” Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things.” Lao-tzu
As autumn draws to a close and winter closes in, the darkness appears to win the battle over the light. It is a time of drawing inward and setting our houses ablaze with light. We move towards the Season of Light, which is celebrated in many different cultures and spiritual traditions with the lighting of candles and the gathering around a fire. In ancient times, these rituals were done to ensure that the light would return to the earth, providing the warmth and energy needed to provide growth for the spring plantings. Christianity celebrates this time as Advent, which is a period of great hope and expectancy. But do we have the patience to wait? Can we remain open and receptive, allowing ourselves a time of emptiness without trying first to fill it with some direction or wish list for the how we want to be transformed?
Patience is a hard thing to learn. When my sons were little, I used to ask for patience so that I could be a good mom. I wanted to be happy with them, not wanting them to be older than they were or different than they were. I was told by more than one person to be careful what you ask for, because instead of just getting patience free of charge, life would give you opportunities to practice patience. And boy did I get lots of opportunities to practice! Patience is an active thing. It is more about leaning into whatever life presents you and learning to be fully present with it. It is not about having a preconceived notion of what the right action is but waiting until “the mud settles” and the right action becomes obvious. When I responded to one of my son’s antics by yelling or being upset, I missed the opportunity to use it as a teaching moment. I also missed the humor contained in most of the things they tried and alienated the relationship I had with them. I got a chance to practice this over and over and eventually got better at it, I believe. You would have to ask them to get their side of the story, but we have a very good relationship now so I think I did some things right, some of the time at least.
Mindfulness is a way to practice patience. According to Williams et al in their book The Mindful Way through Depression,
“Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are… (It) means paying attention to things as they actually are in any given moment, however they are, rather than as we want them to be.”
This practice is about stilling the mind by letting go of thoughts or emotions as they arise and tuning back into the present moment. This can be done by focusing on the breath or the body or the food you are eating. It is as simple as bringing your attention back to what is happening around you at the moment. It is a practice of letting go of the thoughts that will, without a doubt, arise. They will attempt to move your attention off the present, into planning for the future or ruminating about the past. These thoughts arise even for seasoned practitioners of mindfulness. The only definition of successful practice is that when you notice you are thinking or feeling, you name it and let it go, returning to the focus of the present moment. Practicing this type of stillness or patience is best done as a routine before you are in the midst of an upsetting situation. Then when these situations occur, you can lean on your practice of letting go and waiting until the right action arises. Above all, being non-judgmental about the times you are not able to be patient, allows you to practice a key aspect of mindfulness–the acceptance of whatever is happening at the given moment rather than some goal of perfection we desire. And you will get many times to practice this if you are like most of us.
According to Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk,
“Personal discovery and growth come from letting there be room for all of this to happen; room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. Suffering comes from wishing things were different. Misery is self-inflicted, when we are expecting the “ideal” to overcome the “actual” or needing things (or people or places) to be different for us so that we can then be happy.”
As Lao-tzu states, if we keep our expectations open, not seeking a specific end to the interaction with others or with our spiritual journey, we are able to welcome all things and use them to enhance our understanding of ourselves and others. Each event in our life can bring us closer to our true self. And in this way, we can move towards bringing back the light we need for growth and energy in our own lives and in the lives of others around us.
Lao-Tzu (translated by Stephen Mitchell), Tao Te Ching
Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness.
Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times.