adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, July 1st, 2003
In our busy lives, we may easily overlook the value of patience in our quest for accomplishment, efficiency, and fulfillment. When we recognize that clear seeing, peace, compassion, and love are quite different from, even incompatible with, compulsive behavior and reactions, the value of patience becomes apparent. Patience entails choosing not to respond reactively, allowing other possibilities to arise; it provides tremendous support for mindfulness practice. Gentle perseverance, patience under insult, and acceptance of truth are three traditional facets of patience that give strength to mindfulness.
The patience of perseverance keeps us from succumbing to doubt, discouragement, and fear. In Buddhist practice, perseverance enables us to maintain our steady effort. When progress in practice does not meet our expectations, we can easily become discouraged. For example, practice often gives rise to pleasant states; if we assume we can sustain them at will, the reality of change can be quite unpleasant. Or, we may expect practice to develop linearly, with increasing concentration and peace, or steadily decreasing suffering. A period of ease and calm in practice might well provide the inner strength, trust, and sensitivity to confront long-ignored difficulties. It is much easier to sustain practice over the long term if we realize that it doesn’t always unfold in an even, expected way.
Perseverance can also be important when spiritual practice does meet our expectations. When things are going well, it is all too easy to become complacent. In the presence of happiness, calm, or ease, we might forget to maintain a steady dedication to practice.
Gentle perseverance allows us to practice unhindered by both the difficulties and rewards we experience. It is key to letting mindfulness practice sink deep into the marrow of our bones.
Patience under insult means not succumbing to anger, aggression, or despair when threatened. Instead, it means being mindful of our reactions and emotional responses, and perhaps finding wiser ways to respond.
Pausing, even for a moment, before reacting to a difficult situation is a powerful form of patience. A pause may give us a better understanding of the situation and our intentions within it. Sometimes, a pause allows for something wonderful and unexpected to arise, something that would not have happened had we rushed in to comment, react, or control.
Sometimes people find patience by changing their point of reference for understanding a challenging situation. Our understanding is often self-centered; other perspectives may be equally, if not more, appropriate. During the civil rights movement, for example, many people endured a tremendous amount of physical, mental, and emotional insult by understanding its role in a larger context than their own individual suffering. Struggling for civil rights gave their suffering a purpose that transformed the whole country.
The third form of patience is acceptance of truth. It is the willingness to see deeply, without resistance, the truth of the moment and the truth of the deepest levels of reality. This includes living in accord with the insight that at our core there is no self to build up, hang onto, or defend. Seeing the luminous emptiness at the center of all things means that we can begin to let go of grasping to a self-conscious and fixed idea of who we are. This requires a kind of patience because deep spiritual insight is an affront to the ego. Most of us orient our lives around a limited view of ourselves; it can be quite frightening to let this view go. The patient acceptance of truth that allows us to let go is a personal strength developed together with the strengths of virtue, discernment, wisdom, resolve, and loving-kindness.
The ultimate perfection of patience does not come from endurance or a re-evaluation of a situation. Rather it comes from the absence of our habitual, automatic triggers, and reactive hooks to the challenges of life. Fully mature patience is effortless; it is not a doing at all.
Once an angry man insulted the Buddha. The Buddha simply asked the man if people ever visited him in his home. Surprised at the change of topic, the man answered yes. The Buddha then asked if his visitors ever brought gifts. When the man replied yes again, the Buddha asked what would happen if he refused to accept the gifts? Who would the gifts belong to then? The man said that, of course, they would still belong to those who brought them. The Buddha then calmly and, I imagine, kindly said, “In the same way, since I do not accept your insults, they remain with you.”
Since the ultimate patience is effortless, perhaps the opposite of impatience is not patience but rather contentment. By not chasing after the whims of the ego, we have the chance to discover deep contentment that manifests in our life as great patience.