June 27, 2013

Patience: When Practice Seems Difficult. ~ Barry H. Gillespie

This is the sixth of a series of 10 articles on the Paramis, the “perfections” of character that Theravaden Buddhism encourages you to develop. Viriya: Effort in Practice, Wisdom: The Fruit of Practice, Sila & What It Means to Be Virtuous, Renunciation & the Art of Letting Go, Dana: Generosity

Patience is the sixth of the ten paramis, the perfections espoused by Theravaden Buddhism.

Patience follows quite logically after the fifth parami, effort or energy. You start to think, “Well, I’ve put lots of energy into this practice, now I want some results.” But it doesn’t work that way.

Our culture is one where instant gratification has become the norm, the expected. You just push the right button, have the right gizmo or the right app and everything you need is at your fingertips, whenever you want it. You are told over and over again that “You can have it all!” Not only that, you can have it now!

There are two problems with this attitude, this lack of patience, when it comes to practice.

The first is that you start practicing to get something, some magical experience, some special blissful feeling, just like the ones you’ve read about, or someone told you about, or like you had the last time you sat. Desire has entered the scene, the cause of all your suffering. Instead of practicing in such a way that you lessen your suffering, you are causing yourself more.

The second problem is that this way of practicing leads to striving, to too much effort, to tension. Patience is said to be the direct antidote to striving. I had a personal experience of both of these problems on one of my long retreats.

Near the end of the previous retreat I’d had an incredibly blissful experience, where time seemed to slow and I seemed to be aware of everything around me in a different, much more alive, more immediate way. This experience lasted for almost an hour, both while I was sitting and later when I got up and walked around. At the beginning of the next retreat I was thinking about how much I’d like to have such an experience again.

At the same time I was constantly telling myself not to desire, not to want anything, to just practice. But the memory and the desire were with me all through the four weeks of the sit. Finally, on the second to last day after a long period of sitting, I was walking down the hill to lunch thinking, “Ah well, not this time I guess.” There was a sense of both sadness and relief.

I just gave up.

In literally the next few steps the blissful experience arouse again, perfectly clear and equally strong. I just had to give up the desire for the experience, stop pushing so hard, relax, let go, be patient and there it was.

The flip side of striving may also arise if you are not patient. You grow discouraged because you “aren’t getting anywhere,” you start to doubt the practice or your ability to do the practice. This can quickly lead to a downward, depressive spiral and you quit the practice completely.

In your day to day experience this parami can take on a different tone, more like a sense of endurance, of being willing to put up with unpleasant things that arise in our daily lives. There is an old saying, “Patience is a virtue.”

Patience isn’t viewed that way in our current culture. Nowadays patience is seen as a weakness, something you have to have only if you are not in a position of strength.  If you are calm and steady, if you don’t react strongly to things that should upset you, then there must be something wrong with you. People will criticize you, your practice, and even your way of life.

You need to simply endure this, have patience with these people. Arguing with them will just create anger and upset; more suffering for both of you.

There is also a pleasant aspect to patience in your daily life. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches one of my favorite examples of this by looking at something you encounter every day.

You are driving in your car and come to a red light. Because you are “going some place” your mind isn’t in the present moment but in the future, planning what is going to happen when you reach your destination. The forced idleness of the red light will often give rise to impatience. Instead, make this pause in your busy day a chance to practice, even if it is for only 30 seconds. Patiently drop down into consciousness of your breath.

Make the red light an opportunity, not an impediment.

Taking up the practice of meditation is a lifetime commitment. There can be long periods of time when it seems that nothing is happening. You need to just keep patiently practicing, accepting what is arising. I experienced a period like this.

I was initiated into a mantra meditation practice in 1978. A first it was exciting, exotic. Then I just practiced. I stayed with the practice for 25 years. Friends who also practiced would ask me what I experienced, what amazing things happened, wanting to compare notes. In all those years my only answer was, “nothing special, I seem a little calmer, more focused, my life seems better.” They were often surprised, asking me how I kept going, how I could stand not being in some way rewarded for my years of practice.

I could only answer that I had faith in the practice itself.

Then I connected with Mindfulness practice and the Theravaden tradition, and my practice changed, and went much deeper–seemingly quite quickly. I think that with all those years of patient practice I’d developed an ability to concentrate, and that ability was very useful in this new form.

I have sometimes wished that I’d found the Mindfulness practice is my 20’s, not my 50’s, but I have no regrets. One thing leads to the next. All you need to do is practice and have patience.


Barry H. Gillespie was introduced to formal meditation practice in 1978, through the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram. In 2003 he began exploring Theravaden Buddhist practice, sitting many long retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA. His principle teacher is Guy Armstrong. His teaching arises out of his desire to share what he has learned with others. Barry currently leads the Full Moon Sit at the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, CO. This article is based on a dharma talk he gave there.  For more information on his teaching please visit his website.


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Assistant Ed: Linda Jockers/Ed: Bryonie Wise


{Photo: via Sybil on Pinterest}

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Linda V. Lewis Jun 30, 2013 1:39pm

Great photo!

Marc Morisset Jun 27, 2013 10:48am

Wonderful once again Barry – you hit the nail right on the head! It is so true that our mind is often in the future (when not in the past), and impatience has everything to do with that. Thank you for a very enlightening article.

Travis McKinstry Jun 27, 2013 10:36am

This is a great article. I agree with you completely, in regards to how important true patience is.
I had a similar experience I'd like to share;
I was doing a short, two-day silent retreat up in the mountains of Colorado. On the first day I was trying really really hard to focus on the breath, thinking that if I wasn't focused on the breath that this was in some way 'my fault' and I should try harder. This caused a lot of anxiety for me during the retreat. At one point, I sat down on a chair and thought to myself 'I'm done with trying to calm my mind down. You (my mind) can think of anything you want but I'm not moving from this spot'. So I sat there and, just like you did Barry, gave up. And that's when my practice really gained headway. I wasn't looking to progress or move forward and at that moment I stopped grasping at a fantasy, I stopped craving a different experience and my mind snapped into focus onto my breath. It was a beautiful moment 🙂

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