Patience with oneself

Another aspect of patience that bears considering is being patient with oneself. It is likely that if we are impatient with ourselves we are impatient with others. Perhaps the key to having patience with others is to start with ourselves.

After decades of meditation practice, I find that my own imperfections, though somewhat reduced, are more visible than ever. I see with more clarity each time I lose patience with other people, going from zero to one hundred (figuratively) in a heartbeat.

Impatience is a member of the dosa family of impulses or patterns of behavior, along with hatred, resentment, anger, fear, and resistance. This is one of the three unwholesome roots that cause trouble for everyone except the fully awakened. For some, perhaps most of us, this is the biggest obstacle to freedom. For others, anger and hatred are muted, but greed is dominant. And for yet others, delusion – the mistaken idea that we know what’s happening – leads the way. All of us carry some portion of all three unwholesome roots, but it may be most productive for each of us to work on the one that creates the most problems for us. Patience will be useful in understanding and uprooting all three unwholesome roots in our hearts.

There are two main areas where we can develop patience with ourselves: our bodies and our minds. In both cases, we can bring the same compassion to ourselves that we would show to any friend who is struggling.

As we age, if we are sick, or if we carry the burden of chronic illness or disability, we have an opportunity to practice patient endurance. When we’re young and healthy, we may feel immortal; we’re strong and beautiful (enough) and what could possibly go wrong? The first wrinkles and grey hair or hair loss, remind us that everything that is born decays. Eventually we are forced to acknowledge our mortality, and facing this reality can elicit denial or panic. As with any dukkha, meeting it head-on is the only way to know its nature, and this may take compassionate persistence.

Our minds can be even harder to have patience with. We have some thoughts and feelings that we wish we didn’t have. Sometimes we try to push them aside or ignore them, but until we face our unwanted thoughts, they will keep on coming back like a whack-a-mole game.

When anger or resentment or irritation arises in the mind, rather than directing our frustration at others, we can make the attitudinal U-turn to examine the phenomenon precisely as it is. We can observe the fact: “irritation is arising”. It may seem very difficult to make the switch, but feelings and thoughts change so quickly that if we fully engage with what is happening, we will be able to watch it metamorphose into something else. Investigating in this way will eventually expose our dark sides to enough light to cause them to wither. In this way, we replace unwholesome habits with wisdom.

 

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Not-knowing

Another aspect of patience is the willingness to not know what’s coming. We actually never know what will happen in the future, but we seem to be constitutionally inclined to predict the future and then comment on our predictions immediately after they come true or don’t.

In perusing the news I save a lot of time and energy by skipping over headlines that predict the future. Sometimes it seems that half the media noise we get is about what’s expected. Who will win? What will happen with the economy? Blah blah blah.

Ironically, I sometimes get impatient when people want to talk about what will happen. I’ve been asked many times, as an American in a foreign country, who will win the US Presidential election. I have hopes, but I don’t know any better than you do. I do take the opportunity to observe that I’ve been wrong in all my predictions on this topic so far.

When we fill our minds with useless speculation we crowd out the possibility of mindfulness. But if we are willing to exist in a state of not-knowing what’s to come, we can be fully present for what is here now. We can connect through our body to the inputs that are rising and falling  – sounds, sights, physical sensations (internal and external), smells, tastes and the machinations of our conceptual thinking. Whether we’re remembering something from the past or hoping for something in the future, or attending to what is happening right now, we can experience these movements of the mind directly.

Sometimes it may help to label specific mind-moments, for example, “remembering” or “wishing” or “noticing” or “confusion” or “anxious  thought” or “boredom” or “fear”. Shinzen Young, a fine, veteran teacher of mindfulness once said that if one is in a distressed state, it can help to start labelling thoughts out loud. This works by bringing what is actually happening into our conscious minds.

One of the most important things we don’t know is what other people are thinking and feeling. Sometimes there are powerful clues, but often there are not. It is humbling to be clear with ourselves that other peoples’ karma and intentions are usually opaque. It is preferable to be gentle with others because we can’t know all their sensitivities.

Until we get used to it, there’s a feeling of insecurity about not-knowing. We are meaning-making animals; we create stories about why things happen when the causes are not apparent, even with regard to our own actions. But we can recognize this process as it unfolds and come back to don’t-know mind. There may be a feeling of relief in remembering that we don’t have to, and cannot, make sense of everything, and we are in control of hardly anything – really only our own words and actions.

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An on-line course

Dear friends,

If you are interested in going more deeply into studying and practicing the Buddha’s teachings and can afford US$240 for a full year of weekly lessons (both written and audio), please investigate http://www.integrateddharmainstitute.org

Registrations will close on 1st October.

If not, sorry to bother you!

Lynn

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More on patience

Still thinking about Ajahn Sucitto’s reflections on patience (khanti), there are two points to  add. In a section of the essay called “Recognizing Patience Teachers” Ven. Sucitto says:

Living with other people, in families, relationships and communities, can be an occasion for developing patience.

This should probably be classified as an understatement. We may feel entirely peaceful in body and mind after a good meditation or (even more) a long retreat, but when we encounter other people, that serenity is likely to be shattered. As Jack Kornfield’s book title has it, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. It is a particular form of dukkha to feel that we’ve crashed to earth from a refined and lofty mental state. But as Ajahn Sucitto wisely counsels, if we see other beings as our teachers (of patience), we understand that it’s our own defilements, our expectations and demands, that make others seem difficult.

(The full book, Pāramī [Perfections], can be downloaded here: https://forestsangha.org/teachings/books/parami-ways-to-cross-life-s-floods?language=English)

The second point to share is regarding the importance of patience in shaping our intentions.

All the perfections merge in the highest wisdom, the steady insight into suffering. But it is patience, if cultivated thoroughly and insightfully, that penetrates our will to do, or intention (cetana). Intention is the mental activation that seeks, wavers and tightens. It is also the source of kamma, because kamma is based on the intention behind the mind’s thinking, responses, habitual strategies and general jumping around. Intention directs one’s attention and interest in a particular way, so corresponding concerns and aims come to mind, and sometimes speech or bodily action follows. And this is what our “world” is made of.

So, patience has the power to penetrate to the deepest roots of our desire and aversion, and reveal their workings to our conscious mind. This is no small thing. Even a slight increase in our patience can have profound effects on our relationships with others and our thoughts about our place in the world. Patience may be our best tool for wearing away our unwholesome habits of body and mind and for remembering our best intentions in more and more situations.

If we are alert to opportunities to cultivate patience as they arise, we may be able to stop resisting and reacting to these “teachers” and start welcoming them as chances to develop our wisdom.

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Patience

(Apologies to subscribers for the repeat. It is due to my imperfect technological skills.)

From “Bearing with Life: Khanti Pāramī” by Ajahn Sucitto:

The Buddha famously declared khanti (patience) to be the supreme purification practice….The mind/heart (citta) habitually creates suffering and stress through reacting to, holding onto or getting caught up with what life throws at us….the specific quality of patience is to carry the heart through the turbulence of existence so that it no longer shakes, sinks or lashes out.

We often hear people say, “I have no patience” or “If only I had more patience”, as if this were an unalterable component of our personalities. Both patience and impatience are learned qualities, and we are all trainable. Let’s start with the understanding that we can strengthen and increase whatever level of patience we have right now.

Patience has the gut-knowledge that recognizes that a problem or a pain is not something to run away from, get flustered by or be self-pitying about. It has the wisdom to know that we have to prioritize the steps through which we can resolve suffering. It’s true that it may be possible to find an alternative route to the destination; it may well be that more negotiations are needed to resolve the problem; it may be that there’s a medicine that will ease the pain. But the first thing to do is not to react – not to rage, despair or mentally proliferate. Our first effort is to draw a line around the suffering , take a step back and know ‘that’s that.’

Like the Buddha, Ajahn Sucitto says that before we try to resolve a problem, we need to identify it, to articulate it clearly, and to put a boundary around it. The problem is what it is; it can be viewed apart from our reaction to it. We can look at whatever is trying our patience as if it were happening to someone else and think, “Hm, what is this? What might be best to try first? If that doesn’t help, what alternatives are there?”

This approach depends on our willingness to look honestly and openly at what is happening. Only then can we separate our direct experience from our reaction to it. We have to start (again) with the Buddha’s first truth – the truth of dukkha – which must be acknowledged. Very little progress can be made if we are unwilling to face life squarely, but our movements towards freedom start here.

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Goodness

From chapter “Stewarding Resources: Viriya Pāramī” by Ajahn Sucitto:

Offering service in a selfless way gives rise to confidence in oneself, because one’s intention and energy just come down to the love of the good, not the pursuit of prestige or success. It is related to the intimate aspiration of one’s own heart. Once we know this, we don’t lose it; we have it as a refuge….

Our concern is: do we act, speak and think in ways that we can look back on with confidence and clear conscience? Do we act with generosity or not? Do we care for other people? We can energize these qualities by putting attention into them, bringing them to mind in recollection and dwelling on them. Again: what we attend to, we energize; what is energized, governs our world.

This is a tricky area. I remember observing a conversation long ago between two people, one of whom thought service ought to be spontaneously motivated and the other who thought that if you practice service, it becomes spontaneous. It’s almost a chicken and egg question – which comes first, the desire to be of service or the service itself? As with the chicken and egg question, the answer is “it doesn’t matter”. What’s important is the action.

If an honest assessment of our own inclinations reveals that “the love of the good” is weak in us, what are we to do? What if we are inclined to do good but feel overwhelmed by obligations and other activities? This is a rich area for inquiry. We can start by reflecting on what it is we do with our time, whom we choose to associate with, and how we manage our energy. It may be that buried within our activities and relationships, there is wholesome intention that has gone unrecognized. By focusing on these inclinations, we can help them flourish, we can establish confidence in our own goodness.

This is an intimate reflection and needs to be done regularly if it is to be fruitful. Some people incorporate a short period of boundless kindness (mettā) into their daily meditation practice. But it’s also important to keep some mindfulness going throughout the day, observing our actions and intentions as they pass by. As one friend admonished , “Listen to yourself!” It may seem paradoxical, but we can be on auto-pilot so much of the time that we really do stop listening to ourselves.

We can be inspired by the goodness in others and let it resonate with and wake up our own. We can identify our own ordinary wholesome actions; we can appreciate and encourage them. Without some awareness, these actions and intentions may wither from lack of attention. We can have a conversation with a trusted friend about each others’ best qualities. Sometimes we undervalue our own goodness. Let’s try putting it front and center for a while and see what happens.

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Available energy

From chapter “Stewarding Resources: Viriya Pāramī” by Ajahn Sucitto:

Let’s consider energy or viriya. Energy is fundamental for all of us and to anything we do. When our energy is bright and steady we feel good and act effectively; when it’s low or scattered we feel bad and mess up. So energy is relevant both as the resource of vitality and as the way that we apply that resource….

However, the topic of energy can bring up an uneasy feeling: when I’m already tired, and stressed, do I have the capacity or the interest to exert myself further? Well, that worry itself is another wave that has to be met and enquired into.

A wise response to that worry would be to say that the priority is to learn how to conserve energy and not dissipate it. Also, energy needs to be regulated: many of our problems are connected with either not having enough energy, so that we feel flat, or having too much of it, so that we’re overcharged and bursting at the seams. The irregularities are because the mind’s natural inclination is to orbit and check out what’s happening in its external and internal domain – so its attention gets caught by attraction, aversion or confusion. These forces can capture energy and overwhelm the mind. So the degree of exertion should be determined in accordance with what we’re meeting. When we’re tired out, energy is most usefully applied to kindness, and letting go of the need to sort out business. Then we come out of the grip of confused priorities. And in all cases, mindfulness – acknowledging the present state of the mind – is essential….

Entire book can be downloaded here: https://forestsangha.org/teachings/books/parami-ways-to-cross-life-s-floods?language=English

The previous post was about deciding what we should do next, and one determinant of that is the level and quality of our available energy, right now.

Ven. Sucitto’s words identify a common discomfort with talking about energy: most of the time, we feel that we should have more energy than we do – not a helpful beginning. As with all mindfulness practices, we try to discern what IS, not what we wish were the case.

If our energy is in balance, our choices are clear; with reflection, we can choose wisely. But what if our energy is scattered, wound up, and anxious or low and resistive? What then? In either case, task number one is to recognize what energy, both physical and mental, we have available at the moment. If we’re unsure, an honest inventory of our physical sensations should be revealing. Anxiety and lethargy can be felt in the face, torso, hands, etc. What is the quality of our breathing? Free and deep or tense and shallow?

The breath can be used to understand our energy level and also to regulate it. A few deep, slow breaths can dissipate an energy overload AND can bring extra oxygen to bear on weary minds and bodies. With our energy not too low and not too high, we can meet whatever conditions are present without defensiveness or aggression. We can inquire into the elements of our current experience and discover for ourselves what’s true, whether action is called for, and what might be best to do next.

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