Cultivating Patience: Five Practical Tools
Posted by Viral Mehta on Jul 6, 2010
A recent reflection:
Patience is one of those qualities that doesn’t get much consideration -- especially in our fast-paced 21st century. But there is tremendous wisdom in it. Patience is what helps us let go of an unhelpful obsession with outcomes and with our limited identities. It is a recognition that our reality is in flux and we don't always know what is best. Practiced deeply, patience is what dissolves unexamined reactions and habits of interpretation, allowing us to see things in a way that is more real, more whole, more true. With patience the unknown doesn't frustrate us, and our fundamental questions create a positive sense of wonder and a platform for possibilities. But the trouble with patience is that it usually comes too little, too late. We’ve already yelled at a loved one, or thrown away months of work in despair. So how do we develop patience before we actually need it? Five tools to experiment with:
1. Zoom Out: First, identify what your mind is focused on, and then make an explicit effort to think more broadly and more long-term. Say someone cuts you off on the road; zooming out is to see that being cut off is not going to have a real impact in your life, and an hour from now, it will seem really insignificant. This practice is rooted in knowing that our view in a given moment can always expand, allowing us to see the same things in different ways. A key aspect of zooming out is knowing that we are not just what our reaction is at any instant -- helping broaden our identity. Impatience strikes when we become fixated on our own initial views, and zooming out allows us to consciously take a step out of our selves. If we were to hit the reset button on our habitual thinking, how would we see the situation?
2. Reconnect and Release: Take a deep breath, feel exactly what is going on in your chest, your throat, your stomach, your face, or anywhere else your mind naturally goes, and let go of any tension. Sometimes we lose our patience without any warning because we aren’t as aware of what’s been happening beneath the surface -- stress builds up at relatively unconscious levels of the mind. To prevent this accretion, the first step is to become aware of what is happening at the subtler levels of the mind, and a wonderful gateway for this is the body. As we sharpen our awareness, we begin to notice the physical components of mental tension, and just in shedding light on it, there’s a subtle but significant release. While sitting, we might feel it as a tightness in the hips or in shoulders scrunched high; while working, we might notice it in a tensed stomach or in a furrowed brow. Reconnecting and releasing is to work at the root of impatience, and to consciously dissolve the resistances we discover.
3. Zoom In: Zoom in fully to the present moment without judgment. Flood your awareness with refined details from all of your senses, without getting fixated on any of them in particular. The more incisive and objective our attention, the more it becomes a gateway to realizing the potential richness and beauty inherent in every experience. We can even tune into this kind of depth in our most difficult times -- entering into the moment, instead of escaping from it. And this works most powerfully when we combine it with the previous tool, zooming in to what we are feeling somewhere in the body, increasingly sensitizing our minds to this deeper level of awareness. As we become more adept at this, then even in being challenged by an emotion, a part of our mind turns inward to the body and zooms in, and we come back to balance quickly.
4. Catch the Small Stuff -- Be attentive even when it doesn’t seem to matter -- when you’re shopping, driving or at work. “Small” things are happening all the time, making the practice easily accessible. Starting off small makes it unintimidating and doable; but more importantly, working at the level of “small” allows us to sharpen our awareness. So we start with becoming aware of the slightest ways in which we might be “off”: a subtle boredom while waiting in the grocery line, or a bit of impatience at the red light, or tuning out for a bit in a meeting. Each time we catch even a tiny deviation, we’re strengthening our attunement to the subtle, allowing us to dissolve little impatiences before they multiply. On the flip side, recognizing and strengthening small positive deviance -- moments of gratitude, joy or compassion -- allows us to strengthen those responses. Our awareness of such gifts is an acknowledgment of “having enough,” and is a perfect antidote to the “need more” mindset inherent in impatience.
5. Tune in to Change: Become aware of something that is changing -- anything. Start from noticing things changing outside, but then connect to what is arising and passing within. Impatience feeds off of fixation, and any time we connect to the changing nature of reality, we break that tendency to get stuck to any one view. Rationally, we know that everything changes. But when we allow ourselves to actually notice it -- “this person is upset now, but that’s not how s/he always is” – we break the internal “story” we tend to create. Intellectually recognizing change in this way is a start; it has the deepest impact when it becomes experiential. Our own feeling of impatience itself has variance, as does every thought and bodily sensation. And the more we tune in to this changing reality, the more easily we can engage with what is actually emerging.
In learning to use any set of tools, repeated use and exploration yields progress. As we learn to zoom out, we stop identifying with the immediacy of situations, and with constrained views. We then continue to work in small ways to realign ourselves, reconnect to the body and dissolve tension, zoom in deeply into the present, and tune in to our emerging reality. Of course, unenlightened moments will continue to be a part of the game. But with the humility of that acceptance, we continue to push the boundaries of our awareness and develop our ability to rest comfortably in the present moment. Patience, then, is a kind withholding of judgment and also of conclusion, a valiant invitation for our evolution to unfold just as it should.