The Surprisingly Powerful Practice of Patience


“Forbearance is the highest observance. Patience is the highest virtue. So the Buddhas say.” ~Dhammapada, verse 184

“And how does one, in protecting others, protect oneself? By patience and forbearance, by a non-violent and harmless life, by loving kindness and compassion.” ~Satipatthana Samyutta, No. 19

“There is no evil so great as anger. There is no religious practice so powerful as patience.” ~Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacaryavatara

Dear Friends,

Recently I heard an interview with Derek Black, a man raised by white supremacists and the subject of the new book, Rising Out of Hate. As a child, Derek was active in perpetuating the white supremacist message of division and intolerance. When he went to college he was befriended by Jewish students who invited him to Shabbos dinners—for two years. While there weren’t open discussions and debates to point out the mistaken ideas in Black’s thinking, these friends used patience and diligence to allow Derek to see his beliefs through the eyes of those he was taught were less than human. Today Derek Black speaks out about the erroneous foundational beliefs of white supremacy and must live with his earlier history of inciting hatred and violence. What so impressed me about this story was the courage, open-heartedness, and patience of Black’s Jewish friends. They did not use shame, blame, or recrimination, but with patience and their kind presence, they transformed the heart and mind of someone steeped in a lifetime of dualistic and discriminative ideologies.

In Buddhism patience is one of the perfections or paramis (Pali) / paramitas (Sanskrit). The Buddha spoke of patience as the highest virtue we can cultivate. Patience is the necessary ingredient for our lives that leads to the jewel of equanimity and the power to stay the course. In our Western culture patience doesn’t look like a virtue or strength. If we are patient in our lives and desires, we are seen as weak and passive. Patience is not a popular trait. We want results, action and one of the best compliments in management is to be pro-active. In a world of “nip-it-in-the-bud” and “get ‘er done,” we do not look favorably upon patience. Patience is the virtue for wimps and the helpless who are incapable of taking action while things get worse and worse. Being patient is not only suspect, it is actively discouraged.

The story of change in Derek Black has me thinking about patience and the ability to affect change. Lasting change does not happen slowly. Think about the patience of the earth, the patience of the orange blossom that metamorphosizes into fruit, slowly over months, the patience of a drop of water that wears away solid rock, and the patience of the trees that take years to develop their heartwood.

The patience the Buddha spoke about has three facets, the first is our patience with others that allows us to maintain our mind of peace even if someone else is being…you know, an idiot. We can use what is translated as “forbearance,” to restrain ourselves from anger and meet our experience with understanding, compassion, and the mind of love. Patience reminds us that our priority is to maintain our own friendly and calm mind state, despite what others may do or say. We use our understanding and acceptance, our tolerance of others to help us speak and act from a place of balance and wisdom. This is not to say we are inactive or passive when we see injustice—but patience gives us the understanding that this view, or action from another wasn’t created in this instant. Patience takes the long road to create change as we saw in the transformation of Derek Black.

The second facet of patience supports our engagement with our spiritual path. We all know what it feels like to try all the time. We can become tired and lose our confidence that anything will ever change. This second type of patience encompasses what Dharma teacher Joanne Friday calls, “gentle diligence over time.” It is the patience that allows us to move forward with joy instead of pain. If we do not enjoy our spiritual path and integrate our practice into our lives, how will we ever sustain it enough to transform? Patience allows us to honor the pace of our lives and allow the natural order to unfold in its own time.

A few years ago on retreat, a friend shared one of his insights. I loved it so much, he wrote it for me and I put it next to my bed. His words, “Even on the same tree, all the flowers do not bloom at once,” reminded me each day to have patience with others and with myself. My journey does not look like anyone else’s. I am progressing in accord with my own karma—not someone else’s’ expectations.

The third type of patience is the patience that contains trust in own abilities and natural goodness. This is the patience that believes I too can become a Buddha. Looking at the path of renunciation and transformation, the whole enterprise may seem so vast and insurmountable we can easily doubt our abilities and become discouraged. There is the attitude of why even try because I have so many years of conditioning. It’s just too big. I am not worthy, or capable of such high goals. It’s safer to do what everyone else does and save the disappointment of trying. Patience gives us the willingness to do what seems insurmountable, in small daily increments that include kindness and joy to nourish our journey. This type of patience gives us the courage to say that I am worthy of ultimate happiness. I am worth the effort. Patience directly supports the next paramita of diligence in our lives and practice.

This week, you may like to reflect on how you have included patience in your life—and where it could help shore up your commitments. We all need to trust in our goodness and ability to wake up and live in the best way we know how. This can include the patience that gives us the strength to undergo chemo treatments that leave us depleted or make phone calls to politicians about policies that threaten the environment when it seems no one is listening. Patience is a wonderful companion that can wrap us in the protective cloak of kindness, knowing each action we do lessens suffering in the world and in ourselves.

May we all trust our light,


           The flower is made of non flower elements

A smile of gratitude to David Nelson for taking this photo and generously sharing it online.

The Unreliable Nature of Nature

Scottish Long View

Scottish Long View, photo by Barbara Richardson

“Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers

“‘All conditioned things are impermanent’ — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.” ~The Dhammapada

“Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things”. ~The Dhammapada

Dear Friends,

It’s been a while since I last wrote and much is different now. I am reminded daily of annica, or impermanence, one of the three marks of existence. I found out recently that the Pali canon records the Buddha teaching on annica over 100 times. Learning that, I don’t feel badly repeating this theme. The word we translate often as impermanence has a slightly different flavor in Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures.  The root word is nicca which scholar monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates as constant and dependable. The prefix a is used to indicate the opposite thus anicca means inconstant or undependable. These words contain the seeds of disappointment and frustration much more than recalling the natural condition of impermanence.

The last reminder from the Buddha before his death was an exhortation to keep impermanence in the forefront of our minds and to remember that everything we see, think, feel, and experience is made of composite things that depend upon the whole universe to support their existence. This includes our thoughts, our bodies, our emotions, all people, all regimes, all ideologies, every bank, every government, and country in the world. They will all change and they will all end. Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates the Buddha’s last words as ‘“I exhort you, monks: All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.’ Those were the Tathagata’s last words.”

The Buddhist worldview sees everything in a constant flux of shifting conditions. I have noticed my tendency to create groupings of years: this was my childhood, spent in this house with these friends, and then this is where I lived as a young adult with these interests and friends. The next phase was as a mother with children growing up in a new town. Each portion of my life is packaged into a manageable chunk, separated by location and time. In reality, there are no demarcation lines, no separation the day we stop being a child, or change the day we turn 21, get married or divorced. We create these mental compartments which we assign time and place to. If we look at our lives, they are unfolding against a fluid and inconstant backdrop. And we share in this unpredictability.

Our bodies, minds, and emotions are constantly arising and passing away and we are powerless to hold back the aging, sickness, and ultimate death of these bodies. We can clearly see that when we focus on the unreliable nature of the world and ourselves, we touch suffering [dukkha] and anatta, or not-self. These three, dukkha, annica, and anatta comprise the three marks of existence or three characteristics. They are basic truths of living in these bodies we cannot control and being part of the system that constantly falls into balance and out of balance. One teacher summarized these three teachings as, Everything changes. It will shake you up and it’s not personal. Buddhist peace activist and teacher, Donald Rothberg recommends reflecting on impermanence for five minutes a day, noting that everything we see, the house, the car, folks in a hurry to get to work, all the infrastructure and everything that meets our eyes is subject to change and decay. It’s all going away—even us.

This understanding can help give us the long lens of equanimity to see how things really are and to unclench from what seems so important, fixed, and permanent. The notion of change and fluidity means that although what we love will change, what we don’t love will change also. As Thich Nhat Hanh points out, we have infinite possibilities because nothing is forever—and we can be part of this wave of change, for the better.

May we all trust our light,