Patience. What does this term evoke for you? Perhaps a sinking of the heart or a mild groan. Or perhaps a feeling of quiet strength. It depends whether we recall a time when patience was hard or when it served us well.
Patience (khanti in Pāli) is one of the ten paramī – the qualities of character that support the path to Awakening, according to the Theravāda tradition. Given that many of us have a complex relationship to patience, some clarification is worthwhile.
When the notion of patience brings up aversion for us, most likely, we are actually recalling the pain of impatience. Impatience is suffering in the form of rejecting our present-moment experience. Fixated on something that is not here, we cannot feel contentment, ease, or joy. Impatience is the very opposite of equanimity, acceptance of this moment as it is. Being told to “be patient” highlights our dissatisfaction, and so we create a negative association with this beautiful quality.
The suttas name patience as an antidote to anger. Practitioners are enjoined to “patiently endure” physical discomforts like heat, cold, hunger, and pain, as well as rude speech. In the modern world, we might add traffic, technical difficulties, and automated customer service lines. This points toward its broader role as a character trait of emotional maturity. Patience includes several dimensions: The refusal to get drawn into ill will; acceptance of the present moment or person as they are, including forbearance with discomfort; and some larger perspective that knows that with time, a situation will change – perhaps in ways we cannot predict.
Hence, patience is much more than an ability to wait until our desired outcome arrives, like a child having to wait through the drive to the ice cream store. True patience accepts that the situation is not currently controllable by us, with the inevitable lemma that we might not get what we want in the end.
This is why khanti is a paramī, along with other deep qualities like wisdom, metta, and equanimity. It involves an act of letting go. We release the overt egoic act of “making something happen” and even the more subtle wish for a particular outcome. When I faced a long-term health challenge 20 years ago, I went through many phases of reactivity, such as anger, trying to control it, or desperately wishing for ease, until finally settling into a way of seeing the situation that I could live with, and a way of acting upon it that was responsive but not demanding.
Bringing patience to a challenge feels like opening to a larger perspective in a determined way. The mind has momentum toward contracting or gripping, and the energy of patience is to gently but firmly loosen the grip and stay more open. There might be a sense of stepping back as an observer, or simply widening the awareness so the challenging issue is a smaller proportion of one’s mental space. By tuning into the ease or relaxation that comes with this movement, the mind finds rest within the challenge.
The great patience called for on the Buddhist path makes space for all things to unfold. We allow the path to emerge and the mind to adapt and respond as it does. As the wise abbess says in A Monastery Within, “Your problems will not be solved. They will be dissolved.” Patience is not passivity, but neither does it partake of strong agency.
The wisdom underlying patience is the acknowledgement of non-control, which is in line with reality. Patience is needed for Awakening precisely because that is something we cannot do as an act of will. We keep meeting experience as clearly as possible, moment to moment, and the process of freedom proceeds at the pace that it can. Hence, patience is also compassionate and caring in being endlessly willing to see the process through, standing by our current state until it transforms.
In a way, patience makes itself obsolete. There is a form of patience that we can evoke out of wisdom, consciously turning toward forbearance, acceptance, and kindness with the current conditions. But when the mind is fully accepting and at ease, perhaps that is no longer called patience. I was once visiting a senior nun and a new anagarika (novice nun). The junior nun was fumbling to put on her outer robe correctly so that we could go for a walk, and commented that the senior nun was showing patience with her attempts. The senior nun immediately shook her head and said, “No, I’m not.” What she meant was that she was feeling no impatience or irritation, and hence had no need for patience.
Khanti is a beautiful quality of heart that exudes a quiet strength. It eases and prevents dukkha in the one who has it, and can also influence others in positive ways. Our world is much in need of this kind of strength.