Saturday, October 3, 2009

Patience is a Virtue

Patience is one of the most important spiritual values; yet few of us have actually achieved this quality. Unexpectedly, our computer freezes or we get stuck in traffic and our natural tendency for impatience appears. For one moment (and perhaps even longer), we are filled with anger about something we cannot control. Impatience hurts no one except ourselves – unless we take out our anger on the people who are close to us. If we hurt others because we are frustrated by an uncontrollable event, we have committed an act of aggression that is completely unfair to the other person. The affected person did not cause the event, so why should he or she be punished by our inability to deal with it? And why should we punish ourselves for something that is out of our control?

Practicing patience takes incredible self-control. It means that we don’t let the frustrating external events affect our peace of mind. This philosophy is easier said than done. Impatience is a “knee-jerk” reaction. It feels like a natural reflex to the event that precipitated the emotion. Yet, we have the power to train our minds and to control our impatience. For example, I was once late to an appointment and I got stuck in a line at the post office. There was nothing I could do to change the situation because the package had to go out that day and the post office would be closed if I waited until the appointment was over. The woman at the counter was incredibly slow and spent time having casual conversations with the customers. I immediately felt my impatience rising to the surface, but I used the event to test my patience. I had control over the way I reacted to the situation – I could be patient or impatient. I knew that nothing would change by my impatience but for some reason, I initially believed that it was a necessary release for the anger I felt inside. Yet, then I realized that I didn’t need to feel the anger. Wasn’t this my own fault for not leaving enough time to mail the package? If I weren’t late, I could be patient because time wouldn’t matter so much. I then looked behind me. There were 15 other people standing in the same line due to the slow response from the counter. Instead of feeling impatient, I started to feel compassion for the other people. They would have to wait longer than I had to wait and I knew that all of them were feeling the same frustration over a circumstance that could not be changed. When I switched the anger and impatience to compassion, my emotional state completely changed. My impatience was gone. The worst thing that would happen is that I would be late to the appointment, which would probably be forgiven by agreeing to end the meeting at the same time as scheduled. I would just have to present my case faster than I expected. I knew that the lateness was not the post office’s fault; it was my own. Taking responsibility for the action reduced my natural inclination for frustration, and in turn, I conquered my feelings of impatience.

Why is patience so important? I think there are larger issues associated with obtaining patience, such as tolerance, self-control, and restraint. Without patience, we could never be tolerant of people who are different from ourselves. Instead, impatience can rise to the surface because we may believe that these people have views that are based on convoluted rationale or faulty logic. Only with genuine patience and an open mind, can we understand why they feel the way they do.

On the other side of the coin, many people feel impatient when they are confronted with someone who can’t understand what they are trying to say or when another person’s mind takes longer to process information (or to explain concepts). Inherently, we want other people’s minds to work in the same way that our minds work. If we can explain a concept in 5 minutes, we do not expect that others will take 20 minutes to explain the same thing. It takes great patience to understand that other people may need more time to comprehend information or to express a point of view. While this scenario is common when adults are trying to explain concepts to children, we tend to give children greater leeway. When adults are talking to other adults, they do not expect large discrepancies in the ability to process and regurgitate information. Yet, we all are different and our minds are different. A concept that seems obvious to one person may seem obscure to another. With tolerance, self-control and restraint, we can give the more leeway to people who may not live up to our expectations. Instead of being frustrated that someone else may process information slowly or differently, we should feel fortunate that our brains can rapidly comprehend difficult information. Patience also allows us to be tolerant of other’s opinions even if we don’t agree with them.

I once heard someone criticize a person who was having difficulty understanding a particular concept. He whispered to a mutual friend, “If you told her you would give her a penny for her thoughts, you would probably get change.” This is a case of extreme intolerance. Instead of being sensitive to the possibility that this person may process information differently, the slower response time was turned into a negative judgment and rude criticism (which was unfairly used to make one person feel superior to another). Patience with others means that we give them the benefit of the doubt. We don’t make unfair judgments and we don’t criticize; we simply understand that other people’s minds are different from our own.

Another downside of impatience is that we may not be able to effectively control our desires. We live in a “fast-food” economy and impatience causes us to want everything “now.” Without patience, we do not have the restraint to avoid fulfilling all of our desires as soon as we can. If we want to make money quickly, we may not have the desire to go to college because the degree delays our ability to generate income (unless we believe that college will increase our ability to make money, which makes us view college as a necessary investment in human capital). If we want to feel ecstasy now, we may not have the restraint to avoid alcohol and drugs. A state of natural ecstasy can exist by training the mind through meditation. This is the long path toward fulfillment and takes a strong commitment that does not “pay off” immediately. It may just be easier to obtain temporary ecstasy through mind-altering substances. Thus, by developing patience, we increase our self-control.

Impatience can also cause us to ruin relationships. For example, we may want serious romantic involvement immediately but this impatience can scare another person away. If we can be patient enough to wait for the right timing, we may find that a possible rejection is avoided. I once dated someone who I was not interested in romantically. Yet, he was very patient with me and never asked me to make a decision about pursuing an intimate relationship. A few months later, my emotions changed. If he had been impatient in the beginning of the relationship, I would have been forced to reject him before I could get to know him better.

Subtle impatience occurs when certain people’s behaviors “get on our nerves.” The “little things” can really bother us and annoying personality characteristics can cause extreme frustration. For example, some individuals eat with their mouth open or chew very loudly. Once this behavior is noticed, every single bite can sound like a hailstorm. Even though one person may be “polite” by not saying anything, he or she can be going crazy inside. Undoubtedly, we all know this is a trivial concern, but eventually it can become extremely annoying and the hidden frustration can easily turn into disparaging remarks. Subsequently, the loud eater is caught off-guard because he has no idea that something is wrong.

Another form of subtle impatience is when grown children visit their parents. Often, their parents’ intonations and body language immediately cause the children to express frustration and impatience as they are reminded of the way that they were treated long ago. Harmless statements can turn into arguments merely because the tone of voice was condescending. Spouses can also do things that are extremely irritating, or as Thomas Aquinas said, “familiarity breeds contempt.” A good example of this was portrayed in the movie, The Wedding Planner. The future bride said, “I hate that he sings in the shower and chews on pen caps and it drives me nuts when he rolls up his left pant leg after he has eaten too much.” Independently, none of these things seem particularly problematic. Yet, after a period of time, the little things cause the greatest amount of impatience. In all of these cases, we may find ourselves losing our temper over insignificant words and gestures. It takes great patience to ignore the little things bother us. We already know that these things are unimportant but without patience, they can seem to be bigger problems than they really are. To avoid outbursts, we have to be able to put things in their proper perspective. We need to be able to ignore the words and gestures that cause our tempers to rise. Self-control, tolerance and restraint are the qualities we need to overcome our natural tendency to overact.

Impatience also surfaces when people repeat themselves over and over. Inside, the listener is struggling against screaming, “But you have already said the same thing three times before and the last time you said it was only five minutes ago!” People who continually repeat themselves have a problem with memory (sometimes short-term memory and sometimes long-term memory). It is appropriate to remind the person that you have already heard the story in a compassionate way, such as “Yes, I remember that you told me about that; and wasn’t it wonderful.” The worst thing to do is to listen to the story again, while letting the anger, impatience and frustration build up inside. The response to the repeated story is usually curt and flippant because it can be infuriating to repeat a reaction that someone obviously did not hear the first time. However, if you can listen again and be silent and polite, while not harboring any negative thoughts, then it may be appropriate to hear the story again so that you can avoid embarrassing the person about his or her forgetfulness. The second method invokes compassion for the temporary lapse in memory and protects the person’s pride.

Impatience is like anger – we end up hurting ourselves through increased blood pressure, mental agitation, faster heart rates, and other negative physical conditions. Impatience also causes us to treat others with disrespect. Inevitably, the person who feels impatient takes out his or her anger on the person who is believed “responsible” for the inequity. At the post office, I saw customers treating the postal worker with contempt. She was doing the best that she could; the post office was simply understaffed. Yet she became the scapegoat for the post office’s inefficiency.

In general, we need to stop reacting to things we cannot control. Impatience is only frustration with the events of our lives that we cannot change. If we had control over these events, we would simply take action instead of feeling impatient. We have to understand that much of what we experience in life is out of our control. We can go to great lengths to ensure that we will not be stuck in a traffic jam, but an unexpected accident can still cause the traffic to come to a dead halt. There was no way to know that a car would lose control an hour before we left home. If we cannot change an event, we simply need to accept it rather than feeling anger that has no purpose except to upset us internally.

We also cannot change other people unilaterally. If we choose to feel anger every time someone does something we don’t like, we will live in a world of anger and impatience. In the end, we only hurt others and ourselves.

How do we change our natural tendency to become impatient? I suppose there are a variety of different methods that will control impatience: 1) we could be more tolerant of the perceived inadequacies, 2) we could feel sympathy for others who are faced with the same inconvenience, 3) we could express compassion for ourselves for having to face the negative scenario, or 4) we can forgive a personality characteristic that we judge negatively. We are all just human, after all.

We could also divert our thinking to control our peace of mind. If someone is driving us crazy, we can refuse to pay attention. While we are waiting impatiently, we could use the time to focus on our breathing, which stimulates an internal calmness and a sense of euphoria. Many people say they have no time to meditate because they believe that meditation has to be conducted in a certain way. Yet, meditation can happen anywhere. Instead of feeling frustrated about being stuck in a line that doesn’t move, we can use the time to meditate. Or maybe we can view the unfortunate situation as a way of meeting a stranger. Two people stuck in line are sharing something in common, which could be a way of starting a conversation. The resulting dialogue could reduce the impatience for both people. Though it is important to have a positive conversation even though the two people are experiencing a negative event. If we are in a car, we can use the time to read, listen to music, or hear a book on tape. Surely, these activities are better than feeling frustration over a problem that has no solution.

The irony of patience is that it requires patience to develop patience. It is a circular problem. If we are impatient with ourselves, we will not have the discipline necessary to develop patience. We need to be patient enough to calm our internal state of mind when it does not want to be controlled. It is easier to express anger and frustration than to find peace of mind through patience. Furthermore, patience leads to further patience and impatience leads to more impatience. For example, impatience may cause us to cut others off during a conversation when we feel that they are taking too long to express their point of view. If we could relax and let them take as long as they like to make their point, then other people would not express impatience in return. The patience of one participant in a discussion leads to patience in the other person as well. Or stated a different way -- if we are impatient with people, they respond with impatience. They start cutting us off because we did not give them the chance to finish what they were saying. We assume we knew where they were going, but perhaps we didn’t. Without patience, we can never know for sure.

As stated by the Dalai Lama, “We need to put the practice of patience at the heart of our daily lives. It is a question of familiarizing ourselves with it, at the deepest level, so that when we do find ourselves in a difficult situation, although we may have to make an extra effort, we know what is involved. On the other hand, if we ignore the practice of patience until we are actually experiencing trouble, it is quite likely we will not succeed in resisting provocation. One of the best ways to begin familiarizing ourselves with the virtue of patience is by taking time to reflect systematically on its benefits. It is the source of forgiveness… and it enables us to have compassion for the individual. Similarly, when we develop the ability patiently to forebear, we find that we develop a proportionate reserve of calmness and tranquility. We tend to be less antagonistic and more pleasant to associate with. This in turn, creates a positive atmosphere around us so that it is easier for others to relate to us. And being better grounded emotionally through the practice of patience, we find that not only do we become much stronger mentally and spiritually, but we tend to be healthier physically.”

Parents who are patient with their children help develop patience in the next generation. If we see our parents losing control when the slightest thing goes wrong, we are likely to emulate the behavior. It takes great patience to avoid being frustrated by children who may not always live up to our expectations. Though if we have the restraint to avoid impatience, we are helping our children achieve patience as well.

Even great spiritual leaders who understand the value of patience can be guilty of being impatient from time to time. I know of no one who does not list impatience as a fault. Even Jesus expressed impatience when others could not understand him. Patience is truly one of the hardest and most important virtues. It requires a detachment of ego or self from the event that is causing frustration. If we are attached to the outcome, we are more likely to pass judgment or to have certain expectations that cannot be realized. Developing patience is an understanding that inner peace, regardless of external circumstances, is sacred. In essence, patience requires us to rise above our humanity.

Every teacher needs to have patience with his or her students. Without patience, the student will never learn. Instead, there will be alienation from the professor and defensiveness from the student. Walls will appear that block the message from reaching its recipient. Impatience is condescending. The “victim” feels inferior and thus, will refuse to learn. We learn from the people we respect and we ignore the ones who we feel contempt for. If we have the desire to share our knowledge with others, we have to be patient enough to understand that everyone learns according to their own schedule. There are many individuals who now understand what Jesus was trying to teach, but it has taken 2,000 years for the messages to become clear. Humankind needed to evolve spiritually to understand the essence of his arguments and some priests still miss the major points even after years of dedicated study. Correspondingly, some individuals can spend the majority of their lives trying to understand the Kabbalah before the importance of its message is comprehended.

In general, the most effective method for increasing patience is by ignoring the insignificant things that bother us. The people who annoy us are not intentionally trying to hurt us; we are just irritated by things about them that we cannot control. If we can’t control their personalities, we have to realize that the annoying characteristics are here to stay. We can either exclude these people from our lives or choose to tolerate them. The inappropriate response is to lose patience with them. No one deserves to be treated with disrespect. If we cannot respect the people in our lives, we should probably limit our contact with them.

As further stated by the Dalai Lama, “As a second step to familiarize ourselves with the virtue of patience, it is also very helpful to think of adversity not so much as a threat to our peace of mind but rather as the very means by which patience is attained. From this perspective, we see that those who would harm us are, in a sense, teachers of patience… From adversity we can learn the value of patient forbearance. And in particular, those who would harm us give us unparalleled opportunities to practice disciplined behavior.”

With patience we can have respect for others who are different from ourselves, we can tolerate opinions that conflict with our belief systems and we can forgive personality characteristics that annoy us. Patience also allows us to understand that everything does not have to happen right away and we can feel forgiveness for unnecessary delays. Happiness can take a lifetime and love may not appear until we have given up on it. Timelines simply set expectations, but with patience we have the power to control our expectations. Frustration appears only when things happen slower than we think they should happen. If we expect that certain events will take a long time, we could be pleasantly surprised by their occurrence rather than frustrated by their delay. For example, if a little girl were told that she would meet her “prince” at the age of 60, she would not be surprised or impatient if she had not met him when she was 35. And if she did meet him at 35, she would be pleasantly surprised to have an extra 25 years with this person. If we expect that it will take an hour to mail a package, we may be pleasantly surprised by a 30-minute line.

We have to accept that we cannot control everything around us. After a husband dies, the wife sometimes waits impatiently to join him. Yet, without committing suicide, she must wait for her natural time of death. This does not mean that she wakes up everyday disappointed that she is still alive. She can still enjoy the time she has left. With a combination of patience and an ability to find activities that she enjoys, she can wait with a calm state of mind. Impatience is like watching grass grow. We can stare at the grass everyday with frustration that its progress is incredibly slow or we could lie in the sun and appreciate the nice days that contribute to its growth.

Virtues are never easy to obtain and patience is one of the hardest. Since we need patience to develop patience, the end goal can seem incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Yet, we all have the ability to cultivate patience in others and ourselves. It just may take a lifetime to accomplish it.

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