HOLD YOUR HORSES!
In this third instalment of our series on the Six Perfections, we explore the topic of “kshanti” – having patience or forbearance.
Heard this before? “I’ve been patient with this, I really have…but I’m TOTALLY over it now. I’m fed up with being patient, it doesn’t get me anywhere!”
You’ve probably heard someone say this, looking all miffed at the same time. You might have felt this way yourself in certain situations. I know I have!
That job, for example, you can’t wait to quit because the boss is a control freak; recovering from that annoying cold that stopped you doing yoga; putting up with you partner’s mother when you really, REALLY want to tell her what’s up.
Yes, yes, it’s not easy being patient, especially when having patience is about delaying some kind of self-gratification or when our precious ego is being tweaked. Some of us are better at it than others. For many of us, the impulse to act NOW is strong.
Patience is a virtue…
We’ve all heard the above idiom. Teachers used to say it all the time. For kids – who want things right here, right now – it’s enough to make them groan and roll their eyes.
Thing is, the saying is true. As we touched on in the previous post, cultivating virtues like patience, forbearance, truthfulness, friendliness, wisdom etc leads to human flourishing, or the “good life” as the ancient Greeks called it.
And in the Buddhist tradition, the virtue of patience is one of the most important qualities. Patience is considered the antidote to anger and hatred, which are the greatest obstacles to one’s spiritual journey.
As the great 8th-century yogi and scholar Shantideva said:
Whatever wholesome deeds,
Such as venerating the Buddhas, and generosity,
That have been amassed over a thousand aeons
Will all be destroyed in one moment of anger.
There is no evil like hatred,
And no fortitude like patience.
Thus I should strive in various ways
To meditate on patience.
From this perspective, patience means freedom from aggression – aggression towards others, towards situations and towards ourselves. This is essential for treading the path of the Bodhisattva. Aggression is the diametric opposite of the Bodhisattva ideal that we discussed in the previous two posts. It’s antidote is patience.
Patience is more than waiting your turn
Patience is a practice can lead us beyond all of our conditioning and need for self gratification. The Perfection of Patience, or kshanti, doesn’t simply mean biding one’s time, like waiting for a pizza you’ve ordered.
The practice of patience is far deeper. It brings about the necessary stillness and immovability that allows us to see into the nature of things. It helps us see into impermanence and conditioned existence.
There are three main areas of practice for cultivating patience:
- Having patience in the face of threats or harm from others
- Being patient with the hardships of spiritual practice
- Having patience in relation to the true nature of reality
Let’s take a closer look into each one of these.
Taking off the gloves
We have patience towards people who are threatening us or causing harm by approaching the situation peacefully and taking a wider perspective on the issue. One should not respond to an attack with a counterattack, nor run away from the situation, either.
If we understand the other side wants to harm us due to her own pain and ignorance, our response should come from a place of compassion, not aggression. In the same way that we are trying to learn to control our own minds, and often failing, so too are others.
In many cases, the cause of other people’s anger and aggression was the anger and aggression of other people they were on the receiving end of. There’s always a chain of experience that led to this behaviour, under which normally lies hurt and fear. Knowing this means we can take off the gloves and be patient and compassionate. Remember, we’re all in this together.
Riding the highs and lows
Often when we take up yoga and meditation we are driven by a kind of pleasure-seeking attitude. It makes us feel good and we want more of it. We end up chasing blissful states. This is perhaps a natural phase for most of us.
However, over time a sustained meditation practice will cause some rather unpleasant, sometimes downright difficult, experiences to arise. Sustained practice can accelerate the surfacing of unprocessed experience and trauma, make us more sensitive, or make us more aware of our kleshas (afflictions), such as anxiety, anger, jealousy and lust. Our lives might start to feel way more intense, painful and difficult than before.
The spiritual journey can be compared to surfing. Yes, there is the sheer joy of riding the face of a beautiful wave. But there is also wiping out, getting spin washed under the surface, being pounded by another wave as you come up, and the struggle of paddling through a rip and wall after wall of whitewater. It’s all part of it. The main thing: keep hold of your board.
On the spiritual journey, it’s hold onto your patience and keep practicing! Just keep on paddling.
The hall of mirrors
The last category relates to being patient and without fear for the true nature of reality. Because the truth is it’s kind of freaky. Whatever we THINK about things is not the way things are. How ever we THINK things will turn out is exactly how they will not turn out. And reality just doesn’t seem to care that that bothers us. Too bad. As meditators, we start to get used to this and learn to live without so many expectations. We know our expectations are like mirrors in a hall of mirrors – they will end up reflecting back to us something that is completely different.
Nothing ever matches our expectations. We are always waiting for a train that never comes. What does show up at the station, however, is not a train, but an ostrich. And this ostrich wakes us up to the fact that the station platform was just our dream and that we are actually out in the middle of the wilderness somewhere. – Reginald A. Ray
Patience isn’t an endurance race
Maintaining patience is a peaceful state of body and mind. It’s not about gritting one’s teeth and holding onto dear life. We’re not staggering through the final 15km of an ultramarathon just so we can receive a finishers medal. By perceiving impermanence and interbeing, we instead release our expectations and resistance. We can relax and rest in all the highs and lows. We can enjoy the journey.
Such an attitude of patience can benefit all parties involved. People react positively when they experience a reaction that is different from the usual attack–counter attack pattern of communication. They might even feel safe to share an excellent idea that makes everyone’s lives more wonderful.
Being patient opens up a little space, which breaks the cycle of reactivity and habitual action. That little space gives us the opportunity to do something creative. For example, the simple act of taking a breath. Or asking if you heard someone correctly and then repeating what she said. Alternatively, it might mean allowing ourselves to rest fully when we’re sick rather than stressing out about not being able to teach a yoga class. Like a beautiful mountain, whatever happens, no matter how powerful the storm, we remain immovable.
Worth our best efforts, isn’t it?