Cultivating Patience

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on

Today on my way to work I listened to Pema Chodron talk about how to cultivate patience. She is one of my favorite mindfulness gurus because she’s female, she’s funny, and she laughs at her own jokes. Just like me!

More specifically, Pema talked about cultivating patience when we feel angry. Pema uses the metaphor of an ember for that spark of anger. Someone cuts in front of us in line. Someone on social media tells you to wear or not to wear a mask. Your partner tells you what to do. (That’s a big one for me.) If we don’t take the time to notice our reaction while it is in the ember stage, it can become a raging fire.

Setting things on fire, literally and figuratively, has been a hot topic. In the novel “Little Fires Everywhere,” Celeste Ng writes

Like after a prairie fire…It seems like the end of the world. The earth is all scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow….People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.

In the midst of a pandemic and Black Lives Matter, perhaps we need a good fire to tear down the old and create something new. But without intentionality, it can lead to the Australia-is-on-fire kind of fire. And that we do not need.

It’s possible to have a controlled fire. But you have to plan for it, monitor it, reign it in at times. And eventually you have to put it out. Most of us are not fire experts. But we can learn to be.

In psychology, we call this anger management. But in Buddhism, it’s called cultivating patience. And you cultivate patience in the same way you cultivate anything when practicing mindfulness. First, you observe it. Where do you feel it in your body? Can you describe the feeling? Can you intensify it? Paradoxically, trying to intensify the feeling often extinguishes it.

Second, be curious about your anger. What are your triggers? What are your stories about your triggers? I don’t like to be told what to do because in my family, you should already know what to do. If you don’t know, you should be ashamed of yourself. And you are not going to shame me, gosh darn it!

Pema reminds us that the stories that we have created in response to our triggers are made up, but they hook us. They grab hold of us and send us off, guns blazing. When we can observe the ember in its early stages, we can name our anger and our triggers and wait to see what our anger has to teach us. In Rumi’s “Guest House,” he writes

That dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

I’m not saying this is an easy thing to do. It requires us to tolerate the pain of the burn. To accept our anger without judgment or criticism. And to think about what action will make us feel better. Which means, ultimately, we sit with our anger because we want to alleviate our suffering.

In a time when there is so much out of our control, we can all use ways to alleviate our suffering.

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