In the book Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, the main character, Siddhartha, tells Kamala, a beautiful courtesan: “From the moment I made [the resolution to learn about love from the most beautiful woman] I also knew that I would execute it…when you throw a stone into the water, it finds the quickest way to the bottom of the water. It is the same when Siddhartha has an aim, a goal. Siddhartha does nothing; he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he goes through the affairs of the world like the stone through the water, without doing anything, without bestirring himself; he is drawn and lets himself fall. He is drawn by his goal because he does not allow anything to enter his mind which opposes his goal…everyone can reach his goal, if he can think, wait and fast.”
I’ve always loved this image of stone slowly but inexorably falling to the bottom of a body of water, which to me perfectly represents the essence of patience. Having patience is often difficult yet utterly indispensable for accomplishing great works. It defends us against foolish, impulsive behavior, gives us time to consider our options carefully, plan appropriately, and execute effectively. How can we learn to have more of it?
WHAT CREATES PATIENCE
- Self-confidence that you can win. The more certain we are that we can achieve our goal, the less we’ll worry over the possibility of failure and therefore the better we’ll be able to tolerate not achieving our goal right now.
- Recognition that your goal isn’t crucial for your happiness. No single goal, no matter how important it may be, no matter how badly we may want it, can ever create the entirety of our happiness. Reminding ourselves of this even as we strive toward our goal with all our might helps to calm the sense of urgency we feel about obtaining it.
- A determination to advance one step at a time. Recognizing the need to chunk large tasks into smaller, manageable ones enables us to focus on doing today’s work today and tomorrow’s work tomorrow. Add up enough of those days and we’ll find ourselves standing right in front of our dream come one of them.
HOW TO ACTIVELY MANIPULATE THE SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE OF TIME
Our subjective experience of the passage of time tends to accelerate when we’re immersed in an enjoyable experience and slow when we’re bored or in pain. For this reason, viable strategies for subjectively speeding time up when waiting might include:
- Immersing yourself fully in the action you’re taking. Allow yourself to be consumed with the task at hand. Enter the world of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow and become the experience you’re having, losing yourself in it and casting off your propensity to look beyond the present moment.
- Distracting yourself. If you’ve already taken all the action you can and must now wait, wait actively rather than passively by distracting yourself with another engaging activity. Make it something vitally interesting in order to lend it the power to tear your mind away from your obsession.
- Vividly imagining you’re already enjoying what you’re waiting for. Anticipation can create impatience, true, but also great enjoyment. Savor the waiting, fully explore in your imagination what it will be like when your goal is achieved. In fact, anticipating something good is sometimes even more enjoyable than actually having it happen.
IMPATIENCE WITH OTHER PEOPLE
I’ve observed that when I’m feeling impatient with someone for any reason it usually has far more to do with some trigger of mine they’ve inadvertently pulled than with their behavior (even when their behavior is problematic, my impatience with it remains a separate issue). Obviously not everyone’s impatience triggers are the same. For example, I’m impatient with lazy people but wonderful with confused people. The former I want to slap. The latter I want to teach. Why wouldn’t I want to teach the former, too? I certainly should. That’s the reaction I want to have. But I haven’t managed to prevent laziness from triggering my slap button yet. I’m aware of it now as my issue, though, so (usually) I don’t slap lazy people but rather now recognize my impatience with them as a gauge of my own progress (or lack thereof). I know when I stop feeling impatient in response to laziness it will mean I’ve advanced to an even greater degree of belief in the inherent goodness of people, a place I’m quite anxious to get. But it sure ain’t easy…
Curiously, one thing that does help is imagining myself as Siddhartha’s stone, slowly but inexorably falling to the bottom of a body of water. Whether impatient with a person or impatient to achieve a goal, I try to remember that every person wants to be happy and every goal worth achieving takes time—and that if I’m patient and take each step as it appears before me I can count on the “gravity” of my efforts to pull me in the direction I need to go to achieve victory, whether that means helping another person rather than being short with them or accomplishing a goal—and even more importantly, I can enjoy the process of both.
Next week: Everyone Is Rational
I’d restate #1 of What Creates Patience as:
1. Non attachment to results. Making the effort is the important part of achievement. As long as a sincere effort has been made, then something valuable has been achieved, whether or not the desired goal is attained.
The image of the stone slowly falling through the water is really wonderful and useful. My impatience is usually tangled up with anxiety (about myself, of course) and I often try to cope by thinking about my feet and trying to ground myself (based on chi kung exercises). Sometimes it works really well and other times it’s not so successful—because, I think, it’s too abstract. The image of the stone sinking is one that I can viscerally connect with.
Thanks for another helpful post!
Fantastic. You have such a wonderfully concise and artistic way of explaining these things so I can really wrap my mind around the concepts. I think I’m going to steal the Siddhartha’s stone visualization.
It is nice to start the week with a new post from you. Thank you, Alex.
The image of the stone is so helpful and really creates a sense of peace in me. It’s about *allowing* instead of interrupting a natural flow.
Thanks for this, Alex.
I just wanted to comment on the sinking stone visualization. I have used it while running to help me focus on moving smoothly, to glide over the land rather than combating it. Pain is usually an indication that I’m not moving very well and it usually subsides if I’m more conscious of my gait.
Also, I cling to this idea of the inherent goodness of people in principle, but I often find that the more I actually get out there and meet them, the more they prove me wrong. Because I’m more or less a relativist, I’m beginning to accept and ignore people who strike me as self-obsessed, cruel, or uncaring.
Impatience with other people has been my personal ban throughout my life. It is particularly painful when it is triggered by people I love and want to make happy. I am usually able to repress harsh remarks but I’m sure my impatience still shows. I wish you could write some more about this issue and how to overcome it.
I concur with the other comments; this post hangs together very well. I understand your frustration with laziness; I’m not sure if “teaching” is the right response. Maybe if you see it as tiredness? Empathy? Interesting question, at least.
By the way, re: bullies, I find the site below fascinating in general and in particular this page on bullies:
PS—I was talking with a friend about the past situation that has been troubling me, and after some minor attempt at analysis she offered her solution to life problems: chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. It’s been helpful.
My conversation with my friend was about 2 weeks ago; she told me about focusing on the Ten Worlds, which I found enormously useful. When she first described it, I said that I expected that a significant portion of it was evoking the “relaxation response,” something I might do by playing tetris or walking, distracting the conscious mind and getting in touch with my intuition. She said that was not a bad way to approach it. As a longtime dancer, I also connect with adding breath and sound to that process; I can imagine doing sun salutations as a “moving meditation” in the same way, or the way I will put on a favorite piece of music and improvise movement to it.
1. Is the rhythm of the chanting meant to be static throughout? Is it set by your mood on the day or should you aim for a particular pace?
2. I’ve been chanting sitting; can walking or other movement be incorporated?
I am touched by this one. The patience. The humbleness. It is one small Monday pleasure to read what you write. Even more after our talk.
R.G…chanting has changed my life…I’ll write more on this topic later and need to catch up on your other posts, Alex, but just wanted to share that with R.G for the moment.
I remember when Rhea and I first started chanting we pronounced it so slowly and each syllable was pronounced clearly; when we went to the SGI center in Chicago for the first time we walked into the huge auditorium with the big gohonzon and a hundred people chanting so fast we just looked at each other and laughed; we had no idea what they were saying or how to pick our speed up to that level and say it correctly; after laughing about it we both could hear Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in the massive noise in the room. It didn’t take long to get into the rhythm; it’s so natural it just flows.
Alex, if we were married (thank God Rhea’s not lazy. LOL) your hand print would adorn my cheek all the time! LOL. I struggle with laziness and it gets the best of me. It’s better over the years with chanting, but I need to really work on it constantly.
Patience is still very hard for me; it’s mostly with people on the L.A freeways and roads. It always has to do with how I’m feeling and my stress level; after I chant or do a yoga class I find myself much more relaxed and non-reactive.
Confidence you will achieve the goal and taking all the right action to get there is my biggest challenge.
One thing that also helps me with people on the road is remembering that we’re all connected since everything is cause and effect. It helps me to be much more mindful of what I’m putting out there. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I’m stressed, impatient and honking at people on the road I get the same reaction. When I’m courteous and polite I seem to get the same kindness in return. Patience really is a big key to reaching goals.
I am new to your site and have been reading it for about a month. I am so taken by this week’s column that I want to thank you for it, since it is really pertinent to my situation in life right now. I want to thank you.
Siddhartha has to be one of the most influential pieces of literature I’ve ever read. I love that book.
Don’t forget that Siddhartha took MANY paths before he found his peace. His rock got tossed into a lot of different bodies of water, so to speak.
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I am grateful to hear you acknowledge the impulse to slap people you are impatient with. Thank you.
Very well stated. I agree, Siddhartha demonstrates beautifully the path to achieving our goals.
I find that when I take the position of non-attachment with people’s actions no matter the situation, my tolerance and patience grows exponentially. And, when I find myself being judgmental I take several deep breaths before reacting. “Upsets” are internal and therefore the only person being upset, impatient, or angry is me. Moreover, because I have control of my emotions I can choose to let go of those negative emotions when they arise. Particularly, because they serve no one, especially me.
Great post. I realized that I make “I want, but I’m not sure if I’ll get it” statements and what I need to do is make “I will” statements and then just trust that it will happen.
Someone led me to your blog because I have been struggling with chronic illness for over eight years and am also a practicing Buddhist. I feel fortunate that my interest in Buddhism preceded my illness because the teachings I learned through my years of Buddhist practice have helped me cope with this unexpected turn in my life.
I have to practice patience constantly: patience with myself and patience with the medical world which seems to have become my second home. I often have to be my own patient advocate. At those times I try to remember the Buddhist practice of “khanti” which I like to translate as “patient endurance.” Your post reinforces for me the importance of the “endurance” part, so that patience doesn’t drift into passivity. I often have to patiently endure by gently asserting myself or by just hanging in there, a step at a time (whether it be with an overworked doctor or with the health insurance maze).
I look forward to reading more of your posts.