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Path of the Soul #4: Patience

May 9, 2009 | by Dr. Alan Morinis

The root of impatience is the erroneous belief that we are the masters of our fates.

Every day I face some sort of frustrating delay or obstacle, and too often my response is to strain against how things are. Those feelings sneak up and overtake me while driving the car, or as the water fills the tub ever so slowly, or as I wait as a child struggles with clumsy fingers to master the complexity of a shoelace, or on those days when nothing -- not my internet server, not my spouse, not the postman, NOBODY!! -- does things when or how I want.

Impatience never makes things happen faster or better, and instead only causes agitation, pain and grief. It serves up failure, because most often the things we pursue take time and effort. It is divisive, separating friends, straining marriages, and breaking hearts. It's also a short step from impatience to rage and we all know what harm can come from uncontrollable anger. Impatience is like an inner blaze that burns us up without giving off any warmth.

"Woe to the pampered one who has never been trained to be patient. Either today or in the future he is destined to sip from the cup of affliction." -- Rabbi M. M. Leffin, Cheshbon ha-Nefesh

So who wouldn't be delighted to deepen their ability to meet life's challenges with more patience? We get very clear support for doing so from Torah, where it tells us that we should "walk in His ways" (Deut. 8:6, 19:9, 26:17). In practical terms, we emulate God by practising virtue or, as I like to call it, living in "virtuous reality." As God is merciful, we too should be merciful to those around us. As God is forgiving, so too should we strive to be forgiving. And so on with all the other qualities of goodness, including patience.

There is no doubt that the ultimate source of life is patient, especially when compared to us. Think of the pace of earthly eras, creeping along as slowly as glaciers advancing and retreating. The Mussar tradition offers as evidence for God's patience the fact that our lives are sustained even when we do wrong. It's not hard to imagine a universe where there is absolutely no margin for error, where punishment is instantaneous and total, but that isn't the world we live in. God is patient, and preserves our lives even when our actions hit way off the mark, so we have time to come to deeper realizations, make amends, and return to a straighter way.

If we understand that the highest way to live is to bring the divine virtues down to earth through us, then we should be patient. The question is, "How can we cultivate patience?" One of the great gifts of the Mussar tradition is the instruction it gives on how to foster divine qualities like patience in our lives.

The Hebrew word for patience is savlanut, which also means "tolerance." The same root gives rise to words that means "suffer" (sevel) and "burdens" (sivlot). We learn from this that patience is not a necessarily a pleasant experience. We should expect patience to be the hard work we usually find it to be. That may mean enduring and tolerating, and the experience may even mean bearing a burden.

We only need patience when we are already impatient. If you are standing in line in the bank and it is taking forever but you are cool as a cucumber and whistling a happy tune, you have equanimity and don't need patience. It's when you are fuming and about to boil over that you need to be able to call on the soul-trait of patience.

We get into trouble with impatience because of our reactivity. Sure, the issue may be real. You're late. You need it now. There will be consequences. But whatever the problem, no matter how great or how small, it is one thing to face those life issues just as they are, and quite another to slosh impatience all over the situation. Reactivity like this only increases our burden by adding a whole extra dimension of inner suffering to an already difficult experience.

I have heard this distinction used to clarify the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is the sensation caused by a stimulus; suffering comes from our reaction to the pain.

It usually takes only a split second for the first glowing embers of impatience to ignite and send flames coursing through us. Before you know it, you're leaning on the horn, or you're going hoarse yelling at your child, or cursing the postman. At that point we don't even recognize ourselves, and there is little to be done but to try to rein in those feelings enough to minimize any damage we might do.

It's so much better to be able to catch our impatience as it is arising, and to nip it in the bud. We make a first move in this direction by developing more awareness of the telltale signs of impatience right in the instant that they begin to stir. We experience impatience through these physical indicators, and need to become sensitive to them so we can identify them as they first arise in us, before they take charge.

The practice is to witness and name the feelings just as they come up. Tell yourself that at the first appearance of signs of impatience in you, you will say to yourself, "I'm feeling impatient," or, "There's impatience." Just by forming those words, you will hold open at least a tiny crack through which the light of consciousness can still shine, and if you can do that, impatience is suddenly no longer so certain to rule, despite the fact that the triggering problem remains.

It's an illusion to think that we control very many of the factors that shape our lives.

The real root of impatience is the erroneous belief that we are the masters of our fates. The truth is otherwise. We are actually wired into all kinds of larger circuits and systems, from the molecular to the social to the spiritual, and it's an illusion to think that we control very many of the factors that shape our lives. Least of all can we expect to rule the timetable according to which life takes place, which is usually the focus for our impatience.

The Mussar teachers encourage us to contemplate these truths, because when we realize a deeper understanding of our rightful place in the universe, that helps us avoid getting all worked up when things don't go just precisely as we'd like. Really, why should they, considering how small we are, and how many other agendas and needs are always involved? Even though we often have our eyes focused so directly in front of our noses that we don't perceive these truths, all our lives are actually integrated within grand schemes of time, space, spirit and matter, moved by hands that are not our own.

Of course we are not totally powerless, but it is important to sort out what is actually within our power and what is not. And as the cliche goes (and just because it is a cliche doesn't mean it isn't true), the remarkable thing is that in both cases, we are better off to be patient -- patient with the things that are within our control to change, and patient with those that aren't.

Nor does patience mean we become passive. We still make a genuine effort to set the pace and trajectory of our lives, but we just don't react to every delay or deflection as if it were a denial, whether that means a denial of our selves or a denial by God.

In those moments when I am good at being patient, I restore myself to the here and the now despite pressures to go somewhere else. I reduce my straining against reality. I return myself to a middle path, not leaning to the one extreme of being inactive and fatalistic -- because that way I err by negating the powers I have been given, limited though they might be -- nor veering to the other extreme, where impatience, chaos and destruction reign.


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