Patience (written 2015)
When children are hovering in the kitchen watching the cookies come out of the oven and mom wants to save little fingers and mouths from being burned, she might counsel “Be patient.” This kind of patience is a waiting, knowing that desire will be fulfilled. It is full of expectation. It shivers and trembles and leans forward. But eventually it will be rewarded. Eventually, mom will pronounce the cookies cool enough and put one into each outstretched hand.
Unfortunately this is the model of patience that for a long time I took as the standard. I don't think I'm alone. Yearn and wait and bide your time, and there will be a payoff. “Good things come to he who waits.” It's polite. It's maybe even saintly. Not pushing and shoving, but waiting. And if the cookies run out, well maybe there'll be a cake in the cupboard.
But this is not the model of patience that fits meditation practice. Here the patience required is still and calm. It's not a waiting but a simple resting in the space of now. No payoff in sight. Not anticipating or expecting, not “just being polite”. “Patient endurance” is a common translation of the Pali word “khanti”, yet for me “endurance” implies something grim that is not part of this process. It's a place of serenity, yet a tricky balancing point. It feels to me like a being with things as they are “as if” they will always be this way, and being ok with that, yet knowing, at the same time, there will be inevitable change in some unknown direction and being ok with that too. It isn't an easy thing to cultivate.
I imagine myself as a child standing in front of the oven not knowing whether any of the cookies will be given to me, yet not feeling grumpy or short changed, not a bit like wheedling or manipulating, not falling into planning how to be sure I get one when no one's looking. A tall order for my child-self. Even a tall order for the grown up sometimes. But this is the kind of patience the teachings refer to as a “perfection of the heart.”
Patience comes into play in at least two ways in meditation practice. One of these is patience with the practice itself. Sitting with the breath for stretches of time not expecting any bells and whistles. Just this. This breath and then this one. Not being reassured of any kind of progress. Trusting and continuing. Climbing a mountain when we can't see the peak. Entering a tunnel when no light beckons from the other end. And even though this kind of patient persistence does set in place new conditions that ultimately improve life's quality, if we practice with that intention, we may well sabotage the whole endeavor. For me it helps to remember that this is my whole life...this breath and then the next one. The rest is memory/past or imagination/future. Neither exists in the space of this breath. We practice without expectation for the future because this moment is all that we have. We need to begin to feel this deeply. Enter the breath and the body deeply. Dwell here.
The second way patience is related to practice is, paradoxically, in its fruits. Cultivating the skill of being here with the breath allows us to be here when we're on hold on the phone, when someone is late, when we're stuck in traffic or waiting in line, when a flight is delayed, when the cat sleeps on the freshly laundered warm clothes in the basket. The list goes on and on. We lose patience when we live as if some alternate moment were possible. This moment is the result of all that came before it. It is exactly as it has to be. Yet we have a choice in the living of it. Patient acceptance, full attention to what is. Or a yearning that is a kind of self harm, and often harmful to others as well if we act out unskillfully.
Patience is big-hearted. It includes an acceptance of our own short fall in this endeavor. We can see our impatience in this moment and accept this, even as we form the intention not to act on it, not to keep the cycle going.