How to survive a traffic jam—on the road, or in the heart
When I was a child, I was told many times, “Be patient” or “Patience is a virtue.” I would relate to these words in much the same way I would to the order “Eat your spinach.” To me, “Be patient” meant “Grin and bear it,” or that I should repress my feelings about the disagreeable aspects of life. This is not what is meant by patience from the Buddhist perspective, however.
Patience, or khanti, is the sixth of the ten perfections, or paramis (the virtues that one has to perfect in order to fully awaken; there are ten paramis in the Theravada tradition, six paramitas in the Mahayana). The clarity of wisdom and the softness of compassion are the companions of each of the perfections. Patience is motivated by our desire for inward and outward peace and by faith in our ability to accept things as they are. In Buddhism patience has three essential aspects: gentle forbearance, calm endurance of hardship, and acceptance of the truth.
The first aspect of patience is gentle forbearance. We may be the exhausted parent of a child who is having a fit over some baffling homework; perhaps patience in this case means taking a few deep breaths instead of yelling in frustration. Or we may be on the verge of making a brilliant retort to a coworker, but we hold our tongue rather than say something hurtful. Even though our impatience is triggered, we can tap into the deeper reservoir of our motivation not to do harm. Gentle forbearance may feel difficult—even contrived—because it doesn’t constitute true acceptance of how things are. But it is nonetheless a critical aspect of patience because it helps us restrain ourselves long enough to determine the most skillful action for the moment.
Gentle forbearance helps to anchor our attention in the movement of the breath. Can we truly receive just one breath? Can we sustain the attention from the birth of the breath, through its life, and through its passing away? We notice that in these moments of attention we are temporarily freed from mental torment. There is no need to focus on our expectations or attachment to results. Impatient thoughts come and go by themselves, just as the breath comes and goes by itself.
Any time we want life to be different than it is, we are caught in impatience. We lose our sense of humor; and self-pity, despair, and blame seep into the heart. Gentle forbearance includes the spirit of forgiveness. When we feel conflict with others, understanding their suffering is the first step in being able to communicate, forgive, and begin again. The practice of forgiveness happens when we are able to realize the underlying cause of our anger and impatience, and this allows us to distinguish between someone’s unskillful behavior and essential goodness. Serenity and calm develop as we learn to accept imperfection in others and ourselves.
Endurance of Hardship
The second aspect of patience is the calm endurance of hardship. The Buddha said that the world rests on suffering. But endurance of suffering doesn’t mean doing nothing to alleviate it. Patience isn’t passive; it’s motivated by an acceptance of and compassion for suffering rather a desire to eradicate it. When we feel impatient with our relationships, our work, or our spiritual practice, we need to realize that we are resisting how things are. A sense of humor and curiosity about our lives can also help us confront impatience.
My five-year-old niece complained to me recently, “I hate school.” I replied, “Oh, that’s too bad. Why?” “Because it’s so boring,” she said. She loves the movie Finding Nemo, so I reminded her how Dory and Nemo’s father, Marlin, endured the obstacles on their long journey to liberate Nemo. I asked, “What did Dory say to Marlin when they were lost and ready to give up?” She remembered “When life gets you down, just keep swimming.” She laughed, and she became interested in exploring why she gets bored in school. I challenged her to tell me one interesting thing that is happening every time she thinks she’s bored. Through investigating boredom instead of concluding that we are wasting our time and disconnecting from what is, we can pause, explore, and begin again.