How to Practice Patience

When nobody is bothering us, how can we really practice patience? How do we even declare ourselves to be practicing patience when nobody is bothering us? It’s so nice when you’re sitting on a meditation cushion listening to soft music, and burning incense. But then what exactly are you being patient with there? It’s difficult to say. It’s true you need patience for sitting. But to develop real patience you need someone to irritate you.

We may have the intention, “I’m going to be tolerant.” But when it comes to patience, we can’t be patient with each other. Isn’t that funny? We think we have so much tolerance, but when it comes down to our one-on-one interactions with our partners, coworkers, family and friends, we have no patience.

We don’t seize the opportunity. We feel, “I really need to speak my mind this time, and then later I will practice patience.” But that next time for practicing patience doesn’t come, it never comes.

If, instead of putting it off, we develop the habit to be patient even when it’s hard, we become free from the tormented mental state that arises when we’re mistreated or harmed by others. This doesn’t mean we condone negative harmful actions. We may not be able to stop others from committing harmful actions, but we definitely can decide how we’re going to respond to that situation. By developing the strong habit of patience, we can overcome the state of agitation in our mind that comes along with being harmed.

In the practice of patience, it’s important to keep going. If we don’t have patience, all these positive qualities we have gathered can be destroyed in a single instant. Why? Because due to the lack of patience, we get irritated. And when we get into the habit of being easily irritated, we develop a tendency to get angry. And when we get angry, in that single instance all of our positivity will be destroyed.

Developing patience is similar to any other goal we aspire to. It we want to build up something worthwhile it takes a long time, it involves hard work. But if you set out to destroy something it’s quite easy and quick to do.

What is the essence of patience? Put simply, the essence of patience is to be unperturbed.

There are many teachings on patience, but it seems that the foremost aspect of patience is being unperturbed by harm from others. This means that when others inflict harm on us or on our friends, relatives, supporters and so forth, we practice patience towards that. Maybe someone threatens, scolds, or treats us or those we care about very harshly, or maybe they openly reveal our hidden faults. Such harm includes anything, basically, that we do not want someone to do, or preventing us from getting what we want. If any such harmful treatment occurs, we are encouraged to practice patience, to cultivate patience.

How do we cultivate patience? We should start by simply contemplating. We can think about it from all kinds of different angles, trying to see how we can bring patience to bear in this situation.

Cultivating Patience through Contemplation

We can begin by thinking of this harmful action from the perspective of the person doing harm. We can and ask ourselves, “Are they doing this action while being in control and in a state of freedom, or are they doing this action while not in control and having no freedom?” If we reflect deeply on the matter, we can readily see that those who do harm are doing it in a state of lack of control and lack of freedom. Why? Because they are under the powerful sway of negative emotions and karma.

We can remember, “People in this state have no control over their minds. And due to that they are inflicting harm upon me. So that’s the first point, to contemplate how the being who is harming us is not under their own control, their own power. What they really want is happiness, but sadly they are doing things that will only cause more suffering for themselves. This is a clear indication that they have no autonomy or independence in the matter. And even at the time they are inflicting harm, they have no happiness at all.

Second, when someone inflicts harm on us, we can ask ourselves, “What is provoking them to the harmful action?” In other words, what caused us to get into this situation in the first place? What provokes the situation? We’re not just asking ourselves what provoked the person, but what has provoked the situation. And when we reflect on that, it leads us back to the reality of karma, cause and effect, such as each person’s social or emotional conditioning.

Another point to consider is that, if we can’t practice patience in the face of this harm, then both of us are in trouble. Not only the one inflicting harm upon us, but we ourselves are going to accrue faults and end up in a sad state. When someone harms us and we respond with a similarly harmful action, then we ourselves are duplicating the original wrongdoing. And we end up with the same negative result, or worse.

Another point to consider in our contemplation is that we can think of how this act of harm is actually of great benefit. That doesn’t mean it’s pleasant. And of course, we need to do whatever we can to protect our physical safety and the safety of others. But we’re talking here about the usual irritations we experience, those situations in which we tend to jump in and make things worse, when instead we could take a deep breath, do a little contemplation, and choose not to add flame to the fire.

But if there is no one trying to harm or irritate us, there is really no way we can practice patience. How can we practice patience if there’s no one on TV? Because that person appears on TV frequently, fortunately we have frequent opportunities to practice patience. Because someone at our workplace often gets mad at us, we have many opportunities to practice patience. Instead of dreading a meeting with them, we can think, “Bring it on. With every encounter, I’m cultivating a wealth of patience.” We can consider it very good news.

When someone is trying to harm you, insult you, belittle you, when someone is trying to step on your toes, trying to take credit for your work, trying to defame you or obstruct your progress, then you have the opportunity to remember the benefits of practicing patience. If we keep remembering this, our mind becomes clearer and we’re less likely to get stuck in mental agitation. We become calmer, gentler, and kinder to ourselves and others.

Therefore, all these beings who are trying to harm us are actually very kind. It’s like they are leading us to awakening, saying, “Hey, you don’t have enough patience. You are missing out on this, so I’m here to help you develop this virtuous quality.” So they are very kind.

If we can cultivate and maintain patience in our minds, it is taught that this will please all the buddhas. It will make our own inner buddha smile. And it will make the buddhas on the outside smile as well.

Contemplating Patience – An Exercise

The next time someone irritates you, consider the four points below. You may want to do some writing about each one to deepen your contemplation.

1. This person lacks control over their mind and actions. They want happiness just as everyone does, but by doing harm they only cause themselves more suffering.

2. What could be provoking this harmful action on their part?

3. If I return this harm, I will end up in an equally negative state.

4. This person is actually kind. If I didn’t have this person irritating me, I wouldn’t have this great opportunity to develop patience.