Patience Is a Skill
January 24, 2024

We all know that the Buddha was a noble warrior, so there’s no surprise that there are similes in his teachings where he compares meditators to soldiers in battle, elephants in battle, horses trained to help in battle and other things that noble warriors would have to do.

What we don’t appreciate was that the Buddha was also part of a farming culture. The text talks about his father plowing one day when the Buddha was a young boy. Also, there’s a passage where his cousins were talking about the drawbacks of lay life, and it’s basically that you have to farm again and again and again, bringing in the crops, then you have to plant them, care for them, then bring them in again. There’s no end to it.

It’s good to think about what that would do to a person’s mind, living with crops, being a farmer. One of the things that you learn as a farmer is patience. You do what you can to get the crops to grow, but they do the growing. You can influence them to some extent, and you have to be consistent in your support, but you have to be very patient about the results. If you plant a rice grain and then the shoot comes up, if you pull it up to make it taller, it’s going to die.

There’s a similar principle in cooking. Some things you have put in the oven at a very low temperature. If you want them done too quickly and you turn up the heat, you burn them.

So in our culture, which tends to be very impatient, we have to learn patience. And there’s no quick solution: There’s no cure for impatience that lets you be impatient about how soon you’re going to become patient. When you meditate, you have to keep coming back, coming back, coming back to the breath, learning how to talk to yourself as you’re doing this. You’re trying to get the mind still, and it won’t get still. You give yourself encouragement. Tell yourself: You focus on the causes, and you keep coming back to them, coming back to them, coming back to them, and after a while they will begin to have an imprint on the mind, an influence on the mind.

We can’t tell beforehand who’s going to be fast, who’s going to be slow in making progress. As Ajaan Lee says,* *some people are like banana trees. You cut the trees, and they grow a couple of inches within a couple of hours. Other trees are much slower. You watch them day after day, and they don’t seem to be growing at all. So whether you’re going to be a fast tree or a slow tree, you can’t determine. You can make sure, however, that you are a healthy tree. You try to keep encouraging yourself.

This has to do with dealing both with unskillful qualities that you see in yourself, and with skillful qualities that make you impatient. With the unskillful qualities, you have to remember the principle that you don’t just sit there and accept them. You accept the fact that they’re there, you don’t deny it, but that’s not the total solution to the problem.

There’s so much modern Dhamma where they say to just learn how to accept things. Be radical in your acceptance, and it’ll be okay. But the Buddha said you don’t accept the fact that you’ve created aversion and delusion in the mind and that they’re going to stay there. You accept the fact that they’re there, but you want to do something about them.

This is going to take time because the roots are deep. They’re old habits. You’ve been letting them run your lives for how many lifetimes, you don’t know.

This is where the Buddha says to take delight in abandoning and delight in developing. That means that with each little step in the right direction, you learn to encourage yourself. Appreciate it. Each step in the wrong direction, you tell yourself, “This is just a temporary setback.” You have to dial your emotions.

I know a therapist who works with kids in a school for delinquents. She asks them to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 different negative things that can happen in their lives. For most of them is, everything is a 10, 10, 10. Your brother gets stabbed: 10. You’ve got a date, you can’t figure out which dress to wear: 10. That attitude turns everything into a crisis. You have to realize that some things are minor, some things are major. Your ability to make things minor—in other words, to see a setback as not such a big deal—is an important mental skill.

Patience is a skill in learning how to talk to yourself, learning how to give yourself encouragement, to remind yourself that what you’re experiencing right now is a combination of past habits and present habits, present actions. The past habits may be very strong, but they’re not consistently strong. And because it’s past karma, it’s going to wear out someday. But you can speed up the process a little bit by being as skillful as you can in your breathing, in how you talk to yourself, and the perceptions you hold in mind: those three fabrications.

Keeping the image of farming in mind, of plants growing, is one useful perception to help with the process. As for skillful qualities that are actually getting in the way, a lot of the problem is impatience. As Ajaan Fuang used to say, there are two types of people who come to meditation: those who don’t think enough and those who think too much. Those who don’t think enough don’t have much trouble getting the mind to settle down. But once they settle down, they don’t know what to do with it and they like to stay right there. Those who think too much like to think, and are proud of their thinking, or are entertained by their thinking. Those are the ones who have to learn how to be quiet and let the mind grow at its own pace.

Again, it’s like a tree or a plant that you’ve planted in a field. You tend to it, but the plant’s going to do the growing. If you want to get everything well figured out ahead of time, what you get is what Ajaan Lee calls, vipassanā-saññā: ideas about the insight, but not the genuine thing.

As the Buddha said, if you’re good at insight but weak in tranquility, you’ve got to work on the tranquility. Figure out how to get the mind to settle down, how to get it to enjoy staying here.

Part of that has to do with talking to yourself about it. The other part has to do with learning how to talk to your impatience. We’re so used to living with computers that move their ones and zeros around really fast. But the mind isn’t composed of ones and zeros. It’s more organic. Again, think of the tree, especially a large tree. It’s got lots of different branches to grow. They have to nurse lots of fruits. So it’s going to take time.

Here again, learn how talk to yourself. Remind yourself that there are a lot of things you can’t figure out ahead of time, so you’re going to learn as you feel your way. As you get a better intuitive sense of what’s going on, then you can know where to push, where not to push.

Again, like the farmer: The farmer knows not to pull the plant up out of the ground, but the farmer also knows when to water, when to put fertilizer in, when to weed, when to be quick in harvesting, when to wait. Even though the work may be repetitive, have confidence that the results are going to be good. Again, remind yourself, if you don’t train your mind—and part of training the mind, of course, is getting it to be really still—it’s just going to go back to its old habits. Here you’re going to learn something new, to create something new, grow something new.

So learn how to be patient when you need to be patient, and the patience here goes together with persistence. We know the Buddha said to be heedful, to act* as if your head were on fire. Learn to translate that into a consistent persistence. Don’t bash your head trying to put the fire out. *