The case for cultivating patience — today and over a lifetime.
In 1968, a Stanford University researcher presented each member of a group of preschool children with a single marshmallow. He wanted to see which of them could resist eating it long enough to earn a second treat. Follow-up studies found the children who’d demonstrated sufficient patience to win the prize experienced greater success later in life. They were more likely than the impatient kids to earn good salaries and less likely to suffer from addictions of all kinds. The researchers’ conclusion: Those blessed with an ability to defer gratification enjoy greater life chances as the result.
For the majority of us, patience doesn’t come easily. And when it does come, it’s often fleeting. The rest of the time, we rush, we interrupt, we get exasperated when people squeeze ahead of us in line, we charge things now rather than paying cash later, we curse drivers who impede our progress in the fast lane.
From decisions made in haste to words spoken without reflection, impatience can cause a vast amount of pain, waste and damage. (This writer owes the demise of one Toyota to an unwillingness to endure the length of a red traffic light.)
Fortunately, even if we aren’t born with a great deal of patience, it’s a virtue that even the most agitated among us can develop, according to American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. It’s a skill, she asserts, one that we can hone with focus and practice.
In a talk Chödrön gave in 2007 titled “Don’t Bite the Hook” (Shambhala Audio), she outlines three methods for developing patience borrowed from the writings of eighth-century Buddhist scholar Shantideva. She explains that the key to cultivating more patience — whether you’re in a long line at an Indian marketplace or stuck in freeway traffic — lies in finding new ways of perceiving your predicament. Here are a few ways you might do that.
1. Start Seeing Differently
Most impatience begins as a preverbal feeling of discomfort, says Chödrön. Your face gets hot, or your stomach feels weird. Then negative thoughts begin rolling in like storm clouds — frustrating thoughts about how something or somebody should be moving faster or doing something differently.
It’s these thoughts that cause problems, Chödrön asserts: Our conscious mind is searching for an object to blame for our initial discomfort, but this only makes matters worse, because it’s like “pouring kerosene on a fire to put it out.”
What works better, she says, is to reframe irritating circumstances. Many of the children who resisted the marshmallow used reframing strategies: Some saw the treat as an obstacle to something they wanted more (namely, two treats) and turned their backs on it. Others befriended the marshmallow, petting it as if it were a small stuffed animal. Ultimately, they found creative ways to see and relate to it as something other than just a maddening temptation.
Interpreting challenging circumstances as novel opportunities doesn’t always come naturally, of course. Here are a few tips to make it easier:
- Bypass blame: Rather than faulting anyone in particular for the fact that you have to wait or adjust your plans, try entertaining the notion that the delay just is. Who knows, it may even turn out to be to your advantage: If not for the wait, perhaps you might have encountered a bigger problem — or accident — instead.
- Be thankful for small blessings: If you’re stuck in a traffic jam, and you have a cell phone that allows you to call and explain your delay to whoever is waiting for you, that’s a blessing. And once you make that call, you’re free to begin embracing more blessings, like the opportunity to listen to some great music while actively strengthening your patience muscles. See if you can sit in traffic without wishing ill upon a single driver, even if several of them manage to get their cars into the moving lane before you do. Try radiating goodwill instead.
- Write your own history: Keep in mind that you are always authoring your own experience. Eventually, the irritating circumstances you are dealing with will be over, and you’ll be left with the choices you made in the interim. Do you want to look back on losing your cool at the DMV, or do you want to look back on having made an honorable, embarrassment-free escape from a bad situation? The choice is yours.
Whenever you feel the burn of impatience, just keep your eyes on the prize of your own equanimity.
2. Expand Your Empathy
The second of Shantideva’s methods is an extension of the first: Learn to see the complexity of a situation. This means understanding that human beings live complicated lives in a complex universe, all the variables of which we can’t possibly know or appreciate in the moment. Just remembering this fact may allow us to amplify our sense of empathy with others, and thus to soften a little.
For example, if you’re in a movie-ticket line that’s not moving, you might start feeling testy. But if you are willing to see the complexity of the situation, you might reflect on the fact that even a movie theater has a number of intricate moving parts. Everyone who works there has navigated traffic, weather, relationships, possible health challenges and who knows what else to get to work that day. It’s entirely possible that one or more people scheduled that day didn’t make it, which could slow down the line or — in the event the remaining workers had to deal with an unexpected problem or distraction — stop it altogether.
Seen in this light, you might appreciate that everyone is doing the best that he or she can under the circumstances. You might also perceive that this holdup is probably an exception to the rule: The fact that things generally work as well as they do is something of a minor miracle.
Expanding our empathy can do a lot to cool our mental fires, says Chödrön. It helps us shift the sense that our being forced to wait is a personal affront or something that’s being done to us, and lets us begin to see it as something impersonal — inevitable, even.
3. Pull Tolerance From Positivity
It’s easier to have patience when we’re awash in good feelings. When we’re newly in love, for example, it seems like nothing can disturb our sense of well-being. Late busses, long waits for restaurant tables, canceled flights — we take them all in stride.
When we are feeling generally happy, our ability to comfortably tolerate annoyances skyrockets. According to Chödrön, we can use that dynamic to our advantage in pursuing Shantideva’s third instruction: Develop tolerance.
This doesn’t involve gritting our teeth and bearing reality. On the contrary, it involves actively noticing and cultivating positive feelings. To begin, Chödrön suggests paying attention to pleasant, everyday sensations and experiences, like the pleasure of eating when you’re hungry, putting warm socks on cold feet, or seeing a beautiful bank of clouds in the sky. She calls this “cheerfulness practice,” and it can do a lot to lengthen our proverbial fuse.
There will always be things that push us to impatience. But practicing with little annoyances, as Chödrön shows us, can build a greater capacity for humor and perspective overall. So when the truly big challenges come along, there’s grace. Waiting for you.