We’ve all heard the saying “patience is a virtue.” But what does patience really mean? It’s a word we also most often associate with the idea of waiting.
In fairy tales and so on, we imagine the character who’s “waiting patiently” as doing something quietly heroic. They don’t give up, they just sit there, well, patiently. It’s funny, because in this context everyone can acknowledge how hard “just sitting” can be. And equally, everyone knows what it is to wait impatiently, with growing anger, sighing loudly and looking at your watch. Whether you are visiting with close family for the holidays, or staying with your very opinionated and talkative uncle on your way towards a more desirable final destination, dealing with family can be an opportunity to consider what patience really means. Time with family often breaks up our ordinary routines, which is part of what makes it fun, but we may also miss the comfort of that routine. We might also be spending time with people that we wouldn’t always choose to spend time with (at least, quite as much time), or family members with whom we might have very charged relationships. So does being patient around someone who knows how to push our buttons mean just gritting our teeth and waiting for it to be over? I think that in this context, patience is important, but maybe it’s a slightly different variety. Mindfulness emphasizes being in the here and now. If we’re waiting, we’re not really doing that. We’re attached to the idea of future happiness and we just have to endure the present until we get there. It’s actually a very tense state of mind. If you have a regular meditation practice you’ll know that waiting can sometimes creep into it – you might start waiting for the session to end, looking forward to the time when you’ll be able to get up and get on with your day. But of course, by doing that, you lose track of the object of the meditation, the breath. The key thing to remember is that patience is innate. In fact, it is the nature of the mind itself. When we let go of that resistance to what’s happening, the calm nature of mind is revealed once again. So if you encounter feelings that you’re finding hard to handle, I’d suggest a similar approach – there’s no need to react immediately to them, but just take a moment to observe them. In doing so, you acknowledge that they’re just thoughts and therefore not permanent. In fact, they’re just like clouds covering that clear sky. The sky may be obscured, but it’s still there. It’s in trying to resist such feelings, stubbornly, that we give it more emphasis, and over time we just build up more tension. If you’re having trouble allowing the mind to move on from a particular pattern of thought, a really simple breathing exercise or a Headspace SOS can often be enough to create more space. Of course, sometimes we do need to say something, to make ourselves heard, but we will always do that better if we can do so with a calm mind.