IN NOVEMBER 2005, I suffered a sore throat. Being a storyteller, I attributed it to Halloween overwork. No. A vocal cord was paralyzed. The doctor told me to stop talking for six weeks in case it might recover.
There was waiting to find out if I’d heal, but more bothersome was having to keep my mouth shut. I couldn’t tell the joke, shout out the answer, or contradict the loudmouth. I couldn’t yell at screaming kids. I couldn’t discuss my feelings with my partner.
At the same time, however, I was learning that my verbal contributions didn’t matter as much as I’d imagined. And I was seeing that impatience in my life—whether about getting to speak or waiting for a bus—was almost always an ugly rising of the self.
My cord never healed. Now if I speak too abruptly, long, or passionately, it starts to hurt. I have a physical “impatience governor!” Thanks to my years of Buddhist practice, it’s easier now for me to feel the burn of self in countless other ways, and then begin to let go.
—Jack Hosho Maguire
A FEW MONTHS AGO, as I was reading a contemporary philosopher’s biography, I came across the title of his doctoral dissertation: Is It Ever Rational To Be Impatient? I never found a copy of the dissertation, but the title often comes to mind, usually while I am manifesting an impatient behavior: I’m at work and start looking at my watch half an hour into my shift; someone is talking to me and I finish their sentence for them; I struggle through sesshin and decide that my practice should be somewhere other than it is; and the list goes on. When I manage to catch myself during one of these moments, I am astonished not only by the apparent automatism of these patterns, but also at their utter pointlessness.
So having had a sobering look at the irrational, if not downright harmful, nature of impatience, what is patience and how do I practice it? Various dictionaries offer these definitions: “forbearance or long-suffering under provocation;” “calm, self-possessed waiting;” or “tolerance of the faults or limitations of other people”.
Somehow, none of these definitions seem to hit the mark. They seem to presuppose that one is waiting for a time when “things will get better” or patience will help us to bear our arduous task.
In The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva says: “The stream of suffering is cut through by patience.” To me this means that patience is being fully present, accepting each instant regardless of its “quality,” in short: being OK with what is.
—Caroline Kamei McCarthy
EVERYTHING IS FINE. The world is unfolding as it always does, and there is always the surprise that comes up to meet me. But I can’t completely let go of expectations. There are appointments to keep, obligations to fulfill, deadlines to meet. There is a fine wire to walk. Stay on it, and it is possible to go safely from here to there. Slip, and there’s a mess.
Of course, I’m as good at making messes as the next person. Most often they appear when I’m walking that fine wire and something unexpected shows up. Instead of observing that “new something” and just taking care of it, there are times I start to feel overload—sensory, psychological, or emotional overload. Sometimes it’s just enough to tip the balance while walking the line. And something drops. Splat. At that point it is easy to let one little droplet become a torrent. Suddenly I’m holding onto something and letting it take off with me. The perfect response: irritation, expressed in the growl, the muttered swear word, flick of the hand, stomped foot, kicked stone. Or worse.
At this point I try to remember that a master teacher has just arrived. Even a hint of irritation is enough to show me where I’m caught. Irritation is the dark twin—the shadow—of patience. Through patience I can both clean up the messes I have already made and keep from making more. The key is recognizing that little needle of irritation can inject me with the salve of patience, if only I let it.
—Bill Kando Johnson
PATIENCE HAS NEVER been my strong suit. Over the years I would struggle with “being patient.” More often than not I would end up gritting my teeth “being patient”—in conflict with myself over my ideal of what a patient person looked like, fighting with what I actually felt. It was not very pretty, nor was it very effective. The receiver of my patience would never much feel the gift, and the giver (me) would not be, in reality, very generous.
Over time, patience has morphed into faith: faith in the dharma and confidence in cause and effect. When I focus on my own experience and notice I am irritable or cranky, rather than encouraging myself to be patient (which more often than not backfires), I remember the karma I will create if I act from a place of irritation or crankiness. When I am able to hold in my mind’s eye the reality of cause and effect, the result is the arising of patience. For me, remembering karma gives birth to patience.
—Susan Seien Wilder
WHENEVER I FEEL IMPATIENT in practice, I ask myself why I feel that way. It’s usually very obvious. Impatience only manifests when I have some expectation or goal. Are we there yet? Of course, even if I fulfill the expectation, I’ll immediately create another one and perpetuate the impatience, having created the karma. But zazen isn’t about goals. It’s not about my personal desires at all. So if I’m really sitting, there is neither patience nor impatience.
Sometimes impatience is more subtle and manifests as doubt about the efficacy of practice or my ability to do it. When that comes up consistently, I check in with my teacher about my concerns so that I can be confident that I’m practicing properly. After that, there’s no need to worry about outcomes.
There’s also impatience towards myself because I catch myself being lazy in practice. I find this harder to practice. The effort is necessary, but the self-berating isn’t. Ultimately, what can I do other than practice as well as I can? There’s really nothing else. I think patience and impatience both indicate that I’ve lost my intimacy with the moment and need to come home.
—Dave Genkyu Bassano
I THINK OF ADRIENNE RICH’S book of poems, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. The phrase “wild patience” leads to a memory of a gray heron picking its way through the rushes and reeds at the edge of a lake. Until it stopped. Just stopped. Mid-motion, neck and beak poised like an arm about to throw a spear. I recall watching and how its motionlessness grew excruciating, more so because I knew that only one of us felt excruciation.
I flip through Rich’s book, find some lines about raking and bagging fallen leaves. “One shivering rainswept afternoon / and the whole job to be done over[.]” Over and over, that’s what tries my patience. That’s what makes me rush to get this thing done—to get it over with—so I can get to the next thing. Because the next thing is, always, more important or more fascinating or more urgent than the thing at hand.
The more I practice, the more I understand that patience is wild because patience can only be this moment, and this moment is nothing but wild. The odor of earth and mulch as the rake drags the fall grasses. The heartbeat in which the heron lanced the water, so quick the sh didn’t even know its life had been taken. And after which, the heron simply started over.
—Prabu Gikon Vasan
PATIENCE AND IMPATIENCE CANNOT be separated: we are in a deep mess when we play that game with ourselves. For me, the only way in to patience is to be rigorously honest about the impatience I am experiencing in any moment.
In the early 1980’s the AIDS pandemic struck with an indiscriminate ruthlessness that froze off an entire generation of artists, audiences, and my friends. Meals had to be brought in, bedclothes changed, medicines—any medicines—chased after, deaths—often self-induced at the end stage of brief and very painful opportunistic infections—sat with, street marches and the two to four funerals attended every week. Impatience (read, anger) was the root response of those left standing. It has taken me years to realize it is also the root of patience, for they are not two.
I want to see clearly when I am impatient because I do not want to skim lightly on the surface of reality. Patience/impatience just is, and its gift is the opportunity to practice this unified reality. Am I truly seeing into this moment, or am I simply trying to “let go” of my impatience, pretending that I am practicing patience? It is so much easier not to confront the reality of who I really am. Yet, it is this simple, honest practice, which opens me toward compassion.
I THINK OF PATIENCE AS KIND of like learning to live with a snarling German Shepherd inside of me.
I do a lot to keep the dog down: being well rested, exercising, sitting in the morning before heading to work. My ability to be patient with others, and myself, is surely put to the test most often at work. I supervise a small, earnest staff who work very hard and asks for very little support from me. Since I began this role, I’ve kept close the memory of supervisors in my past who were impatient with me, and the pain of those experiences. Impatience is very close to cruelty.
Places, and old repeating story lines, bring out the snarling dog, too. The subway in the morning on the way to work, standing body to body, smelling breath, my fear of people attacking NYC again. It’s hard. Lately I’ve been chanting the Emmei Jukku Kannon Gyo to myself throughout the morning subway ride—it helps.
PATIENCE? REALLY? NOW? On the path of complete self-realization?! The urgency to fully un-knot this messy karmic-bundle-body is only accelerating! Who has time to slow down if this is the only shot you’ve got? What is a karmic knot anyway?
Okay. Enough. Drop into the body; study the nuances. I learn to connect an uprising of feeling—from a mild impatient agitation to a full-blown panic, from giddy excitement to crazy wildness—to its seed. And right now, I am studying the seeds of my needs. I find that when impatience arises, at the bottom is a seed of a need. And these needs are good—they are alive. They express my need for growth, connection, purpose, play, expression, freedom. Yes, these are words, but they stand for and carry a particular energy. When my attention accepts the feelings and rests on a need, some- times what I find makes me weep, and always breathe with relief. All that my needs need is, simply, my attention.
There I find empathy. These seeds of needs that I discover—for love, belonging, purpose— are not uniquely mine. The violent fundamentalist, my insistent parent, an outraged refugee friend away from his besieged family in Gaza— we all share these needs, and so through them I feel connected.
Dear Rami, that urgency you feel to realize your life? Fulfill it with patience, through patience, as patience. Let that connection reveal itself, fulfill itself, simply. Nothing further need be done.
—Rami Mukyu Efal
IT HAS ONLY BEEN SINCE taking up practice that I realized that patience was a struggle for me. I notice that I want to (quickly!) move towards something else, to go and be elsewhere, in the future. Zazen is my great teacher of patience: When will this period ever end? Why can’t I concentrate? When am I going to have some transformative experience and see what I’m missing? When? Hello? Oh, here I am—period still going. God! Perhaps I can try to tolerate this pain and my perceived failures as a student? Can I? Yes, I can bear it, and even, to my great surprise, enjoy sitting still and being present, just moments after impatience visited.
These days, I am trying to cultivate a sense of patience with my life as I move to a new country, start a business, find local sangha. I want it all to be in place, then I will feel stable, grounded, and my new life can begin. Oh, wait, this feels familiar. Another trap. Remember?! Yes, I can tolerate my life being in flux, uncontrollable. But how do I allow things to unfold yet not just sit back and wait? What does re and determination look like when it’s friends with patience?
RESTLESS BODY, RESTLESS MIND. A right turn onto a wrong road. Trace the path of irritation, worry, agitation. A clear sign of frustration: “Crap! Did it again!” To fall in love with trouble. This is patience.
Meeting the question, “Where does this come from?” I relax down into the hot bath of “Oh, I see!” In zazen, all is patience. An ancient practice.
I gaze into the forest for a wider view. I see one maple leaf, a curling speck of red, patiently finding its bit of ground. I wonder, is that the world, one tumbling out-of-control leaf? Mystified, I look down. There, a log sighs, patiently bearing lichen, carrying green crustiness ‘til death.
I recall my own intimate activity mixing color to the right viscosity, scooping it onto the palette knife or the cat’s tongue brush. That’s super slow, much slower than the eye-hand-brain imagines. An ancient practice, just being as slow as the inch worm inching towards the inch.
—Michelle Seigei Spark
OF THE SIX PARAMITAS, patience has always been the least attractive to me. It sounds a bit tepid. In fact, it kind of pisses me off. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m in a rush to get to joyful effort.
I wish I had something insightful to say about patience. It’s frustrating and a little painful to sit here staring at the blank page. I’m tempted to consult Shantideva or the Book of Job for inspiration—or to escape my discomfort. Hmmm. Frankly, the only thing that comes to mind is the robo-announcement from the New York subway: Ladies and Gentlemen, we are delayed due to train traffic ahead of us. We apologize for any inconvenience.
When I lived at the monastery, I used to bolt out of the zendo every evening and hurry up to the bathhouse. At one point there was a young Japanese monk in residence with the same routine. But invariably, I was out of the shower and headed out the bathhouse door as he arrived. One evening, as we crossed paths on the threshold, he looked me over in mock astonishment. “So fast,” he added. “Are you… ninja?”
Well, maybe a little bit.
—Patrick Yunen Kelly
PATIENCE REMINDS THE farmer in me that everything has a season, that the wheel will turn without my help, and that because what rises does indeed fall, my impulsiveness will bite me in the ass every time.
Practicing patience has shown me why I should guard my words and actions, that anger comes from a lack of understanding. Applying this in my life has made waiting in hell much more tolerable, calming me down so I can see that the frantic pace I had been living was foolishness.
I’ll tell you this—it gets easier every day. Doing what is just and calm becomes natural, not forced. Even in the face of dire threat, I hold my tongue refusing to harm another as the Tao moves through me.
If a Tibetan monk’s only fear in being held and tortured by the Chinese was that he would lose this compassion toward his tormentors, then my time in the SHU* for doing dharma should be a snap.
*Segregated Housing Unit, i.e., solitary confinement
—Joel E. Stevens
“I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS!” is one of the most familiar ways I interact with the world. This happens a lot when I’m doing those in-between things, like errands, that feel like preparation for the good stuff.
I was in line at Walgreens recently, and there was a problem up at the register. It was taking a long time. I felt a surge of impatience and then consciously decided to just be there in that store, completely present to the surroundings, the people, my body standing on the floor, and I really felt a contentedness that I don’t usually associate with fluorescent lights and shelves of brightly colored packages of cold remedies. When I finally got to the register, the cashier thanked me for being patient. I felt a mixture of gratitude and surprise because I had forgotten all about being patient—I was enjoying just being there.
I CAME INTO ZEN PRACTICE with a deep longing for an answer to the question of my life—When will it happen for me? When will I be satisfied? When will this deep hole within me be filled? People often told me that I was so patient and calm. They couldn’t see my mind frantically racing this way and that, looking desperately for someone to make me feel whole. And I was fooled, too. When I would hear about the Perfection of Patience I actually thought, “I have that one down.” It’s taken me some time to realize how I’ve confused patience with waiting. I thought that if I could just sit still and wait, eventually the thing, the person would come along. I was looking for an answer that would fit perfectly what I was looking for, and I assumed I’d never be satisfied until I found just that.
I’ve just started to see that patience is a practice of active engagement with my life right now. It’s dropping my rushing towards The Answer, and letting go of my egotistical notions of what I think I need to feel satisfied and whole. When I feel myself panicking in my discomfort and longing, I find strength in the fact that I do not know what’s going to happen. Looking at how my life is actually unfolding, trusting my teacher and the Buddha’s teachings, my faith in my life right here and now is reaffirmed.
MY PARENTS ARE SPEAKING TO ME, again, finally. I sat out their outrage at decisions I’d made and actions I’d taken for my own happiness and sanity. In this void I studied Shantideva on patience. I typed a small card with this: Whatever wholesome deeds, such as venerating the Buddhas and generosity, that have been amassed over a thousand eons, will be destroyed in one moment of anger. Opening my wallet, I’d be surprised to find it, and the words would pull me up short, return me to awareness. I practiced absorbing the arrows of harm, with- holding body and speech from acts of anger. Waiting. Breathing. Still.
But not so still. In zazen, my mind raged with anger and injustice; I composed self-serving letters, staged vivid angry confrontations— a complex design of mutual destruction wove its way through my veins: a toxic karmic dump.
The practice of patience can’t be merely withholding outward action. The voice of my teacher suddenly pierces my defenses: “Sit on your pillow and feel compassion for them.” Actual compassion. This breaks my heart open —for them and for me—for a least a moment. My practice is in these moments.
—Myron Shijo Rogers
“I CAN’T BELIEVE THEY didn’t design this app to load any faster,” I mutter as I open applications to try to troubleshoot the one that is slow or pick up my cell phone to do something while I wait. This used to happen all the time. Now I just sit and bring my attention to my breath as I wait for the computer. I notice that my forehead and neck have tightened as I’ve been working and I let the tension go. I feel a little better as I resume typing.
I’m sitting at a red light and I’ve already figured out how I’m going to make lane changes to get through the next four intersections. Wait a minute; this is a good time to take a couple moments to check in with how I’m feeling. I notice that muscles in my hips are tense. I let the tension go and the light changes.
It’s really hard to maintain mindfulness throughout the day, but realizing I can use the many delays and inconveniences to return to practice makes it a little easier. Rather than being fixated on the task at hand and getting irritated when I have to wait, I simply do something completely different: spend a few moments actively engaging with my breath, body, and feelings. What a relief!
EARLY ON IN MY LIFE I disliked patience—I think I saw it as complacency or avoidance. I guess that’s pretty normal. Now, when I think of a child or teenager I’ve met who already seems to possesses some real patience, I feel a lot of respect for them.
Over the last few years I’ve strangely enough come to appreciate impatience, too. In moments when a false patience (avoidance or halfheartedness, generally) have dropped away, a ash of my anger or directness has helped to create a more genuine connection between myself and someone else. I push myself to take that risk more often these days, reminding my- self that for me not holding back my emotions tends to improve relationships.
—Michael Taikyu Apathy
GROWING UP, I IMAGINED that characters in fairy tales were pure fantasy—Creuella deVil, Cinderella and the ugly sisters, and the Evil Queen with her mirror on the wall. I didn’t believe that these could be actual studies of real people—how could the world be so unjust? So maybe it makes sense that faced with an evil-queen all my own, I get good and angry about being mistreated. Last week with my finger poised over the button, about to release a karmic bomb, I had a chance to meet with my teacher. In a few exchanged words I understand that “amazing grace” is a glimpse of perfection that goes beyond the character mistreating me and into our shared reality. Now I understand why Daido said, “What you do and what hap- pens to you are the same thing.”
— Síocáin Keiho Hughes
ALL MY LIFE I’VE WANTED what I wanted now, I wanted to do it myself, and I wanted to do it my way. Before I started practicing, I thought patience was either something you had or you didn’t, like an innate trait. Encountering the dharma, I learned that patience could be practiced, and that the time to practice it was in the moment when I wasn’t feeling patient.
For me, patience feels most connected to understanding that things and people and situations have their own time. Life is happening on a schedule that I don’t determine, and I can either practice being in harmony with that or not. I still so often jump the gun—but now I can see that 99% of the time, it’s because I’m scared or anxious, not because I think I know what’s best. And for some reason, that feels like a kind of progress.
The way that I actually experience patience in my body—in a moment when I want to just act, get it over with, or get away—is as holding-open. Keeping the opening open instead of letting it collapse shut, on a whole-body, cellular level. It’s gentle but it also requires effort, because the habit of collapsing shut is so much more accessible to me. My only regrets in life are the times when I wasn’t patient. Remembering that is a good motivator for me to keep practicing.
—Shea Ikusei Settimi
Where am I?
You’re in your apartment, Mom.
Hmm. What happened to the house?
We sold it when you moved here.
How long have I been here?
It’s been about four years.
Where is this place?
It’s assisted living, Mom. You moved here after dad died.
Yes, he died about five years ago. We sold the house and moved you here into this apartment complex.
How long has he been dead?
It’s been about five years.
But he was just here,
No, Carla, he’s never been here.
Where am I?
In your apartment, Carla. Look, here’s your aide.
Good, I’m ready for bed.
Good night, Carla.
Good night, Steven.
—Steven Seigo Beres