Reprinted with the kind permission of Toni Bernhard.
What is patience? I like to start with the dictionary. “Patience: the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, difficulty, or annoyance without getting angry or upset.” I don’t know anyone whose life is free of these three. In fact, I can’t recall a single day in my own life when at least one of them didn’t make an appearance.
For many years, my reaction to the presence of any one of the three was to get “angry”—or at least “upset.” Then I realized that this response served only to make an already stressful and unpleasant situation worse. So I began making a conscious effort to respond to “delay, difficulty, or annoyance” differently. Sometimes the best I could do was “tolerate” their presence. But I kept at it and, with practice, I became better able to “accept” them open-heartedly as an inevitable part of life.
When I could do this—tolerate and sometimes even accept delay, difficulty, or annoyance—I noticed two things. First, being patient is a way of treating myself with compassion. Compassion is the act of reaching out to those who are suffering—including ourselves. I definitely suffer when I’m impatient, because lack of patience is a stress response to whatever is going on in my life. I can feel the stress in both my mind and my body. And so, cultivating patience is a way of taking care of myself, which is the essence of self-compassion.
Second, I noticed that being patient gave rise to a feeling of equanimity—a calmness of mind that makes it easier to ride life’s ups and downs without being tossed about like a boat in a storm. Seeing the correlation between patience and enhanced self-compassion and equanimity convinced me of the value of this practice. I thought, “Hmm. Less suffering and stress, coupled with more calm acceptance of life as it is…sounds good.” Here’s how I recommend that you undertake the practice of patience. (Note: This is an approach to transforming thoughts and emotions that I set out more fully in my books, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide)
1. Recognize that impatience has arisen.
This may not be easy at first. When things aren’t going our way (for example, we’re stuck in traffic), we tend to think that the cause of our impatience is external to us—what’s going out “out there.” But, of course, the cause is what’s going on in our own minds—that is, our response to whatever circumstances we’re facing. So start by setting the intention to watch for impatience arising in your own mind as a response to not getting what you want right away.
You may know some of your triggers already: being put on hold for a long time; getting stuck in a long line; struggling to figure out a computer problem; facing an extended wait at the doctor’s office; having to listen to someone take what seems to be an interminably long time to explain something simple (this last one being a trait of mine that tests my own family’s patience!).
Notice how impatience arises when we’re not getting our way—specifically when people or our environment aren’t conforming to our expectations, even in circumstances over which we have no control (for example, the flow of traffic or the length of a line). Our expectations are often out of synch with reality. I can think of four ways in which this is true, and all four can be triggers for impatience.
First, we tend to expect the environment to conform to our expectations: no traffic jams; no absence of parking spaces near our destination; no long lines; no airport delays; no waiting too long for food to arrive at a restaurant.
Second, we tend to expect people to conform to our expectations. They ought to behave the way we think they should behave. “That woman ahead of me in the check-out line should not be making small talk with the cashier.” “If he said he’d phone at 3:00, he should phone at 3:00.” Even if we’re “right” (it is polite, after all, to call at the time you say you will), the fact remains that people often don’t live up to our expectations.
Third, our expectations are often unrealistic when it comes to mastering new skills, whether it’s taking up a new craft or figuring out a new computer application or learning a new do-it-yourself fix-it skill. We think we should be able to master new skills quickly, no matter how foreign or difficult they are to us.
Fourth, our expectations are almost always unrealistic when it comes to what goes on in our minds. We think we should be able to control what thoughts and what emotions arise. But unwelcome thoughts and emotions pop up all the time. It’s the nature of the mind to think and to emote; in my experience, there’s no stopping it. Certainly being impatient doesn’t put a stop to it!
Think about these four categories of expectations and see if you can pinpoint which ones you tend to be unrealistic about in your own life. This alone can help you recognize when you’re responding with impatience.
2. Investigate how impatience feels in your mind and in your body.
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Allowing yourself to really feel the impatience is a major step toward accepting its presence. This is important because, in my experience, I can’t begin to transform a stressful mental state until I accept that I’m caught up in it. So, work on becoming well-acquainted with how impatience feels. Is your mind calm or agitated? Is your body relaxed or tensed? I have yet to experience impatience as pleasant in either my mind or my body. And the realization that it feels unpleasant helps motivate me to try and change the way I respond when I’m faced with “delay, difficulty, or annoyance”—our three friends from the dictionary definition.
3. Begin to transform impatience into patience.
This takes practice—patient practice. And because patience is an act of self-compassion, I hope you’ll treat yourself with compassion over your inability to be patient at times. That said, here are some strategies to help transform impatience into patience.
Let’s start with those times when the environment or people aren’t conforming to your expectations: for example, you’re stuck in a traffic jam or you find yourself behind that person in the check-out line who’s chatting with the cashier. First, notice that you’re responding with impatience. Second, pay attention to how it feels in your mind and in your body. Then ask yourself: “Is there anything I can do to change the situation without making matters worse for myself or others?” If the answer is “no” (which it almost always will be), then see if you can find what I’ll call “the good” in the situation. By this I mean, begin to focus on something pleasant or interesting while you’re waiting.
This is a mindfulness practice, meaning you’re making a conscious choice—backed up by effort—to pay attention to everything that’s going on in your field of awareness. When I feel impatience arise, I can almost always find something in my present moment experience that arouses my curiosity or interest. This allows me to respond, not in “anger” or “upset” to what’s going on, but instead, with patience.
In a traffic jam, it might be checking out the different makes and models and ages of the cars on the road; it might be begining to chat with another person in the car; it might be finding a radio station to listen to. If I’m in that check-out line, it might be noticing with amusement the ridiculous headlines on those sensationalistic mags that sit in racks at the cashier stand; it might be looking at the people around me—how everyone looks different and has a whole life story of their own that I know nothing about; it might even be eavesdropping on the content of the chatter that’s holding me up!
In fact, I try to cultivate friendliness toward those chatterers—to enjoy how they’re enjoying each other’s company. After all, what’s another minute or two in line? If, like me, you have trouble standing for long, you can look for something to lean on or take a wide stance with your legs so you’re better balanced. Sometimes I bring a cane.
My point is that, yes, our first choice may be to institute a “no traffic jam on the freeway” rule and a “no chatting at the check-out counter” directive, but most of the time in life, we don’t get our first choice. When this happens, if the alternatives are to get upset and angry versus finding a way to make the experience enjoyable, or at least tolerable, I know which one feels better to me.
Then we have those unrealistic expectations about mastering new skills. That expectation partially stems from our cultural conditioning to hurry hurry hurry no matter what we’re doing. Yet, if we were to proceed more slowly and patiently, not only would we enjoy ourselves more, but we’re likely to do a better job of mastering the skill in question.
Finally, about those unrealistic expectations that we should be able to control our minds. Instead of getting impatient (“upset“ or “angry”) about what arises in our minds, can we work on holding unwelcome thoughts and emotions more lightly—even sometimes with humor over the mind’s unruliness? Doing this is a compassionate response to what arises in the mind. In my new book, How to Wake Up, I quote a passage from one of the first Buddhist books I ever read, Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. He said this about the mind:
[Sometime] you will come face to face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem.
I love this quotation for two reasons. First, I find it reassuring to know that I’m not alone in having a shrieking, gibbering, madhouse on wheels for a mind. Second, Bhante says, “No problem.” I take “no problem” to mean that I can learn to be patient with this “crazy” mind. I can learn not to get upset and angry when unwelcome thoughts and emotions arise, but instead, to calmly accept their presence, knowing that with time the universal law of impermanence will help me out. Conditions will change…and so will my mind.
We can transform impatience into patience. It’s well-worth the effort because being patient is a way of treating ourselves with compassion and it also helps us calmly accept things as they are…and that always feels good.