There is no such thing as an impatient Zen Master.
While the above statement may seem obvious, for me it was a realization that struck me across the face like a loud, stinging slap. It came during a period of reflection when I tried to realistically assess where I actually was with my Zen. What I found as I looked back on the last five years of concentrated study and practice, was that I am still an impatient person.
And that’s when it hit me – there’s no such thing as an impatient Zen Master. Of course, I’ve never thought of myself as a Zen Master, and as I said in my introduction to this blog, anyone who calls himself a Zen Master probably isn’t one anyway, but in relation to the development of my own Zen practice, this was like a dousing of ice water in a personal ice bucket challenge.
So that realization has led me to an extensive study of the practice of patience, and how it fits into the practice of Zen. The results have been pretty eye-opening because as I now see it, the practice of patience is the practice of Zen, and practice of Zen is the practice of patience. But even more so, the practice of patience is also the practice for a peaceful, healthy life.
But before we get into why that’s so, let’s do what we often do in these posts and define our terms.
What exactly is patience and impatience?
Merriam-Webster’s definition of ‘patience’ wasn’t entirely helpful given that ‘patience’ was defined as, “the capacity, habit, or fact of being patient” but their definition of ‘patient’ was. ‘Patient’ is defined as, “able to remain calm and not become annoyed when waiting for a long time or when dealing with problems or difficult people”.
‘Impatience’ was also helpful and was defined as, “restless or short of temper especially under irritation, delay, or opposition” and “eagerly desirous: anxious”.
While these are good definitions in their own right, let’s look at patience and impatience a little differently.
Patience and impatience from a Zen point of view
Here we begin by asking the question, what are we actually doing when we become impatient? The answer is a familiar one if you’ve been reading previous posts: we’re resisting things as they are in the present moment.
If we become impatient at a long traffic light, or we get caught at a train crossing with what seems like the longest train ever built by man passing in front of us, we’re resisting things as they are in the present moment. We are also caught up in the desire for things to be different than they are in the present moment, i.e., at the train crossing, we don’t want the train to be there (resistance), and do want to be on our way (desire).
So we see that impatience boils down to resistance to the way things are in the present moment, and an attachment to the desire for things to be different than they actually are in the present moment.
So what then, in Zen terms, is patience?
My working definition of patience from a Zen point of view is simply, “the peaceful acceptance of the way things are in the present moment“. This applies to whether you’re in a situation where you have no choice but to wait for something (delay), as well as dealing with an otherwise potentially annoying circumstance, person or being (I love my family and pets to death but they can sometimes be a right royal pain!).
Patience, then, is essentially the peaceful acceptance of reality as it is in the present moment. It’s allowing reality to be reality without letting it upset you, or if it has upset you, of letting go.
That of course doesn’t mean that there won’t be situations where change is called for and we have the capacity to effect that change, but by accepting things as they are in the present moment we are able to calmly respond to a situation rather than impatiently react to it.
The pitfalls of impatience
Let’s look at some of the things Merriam-Webster shows are the result of impatience: restlessness, annoyance, becoming short-tempered. To these we can add frustration, stress, and sometimes outright anger or even rage. All of these things fall under the umbrella of another familiar Zen term: suffering.
The bottom line is that when we become impatient, we suffer in ourselves, and sometimes that suffering boils over to the point that we take it out on others.
In addition to the psychological and emotional suffering caused by impatience and the resulting annoyance, anger and stress, there are physiological implications as well.
As we’ve seen, impatience leads to stress, and stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system which in turn triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. This includes the release of hormones such as epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) and cortisol. This is all well good if we were being attacked by a bear or a mugger, but most of us don’t get attacked by bears or muggers very often.
The problem is that if we are the types of people who tend to get impatient fairly frequently, we are constantly triggering the stress/fight or flight response not just once in a while, but several times a day. That takes its toll on the body and can lead to such things as high blood pressure and heart disease.
So the practice of patience not only reduces emotional suffering, but also reduces physical suffering as well. Yet how do we practice patience on a practical basis?
The Three Pillars of Patience
Pillar Number One: Letting Go
If you haven’t yet read the post Let Go, Let Go, Let Go, or if you have, but only once or even twice, I would urge you to not only read it again, but to do as I do, and read it every two or three days. The teachings there by Ajahn Sumedho are crucial for establishing the skillful practice of embedding the phrase “let go, let go, let go” in our minds so that it comes up automatically when needed (as in the case of impatience), and constantly re-reading his teaching is an encouraging reminder of how to practice.
Yet with all this talk of letting go, in terms of impatience, what exactly are we letting go of?
We have seen that impatience is resistance to the way things are, and anxiously wanting them to be different. Therefore when we say, “let go” what we are letting go of is just that – the resistance to the way things are in the present moment, and our attachment to the desire for things to be different than they are right here and right now.
It’s also important to remember that ‘letting go’ isn’t just a pat phrase or affirmation, it’s the path to peace. As Ajahn Chah said, “Do everything with a mind that lets go…If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.”
Letting go, then, is the first pillar of patience and of peace.
Pillar Number Two: Mindful Breathing
One of the signs of impatience is shallow breathing. This is part of the sympathetic nervous system’s stress/ fight or flight response and occurs in conjunction with muscle tension and the release of the body’s chemicals as we saw above.
One simple way of reducing the stress caused by impatience (and stress in general) is to take three or four slow, deep breaths with the ideal being that each breath would last a total of anywhere from 10 to 15 seconds. We are also mindfully focusing on the feeling of the breath in the same way we do in meditation.
The best way I’ve found to do this deep breathing is to inhale slowly through my nose and expand my stomach such that the air then starts to fill from the bottom of my lungs up through the top of my lungs. I then begin to exhale through pursed lips, even more slowly than I inhaled. So the inhale would take six or seven seconds, and the exhale a bit longer. This can be done virtually any time and anywhere (except maybe team meetings where it might look a bit strange).
The effects of this kind of breathing is amazing in that it actually helps to reverse the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response, and triggers the parasympathetic nervous system which is in charge of slowing the heart rate and relaxing the body after a stress response. It also regulates the body’s functions when in a non-stressed state. The parasympathetic nervous system is sometimes referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system.
Three or four deep, mindful breaths can go a long way to bringing us back down when we find ourselves triggered and impatient, and can be done while simultaneously saying to ourselves, “let go, let go, let go”. I do this all the time now and can tell you from experience it really does work. But I also do one more thing as well…
Pillar Number Three: Peaceful Acceptance
Peaceful acceptance of the way things are in the present moment is not only the definition of patience, but is also the third pillar for maintaining a serene heart and mind. The way I employ this now is that when I find myself becoming impatient, I immediately stop and begin deep, mindful breathing as I simultaneously say to myself, “Let go, let go, let go, and ease into peaceful acceptance of the way things are”.
I’ve found that the additional phrase of easing into peaceful acceptance of the way things are reminds me that the purpose of letting go is to return to the peaceful part of my true nature, and to accept things as they are in the present moment, even if wisdom dictates that the situation needs to be changed. As I noted earlier, I can then respond from a position of peace, rather than react in a knee-jerk fashion.
Peaceful acceptance of the way things are is therefore both the goal and a part of the practice.
Bonus pillar: Gratitude
Gratitude is one of the greatest game-changers in life, no matter what your background, customs, or practice. I truly believe that in virtually any situation, if you look hard enough, there will be something to be grateful for which will change the outlook on that circumstance for the better.
As I wrote in my post, Impermanence and Gratitude, I lost my mother in April of this year (2016), and ten days later my wife and I had to euthanize our eldest dog, Baxter. Yet even in the midst of this compound grief, one of the main things that got me through it (and still does) is the gratitude for the time I had with them while they were here.
If we can find gratitude even in the midst of personal loss, we can certainly find gratitude in the comparatively minor situations that bring about impatience in our day to day lives – can’t get the lid open on a jar of tomato sauce? Be grateful we have food readily available and in such abundance. Stuck at a red light? Be grateful your car is working and you’re not broken down at that light. Loved ones driving you crazy? Be grateful for all the love and support they provide when they’re not doing the things that get under your skin.
And so even apart from the practice of Zen, or yoga, or traditional religions, the practice of patience is part and parcel of the practice of life if we want to go through it with any semblance of peace and happiness. I’ve spent far too long allowing myself to get impatient over things that often don’t matter 10 minutes later, much less 10 years later, and that’s no way to live.
Patience therefore, is far more than a virtue, it is the gateway to peace, and peace is the foundation of happiness.
- Patience is the peaceful acceptance of the way things are in the present moment.
- Impatience is resistance to the way things are in the present moment, and an attachment to the desire for things to be different than they are right now.
- Impatience leads to emotional and physical suffering.
- The Three Pillars of Patience are: letting go, mindful breathing, and peaceful acceptance.
- Letting go means letting go of resistance to the way things are in the present moment, and letting go of the attachment to the desire for things to be different in the present moment.
- Mindful breathing is three to four deep breaths lasting 10 to 15 seconds
- When triggered into impatience, breathe mindfully as you say to yourself, “Let go, let go, let go, and ease into the peaceful acceptance of the way things are in the present moment”.
- Accepting things as they are in the present moment does not preclude acting to change things when wisdom calls for it, but allows a peaceful response rather than a knee-jerk reaction.
- Bonus pillar: gratitude which can be found in virtually any situation and can turn the outlook on that situation around for the better.
- Patience is more than a virtue, it is the gateway to peace, and peace is the foundation of happiness.
That’s it for now, thanks for stopping by and see you soon.