Practice of the Week
See also the earlier Practice of the Week: "Be Patient." This week's practice offers an additional perspective -- and a reminder.
"Patience is not simply the ability to wait - it's how we behave while we're waiting." --Joyce Meyer
"It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience." --Julius Caesar
Adapted from Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion
Once upon a time during China's Song dynasty (960-1279 BCE) there was a Zen master called Bird's Nest Roshi because he meditated in an eagle's nest at the top of a tree. This was quite a dangerous thing to do: one gust of wind, one sleepy moment, and he was done for. He became quite famous for this precarious practice. One day the poet Su Shih came to visit him and, standing on the ground far below the meditating master, asked what possessed him to live in such a dangerous manner. The roshi answered, "You call this dangerous? What you are doing is far more dangerous!" Living normally in the world, ignoring death, impermanence, and loss and suffering, as we all routinely do, as if this were a normal and a safe way to live, is actually much more dangerous than going out on a limb to meditate.
Trying to avoid difficulty may be natural and understandable. It is also ineffective. Our efforts to protect ourselves from pain end up causing us deeper pain. Our attempts to hold on to what we have causes us to lose what we have. We can't keep the attractive object, and we can't avoid the unwanted object. Counterintuitive though it may be, trying to avoiding life's difficulties is actually a more dangerous way to live than facing misfortune squarely.
Of course, when we can prevent difficulty, we do that. So, yes, we do reasonably try to protect our investments, get regular checkups, exercise, take care of our diet, get homeowner's insurance, and so on. It's the unnecessary and unhelpful underlying attitude of anxiety, fear, and narrow-mindedness that makes our lives unhappy, fearful, and small. Patience is the antidote.
Patience is the capacity to welcome difficulty when it comes, with a spirit of strength, endurance, forbearance, and dignity rather than fear, anxiety, and avoidance. None of us like to be oppressed or defeated, yet if we can endure oppression and defeat with strength, without whining, we are ennobled by it. Patience makes this possible.
Our culture encourages thinking of patience as passive and unglamorous. Qualities such as love or compassion or insight are much more popular. But when tough times cause our love to fray into annoyance, our compassion to be overwhelmed by our fear, and our insight to evaporate, then patience begins to make sense. Without patience, all other qualities are shaky.
The practice of patience is simple enough. When difficulty arises, notice the obvious and not so obvious ways we try to avoid it: the things we say and do, the subtle ways in which our very bodies recoil and clench when someone says or does something to us that we don't like.
To practice patience is to simply notice these things and be fiercely present with them. Taking a breath helps. Returning to mindfulness of the body helps. Be fiercely present rather than than flailing around in reactivity to things we don't like. Pay attention to body. Pay attention to mind. When possible, give ourselves good teachings about the virtue of being with, rather than trying to run away from, the anguish we are feeling in this moment.
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For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index"