THE PRACTICE OF PATIENCE
by Visu Teoh
Patience is a quality that we may often overlook, thinking that it is a minor virtue of little significance, something rather passive or dull.
Actually patience is a great virtue that can do us a world of good. There is a Chinese proverb: “One moment of patience may ward off great disaster. One moment of impatience may ruin a whole life.”
Patience is a virtue whose benefits we cannot extol enough. To appreciate its value, let us look at the many occasions when patience is needed.
The rule of thumb is this: Whenever you find that you are impatient, that is the time when you most need it.
Say you find yourself irritated – you notice the state of your mind, the inner commentary (i.e., critical thoughts), and you are about to snap at somebody – that’s when you realize you are losing your patience and that’s when you tell yourself: “Hold it, this is the time for me to practise patience.” Or “Patience, patience, let me be patient here.”
We need a lot of patience in our relationships and in our dealing with people. Oftentimes it is with our close and loved ones that we exhibit the most impatience. Maybe this is due to our familiarity with them or our expectations of them to behave in the way we deem fit.
There is the famous saying from the Bible, “Love is patient. Love is kind.” So if we love someone we would show patience and kindness towards that person. Our loved one (just like ourselves) is not perfect and we need to be patient with him or her. We can gently counsel our loved one or set a good example by showing patience and gentleness.
Remember, anger provokes anger and if we show anger or impatience, we are likely to get a hostile, negative or counter-productive reaction from our loved one. Being patient and keeping our peace is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It is easier to lose our mental composure than to maintain it. It takes a wise and superior person to remain calm and unruffled. The Buddha has likened the wise person to a solid rock that is not shaken by the wind. She remains unruffled by blame or praise or in the face of provocations and viscissitudes.
At the time when we are angry with a loved one, a friend, or somebody, we can reflect on the good qualities of the person. Maybe she or he has shown us many acts of love, kindness and generosity or has done us some good turn. Reflecting in this way can help us to soften and have more patience.
Understanding is the key to patience and all other good qualities. Our character is formed by conditioning from childhood and throughout our life. It is easy to repeat a conditioned habitual behaviour and most difficult to check and change it. But it can be done through mindfulness, a strong intention to change, and determined and constant effort to bring about that change.
We ourselves are not perfect and we can notice how difficult it is to change our own negative and unskilful habits. Realizing this we can be more patient with our loved ones and others.
It is important to realize that we cannot change others. They have to change themselves. We can set a good example (i.e., be a positive influence) and give wise counsel but the effort to change must be made by each of us for himself or herself. In this sense no one can do it for us. We ourselves must make the effort.
In any case, our patience is unconditional. We practise patience not only for another’s sake, but also for our own sake, because we believe in patience and in keeping our composure under all circumstances, without exception.
Patience and non-anger go together. St Francis de Sales put it well when he said that it is more important to maintain our composure than to achieve something but lose our temper in the process. It is like losing seven eighths (our cool) for the sake of one eighth (the achievement).
The Buddha, too, made strong statements on behalf of non-anger. Even if bandits were to cruelly cut one up, he said, one should not harbour any thoughts of hostility but instead thoughts of goodwill towards one’s assailants and, by extension, towards all other beings without discrimination.
If we can keep this teaching in mind, the Buddha said, we should be able to endure less dramatic scenarios such as being spoken to rudely or harshly.
Scenarios where patience may be called for: At a government office, one may be impatient or annoyed with a bureaucrat who is rude, indifferent, unsympathetic, unhelpful, unreasonable, inefficient, slow, etc. Be generous. Think maybe this person is working under stressful conditions, or he is unhappy with his life, or he is not in a good mood, or he just does not have the right attitude as regards service. In any case, it is our practice to cultivate patience in all situations, without exception, and we can take this episode as another occasion or opportunity for our practice of patience. Besides, how can we practise patience if we are not tested? So in this case, we can even think, “Thank you for giving me an opportunity to practise and strengthen my patience!” and then do metta, wishing, “May you be happy,” "May you be able to serve better."
Sometimes at a restaurant we may be unhappy with the food or service. There is no point getting annoyed as we suffer whenever we lose our mental composure. Anger is not only painful but dangerous; it makes us miserable, increases our blood pressure, endangers our health, and strengthens the unwholesome tendency towards anger. Again we have to be mindful and do wise reflection to remain calm.
If we meet somebody whom we think is uncultured, uncouth, rude, hopeless, stupid, inefficient, difficult, etc., we should harbour patience and tolerance. We should not become conceited and look down on the person. A wise and noble person treats everybody with respect and politeness. To do otherwise would be to go down to the very level of the person whom we have disdain for. We should remember our practice at all times, i.e., to remain calm and to behave like what we think a wise person who is in control of his emotions, speech and action, would behave.
In addition, we can have compassion for a person who is unable to conduct himself well. Maybe he did not have proper training or guidance or maybe he has not made sufficient effort to improve himself. We are fortunate that we are in a better position. No doubt, an untrained person can cause suffering to others – but in this world we will, unfortunately, have to meet many such people who will upset us from time to time. If we are going to be upset every time we encounter some inconsiderate person, there is going to be a lot of upheaval and suffering in our life. Better for us to remember our practice and take care of our own mind. Besides, we, too, are far from perfect, are not free from faults, do make mistakes, and are still under training. Reflecting thus, we can be more patient, tolerant and understanding.
An important caveat to be made here is that being patient does not mean being a doormat for everybody to walk on. It does not mean we must suffer abuse and injustice meekly without taking any action. Of course, we can speak up and take appropriate action. We can be firm. We can take measures to protect ourselves and preserve our dignity. But in all that we do, we do so calmly without any anger but from a space of wisdom, clarity of mind, and equanimity.
Do we get impatient in the traffic, especially with rude, inconsiderate and dangerous drivers? Is our blood pressure going up, our adrenalin pumping, our body tense? Again we need to be mindful and not fall into the pattern of “angering,” being agitated and tense. We have to practise patience, tolerance, equanimity, calmness, maintaining our mental composure, cheerfulness, a sense of humour, wise reflection and wisdom. We are not saying this practice is easy - that's why it is called a practice - but if we keep trying we will certainly make progress.
When somebody rudely cuts us off or dangerously overtakes, we can keep calm and wish, “May this person drive more responsibly. May he change his dangerous driving habit. May he be happy and may I keep my cool.”
When we are caught in a traffic jam, can we be patient, settle back in out seat, and do some metta by wishing well for all those around us who are also stuck in the jam? Can we come back to our breath, being aware of the body and mind, do some wise reflection or review some teachings we have learned, to keep the mind healthily occupied? If we have a friend in the car, we can engage in some genial conversation.
Don’t we like to beat the red light or are impatient for the light to change when it is red? Since we have no choice but to stop at the red light, we might as well use it as an opportunity to take a breather, to pause, come back to our breath, relax, do metta (may all beings be happy, may so and so be happy), exercise wise reflection, even whistle, sing a song, etc. Anything to keep the mind in a healthy, calm and pleasant state. Modern life is stressful and hectic.We are conditioned to rush about, always on the go. Therefore, it is wise to respond to the red light in a skillful and beneficial way.
When on the internet, do we notice how impatient we are for everything to pop up at a mouse click? We want everything to be fast and instant but it doesn’t always work that way. Then we become impatient, exasperated, annoyed and want to tear our hair out. So here again is the time to practise patience. Be mindful of our impatience. Notice how the impatient mind feels like. It is unpleasant and stressful. Remind ourselves to be patient, come back to our breath and awareness of body sensations and consciousness. Do some metta, wish well for all beings or somebody while waiting.
Do we rush over our chores such as washing dishes, cooking, cleaning, etc? Sometimes more haste can mean less speed. We may chip or break a dish or make a mistake. So why don’t we slow down a little, be mindful, and try to do everything in a calm and collected manner? Even radiating some metta as we are doing those chores. Changing clothes, showering, brushing our teeth, answering nature’s calls, etc., we can do everything mindfully, calmly, peacefully, and patiently. We need to do this to cultivate a certain serenity in our everyday life.
When listening to somebody, are we impatient? Do we cut off the person even before she can finish her sentence? Or do we always complete the sentence for the person? It is good to notice our impatience and give time to somebody to complete their sentence or say their piece. The person feels happy when we do so; she feels heard and is satisfied. Furthermore, we can also respond better when we make an effort to listen patiently, attentively and deeply.
Are we impatient with somebody whom we think is stupid or too slow to catch on? Be patient. Not everybody may have the good fortune to be as smart as you think you are. A wise person will be patient with those that are slow to learn and patiently guide them along.
Sometimes we hear about doctors being curt and impatient with patients. If a doctor were in the shoes of a patient, he too would want answers to his questions, want reassurances and clarifications. No doubt, a doctor may, at times, be hard-pressed for time and a patient may, in certain situations, have to consider others who may be waiting. However, on the whole or as far as possible, a doctor should give reasonable time to his patient and explain things patiently and clearly. He should be sincere in wanting to treat his patient well, compassionately and respectfully.
In a meditation retreat we need lots of patience and perseverance as we have to put up with the five hindrances of sensual desire, ill-will, laziness and drowsiness, restlessness and worry, and sceptical doubt. The meditator also has to tolerate bodily pain and discomfort, heat and cold, insects such as mosquitoes and flies, and often less than ideal practice conditions.
Sitting in meditation, the mind may wander a lot. We have to be very patient to bring it back again and again to the meditation object, remembering that even if we spend the whole hour just bringing the mind back every time it wanders off, the hour is still well spent, for we are practising awareness of mind and creating a habit of bringing it back to the meditation object. We can also appreciate here what the Buddha meant by not-self (anatta) – it is not something that is according to our wish or command but something that is subject to conditioning and habit. With practice we can train and condition the mind to stay with the meditation object and develop both calm and insight.
When we are sick or suffering from some chronic ailments such as arthritis, asthma, rhinitis, and rheumatism, we need a lot of patience and tolerance to bear up with the physical suffering and discomfort. Now and then when we lose our patience and become agitated or depressed, we have to be mindful and re-institute our patience, tolerance and equanimity.
Are we impatient with our spiritual progress? This can happen when we fall into despair thinking that we are not making enough progress, that we are going too slow or not making enough effort, or that despite all our effort we don’t seem to be making much headway. It is understandable that we should feel this way sometimes. However, we should not lose heart but keep on trying and have faith and trust that everything is developing in its own time.
The mind is something conditioned and if we keep conditioning it to cultivate all the values we hold dear, it will be inclined in that way. We can see how more and more we are becoming the person we like to be, how certain qualities of awareness, lovingkindness, understanding, the ability to reflect wisely, etc., are growing in us, how they arise more and more naturally and spontaneously in us. We should acknowledge and appreciate this progress and congratulate ourselves for having come thus far. We should be patient and realise that it takes time to be fully enlightened and be totally free of all mental defilements such as craving, anger, and delusion.
Progress is a gradual process. The Buddha compared it to a farmer cultivating his field. The farmer cannot immediately expect after ploughing his field and sowing the seeds, “Let my crops start growing today! Let them mature tomorrow! Let them bear grain the day after tomorrow!” But, with the change of the seasons over time, the crops grow, mature and bear grain.
Another example given by the Buddha is that of an adze used by a carpenter for shaping wood. With prolonged usage over time there will come to be an indent on the handle of the adze caused by the pressing of the carpenter’s fingers and thumb on it. However, the carpenter cannot know, “I have worn away so much of the adze handle today, so much yesterday, so much earlier; but when it has worn away, he knows that it has worn away.”
So, too, when a spiritual practitioner is devoted to the cultivation of her mind, she cannot know, “I have worn away so much of the mental taints today, so much yesterday, so much earlier,” yet with dedicated practice over time she will come to experience the gradual diminution, erosion and elimination of those taints.
Consider yet another simile given by the Buddha, “Just as the great ocean slants, slopes, and inclines gradually, not dropping off abruptly, so too, in this Dhamma and discipline, penetration to final knowledge occurs by gradual training, gradual doing, and gradual practice, not abruptly.”
Encouraging also is the example of a stone cutter given by social reformist Jacob Riss: “Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
Thus we should take take heart. Our job is to just keep on practising and we will certainly be making progress. We must have faith and trust in ourselves and the development process. We just have to keep at it and everything will fall into place in due time. When we see some significant progress made at a later date, we must remember that it was due to all the effort we have made before that enabled us to reach this far. So whatever effort we are making now is never lost, it all contributes to our development and progress.
That patience is one of the ten perfections cultivated by the bodhisatta underscores its importance. Siddhatha Gotama was said to have cultivated patience in an innumerable number of lives before he finally succeeded in becoming a Buddha in his final life.
It is interesting to know the qualities that are required to be practised to perfection in order to become a Buddha. They are (1) giving or generosity, (2) morality, (3) renunciation, (4) wisdom, (5) effort, (6) patience, (7) truthfulness, (8) determination, (9) lovingkindness, and (10) equanimity.
According to the Pali commentary, the Buddha once admonished a monk who could not control his anger: “Why after all that I have taught you, do you still give way to anger? Wise men in bygone days, though they suffered a thousand stripes, and had their hands and feet and ears and nose cut off, showed no anger against another." And then the Buddha related this story of how he had practised patience and non-anger even when cruelly tortured to death in a previous life.
At that time the bodhisatta (the Buddha-to-be) was an ascetic living in a park. One day the king came with his entourage to the park. He was entertained by his dancing girls. When he grew tired and dozed off, the women wandered in the park and came across the bodhisatta. They asked the bodhisatta to give them an edifying talk.
Meanwhile the king was awakened by one of his favourite courtesans who had sauntered back. This courtesan informed the king that the other members of his harem were attending to an ascetic. Being enraged with jealousy, the king went to confront the bodhisatta, challenging, “Who are you and what doctrine are you preaching?”
"The doctrine of patience, Your Majesty," the bodhisatta replied.
"What is this patience?" said the king.
"The not being angry, when men abuse you and strike you and revile you."
Said the king, "I will see now the reality of your patience," and he summoned his executioner who approached the king and asked, "What is your pleasure, Sire?"
"Take and drag off this vile rogue of an ascetic," said the king. "Throw him on the ground and give him two thousand lashes of your whip.”
This was done. And the bodhisatta's skin was cut through to the flesh, and the blood flowed.
The king again asked, "What doctrine do you preach, monk?"
"The doctrine of patience, Your Highness," he replied. "You fancy that my patience is only skin deep. It is not skin deep, but is fixed deep within my heart, where it cannot be seen by you, Sire."
The king ordered the executioner, "Cut off both the hands of this false ascetic." And he did so. Not satisfied, the king said, "Off with his feet," and the bodhisatta’s feet were lopped off. And the blood flowed from the extremities of his limbs.
Again the king asked what doctrine the bodhisatta preached. "The doctrine of patience, Your Highness," he replied. "You imagine, Sire, that my patience dwells in the extremities of my hands and feet. It is not there, but it is deep seated somewhere else."
The king said, "Cut off his nose and ears." The executioner complied. The bodhisatta’s whole body was now covered with blood. Again the king asked of his doctrine. And the ascetic replied, "Think not that my patience is seated in the tips of my nose and ears: my patience is deep seated within my heart."
Seeing that he could not in anyway provoke the bodhisatta, the king stepped on his chest and strode off angrily.
The commander-in-chief of the army came and beseeched the ascetic not to put a curse on the kingdom. That, however, was the last thing on the mind of the bodhisatta who replied:
“Long live the king, whose cruel hand my body thus has marred,
Pure souls like mine such deeds as these with anger ne’er regard.”
As the story goes, the bodhisatta died on the same day and presumably took another birth where he continued to cultivate his perfections. Soon afterwards the king died and naturally went to hell.
Of course, one, in this modern age, would question the veracity of this story. How can a person tolerate such excruciating pain and still converse with the king! For me I look at it more as a moral lesson to encourage us to practise patience, non-anger, and forgiveness under all circumstances.
It is the same lesson as that given by the Buddha in his simile of the saw: "Monks, even if bandits were to sever you savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching.
“Herein, monks, you should train thus: 'Our minds will remain unaffected, and we will utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of lovingkindness, without inner hate.
“‘We shall abide pervading them with a mind imbued with lovingkindness; and starting with them, we shall abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with lovingkindness, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will.’ That is how you should train, monks.”
The Buddha further asked that if the monks were to keep this Simile of the Saw constantly in mind, would there be any kind of rude or offensive speech, be it trivial or gross, that they could not bear or endure?
The monks replied, “No, venerable sir,” to which the Buddha rejoined, “You should, therefore, keep this advice on the Simile of the Saw constantly in mind. That will lead to your welfare and happiness for a long time.”
Patience is the key to the practice of non-anger. The moment we are angry it means we have lost our cool. The sage is one who can maintain her composure under all circumstances and especially in the face of grave provocation. The one who can remain unruffled is not weak. She is stronger and superior to the one who gives vent to anger. In fact, it is much easier to show anger than to restrain it.
Of course, we, who are under training, will still lose our cool. We are no Buddha or bodhisatta. But we can practise patience as much and as well as we can. And to the extent that we can exercise it, to that extent will we feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. We will be happier and better able to spread happiness to the people around us.
"One moment of patience in a moment of anger saves a thousand moments of regret."
"Patient endurance is the supreme practice."
"Patience is the companion of wisdom."
“One moment of patience may ward off great disaster. One moment of impatience may ruin a whole life.”