Sunday, February 24, 2013

On Patience

How have you been, NIP?

            I know that is has been quite some time since I’ve written a letter to you, and I hope your life has been going well since we last communicated. It’s been a tough year for me personally, but I’m managing it fairly well thanks to cultivating a better disposition through these five qualities that I’ve been writing about over the last several letters. It’s fitting the final letter on the five qualities concerns patience, mainly because I’ve had to exercise my own a great deal during the preceding months. And while it’s much easier for me to do at this point in my life, this certainly wasn’t the case when I was young. I don’t know if it’s due to me closing in on 40 years old as my wonderful wife Erin likes to remind me from time to time, or simply because I focus on patience so much as one of the five qualities that I needed to work on in order to become a better person. Heck, it could be a combination of both for all I know. No matter the reason, I feel like a much better husband, son, brother, friend, and teacher due to my increased patience.

            Out of any of the five qualities of love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience, it is patience that is perhaps the most difficult to practice in contemporary society. In developed countries such as the U.S.—and perhaps every other Western developed nation—most people have certain expectations about how life should be lived, and very often these expectations are intertwined with a sense of immediacy or urgency. And though our breakneck-speed paced culture often saddles us with a sense of entitlement with regard to getting what we want when we want it, I’ve discovered in the last few years that the things that really matter—the goals that are really worth working toward—don’t coincide with haste. More often than not, the things we really want to accomplish in life take a great deal of time and need to flower in their own way, which is precisely why patience must be practiced in every type of personal growth endeavor. Whether you are trying to lose weight/live a healthier lifestyle, overcome an addiction, or simply improve your overall disposition, NIP, you must begin walking the path with the understanding that what you most want to accomplish with the remainder of your life will take time, perhaps lots of it.

            While I’m sure we all have differing definitions of patience and what it is/how it works, I wanted to share this short excerpt from an article I had read recently by Norman Fischer, a Zen roshi (teacher) whose new book Training in Compassion I am looking forward to reading. Here’s what he has to say on patience:

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 likes 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. In our culture, we think of patience as passive and unglamorous; other qualities like 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 fear, and our insight to evaporate, then patience begins to make sense. To me it is the most substantial, most serviceable, and most reliable of all spiritual qualities. Without it, all other qualities are shaky.

When I read this part of the article, it made so much sense to me as I reflected upon the five qualities that I have been trying to improve in myself over the last four years. Though I do think that all five of them are in some sense an extrapolation of the first quality, love, I feel as if patience is the glue that binds them all together. The five qualities, to me, are not so much a linear progression but a circle, each one building off of the others. This past week in my World Religions class at school, in fact, we studied a major, basic tenet of Buddhism, the Eightfold Path. After listing out the eight steps, I cautioned the students not to think of them as individual rungs on a ladder, but as the spokes of a wheel attached to a central hub. All of them are necessary complements to each other; to remove a spoke would mean the wheel becomes unbalanced and prone to failure. It is the same for the five qualities in that the removal of patience would make the entire edifice come crashing down.

            When it comes to the actual practicing of patience, we must begin with ourselves. Much in the same way that we find it impossible to love others if we cannot love ourselves, if we cannot be patient with ourselves our dreams will never come to fruition. If you really want to get better at anything, overcome any obstacle, you must begin by being honest with yourself. Our life’s work of trying to become the best human being we are capable of becoming will not happen overnight. It will take our entire lifetime to achieve, and we must walk the path with integrity and patience. Life will challenge us all and be extremely frustrating at times, but those are the moments in which we most need patience in order to be resilient. I have made many strides in my own personal cultivation of patience, but I am smiling and shaking my head as I type these words knowing how much more work I have to do in this regard. To be fair, the responsibility we have to live the best life possible requires us to be patient with ourselves and others. Letting life blossom before us is much more rewarding than trying to act too quickly or taking on more than we can handle; the latter only leaves us stressed and disappointed, whereas the former is full of simple surprises.

            Many years ago, I taught English before becoming a Social Studies teacher. During my days of reading literature with young people, I grew rather enamored with a short story/essay by a famous Hispanic author, Rudolfo Anaya. The story is called “A Celebration of Grandfathers” and is a moving tale about the cultural changes that take place between generations. He is a small boy who used to help his grandfather, a farmer, work his land. I still read this story to my students due to its connections with culture, a major topic we study in AP Human Geography. And while there are many reasons why I love this short narrative, there are two lines in particular that I always think about (especially now that Erin and I are learning Spanish together): the first is Ten Paciencia, which means “Have patience”; the other is terse yet powerful—“know where you stand.” So I leave these two lines to you, Nobody in Particular. Know where you stand in relation to your life. What is it that you most need to work on? What is it that you would most like to accomplish with the rest of this incredible gift of life that you have been given? No matter what the answer is to any of these questions, always balance it with his grandfather’s command to “have patience.”

Ten paciencia, NIP.

- Ryan   

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