somewhat counter-intuitive insight. I'll get to it in a moment, but first a quick preamble.

People (including myself) often resist being patient because they see it a hopelessly difficult exercise in frustration. We associate it with clock-watching, standing in long lines, filling out bureaucratic forms, feeling mistreated in ways that are really awkward to address, or watching hopelessly while a political cause near and dear to our hearts is frustrated--again. Who wants to be patient? Probably only masochists, right?

Of course the better angels of our nature know that this isn't the right way to think about patience, that's it's a virtue eminently useful for our own sakes and in our interactions with others, blah blah blah. But rarely do any of us eagerly seek out lessons in patience, the way we would in, say, scuba diving or Photoshop or whatever we are paying obscene amounts of money to get a degree in. But those lessons always come anyway, as we all know.

In short, our objections to patience usually have something to do with the fact that, in the times and places where we actually have to be patient, time seems to slow down. It seems to stretch out, giving us the feeling that we are wasting our time instead of doing something more useful or valuable to us. No matter how long it lasts, whether several seconds (why is the internet so slow?) or several years (when will this uninteresting project finally be finished?), we literally can't wait for the situation to be over. And yet, this is precisely the thing about patience that makes it so eminently wonderful, as I discovered today.

We live in a society that is constantly pressed for time. Many of us complain that there is literally not enough time in a day to do everything that we want or need to do. For some of us, it's an unavoidable situation with which we may be forced to be patient, and when it ends is out of our control. But many of us create such a situation for ourselves. Rather than focusing on doing a couple of things really well and slowly developing skill in them over time, we try to gulp down as much knowledge and experience as possible in as little time as possible. I myself have been guilty of this on numerous occasions, especially since it's behavior that our society rewards in various ways (admission to schools, acceptance for employment, social prestige, etc.).

But the great thing that I realized today (after realizing a few ways in which I really needed to work on my patience) is that being patient actually gives me more time. When I decide to be patient about something, the artificial deadlines I (or at times others) have set for myself seem to melt away, and time slows down to what I could call "patient standard time." Suddenly, problems seem a lot more solvable. Anxiety diminishes. The need to have an immediate solution or answer disappears. Many books have been written about "the power of now" and learning how to live in the present moment rather than the past or future. This is, in fact, a core practice in many Buddhist traditions. It seems to me, now, that "patience" is precisely the "present moment." It knocks us back to what is happening right now and both confronts us with the reality of our suffering around that and immediately works to alleviate that suffering. When I am patient, I have time.

But not only does patience slow down time and give me more of it, it also gives me perspective on that time. Patience may be about living in the here and now, but paradoxically, it also focuses on the bigger picture. When I am impatient, the present moment feels constricting, suffocating. It's all I can see--and often it's all I can project into the past and future. But patience gives me space in the now. When I am patient, I recognize the now as just one moment in a very long succession of moments of which each is different. When I am patient, I do not judge myself or others based on where they are right now, but remind myself of my ignorance about the future and look at my life and theirs as a whole. Patience is intimately tied in with compassion. Perhaps that is why people who regularly meditate are said to become more compassionate with time, especially if they have the explicit intention to cultivate patience and compassion through meditation. Time makes us more charitable towards one another.

Perhaps, in the end, what Saint Augustine said is true: "'The reward of patience is patience."

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