Patience

“Salience, Patience, Compassion, Justice, and Other Stuff I Found Lying Along Constitution Trail,” Bob Ryder

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing. . .”
– Mary Oliver

“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?”
― Lao Tzu

If – Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Whispering words of wisdom, “Let it be.”
-The Beatles

REFLECTION
This reflection is next in a series on the seven principles of mindfulness meditation as organized by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Two weeks ago I offered a reflection on the subject of “Beginner’s Mind.”  This morning we consider that most valuable of mental and spiritual skills – patience.

Let’s begin as I describe the experience Daisy and I share on our walks through Southeast Bloomington.  There is a regular route we navigate.  Down the drive and south, we make our way through the neighborhood along the lawns and parkways of maybe 10 homes.  She checks out a series of familiar spots where other dogs have been, where rabbits and  squirrels have past, where trash cans have been set and left odors that must linger for days after the trucks have come around to collect their contents.  Every day there are regular locations to be examined.  Daisy will make her way from one to the next, usually giving a cursory sniff as she seems to find what she expected.  Some of those findings merit a squat to pee (as if replying to a comment on her own social media page), others are merely noted and filed away for later reference.

Sometimes there are spots where something especially interesting is discovered, seemingly unexpected and important.  Depending on the wind, Daisy will sometimes perk up and begin leaning into her harness from 50 yard away or more. She needs a generous portion of help to walk politely for that distance without pulling me along in a way that can be irritating.  But with enough coaching and patience on my part she finds her wits, gets in position, and walks excitedly yet cooperatively by my side, earning treats every few steps for keeping my pace despite a strong motivation to get to some fascinating patch of ground.  Having covered the distance politely, I give her the signal to “go sniff” and let her take as long as she likes to make sense of these scents.  She’ll hone in on a precise square inch and go to work, pressing her snout right down into the ground, pawing at the grass, orbiting the spot to examine it out from multiple points on the compass.  Her snout wrinkles.  Her ears press forward into her brow.  Her eyes alternate from intense gazing to squinting tightly shut.  Her tail is first held high over her back, then out parallel with the ground swishing left and right.  Eventually she seems to figure something out worth knowing.  Now she play bows to the spot and starts prancing around the vicinity taking some pleasure in the discovery, as you or I might for having figured out a challenging crossword clue.  “AHA – reverberate!  Why didn’t I get it sooner?”

It is immensely satisfying to be with a dog taking delight in being a dog.  And there was a time not so many years ago that I didn’t have the ability to appreciate that – when I didn’t have the patience to allow that experience to unfold. It is in walking with my dogs over the years of my adult life – as much as through any experience – that I have experienced joys and insights attainable only with by cultivating the mental discipline of patience – the ability to set aside one’s yearning for quick gratification; the ability to pay deeper attention to both what a situation requires of me than what I require of the situation, the ability to discover what it offers beyond the surface of things.  I am a better person for having learned with my dogs how to move together through the world.

Let’s approach the subject of patience for a moment by considering it’s opposite.  What is it like to experience impatience?  Put simply, I suppose it’s a matter of allowing ourselves to be overcome by frustration.  It is to lose one’s temper, to lash out, allowing our composure and intelligence to be replaced by violence or impetuous greed.  Note that impatience as I see it is defined by actions rather than the feelings that motivate them.  Frustration and yearning in and of themselves are not a manifestation of impatience nor a reflection of one’s character.  Spiritual maturity is about how we respond to those emotions.  Our actions indicate whether we have attained a degree of patience.  Patience is not about striving to be free from feeling exasperated or covetous – that would be counter-productive.  Our brains and minds are programmed to experience enticement and annoyance, and to react with emotionally driven behaviors that offer an increased chance of solving a problem or resolving a conflict. Grabbing and lashing out are ways to acquire resources and negate threats.  Early in our evolution as a species, reacting quickly and decisively made it more likely that one would survive to pass their genes along to the next generation.  And while that genetic predisposition doesn’t justify selfish or abusive behaviors we might identify as examples of impatience, it’s inevitable that we still feel the urges to “get while the getting’s good,” or to “shoot first and ask questions later.”

Humanity has come beyond the point where we’re well-served by acting on our impulses.  We’ve come beyond the point where the world can likely survive our intellect ungoverned by patience.  We have the capacity for longer term / bigger picture thinking, and we have the moral responsibility to cultivate the self-control and “greater good” cooperation implied by our gargantuan technological power.  In an interesting and popular TED talk, astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield observes that there is no problem so bad you can’t make it worse by panicking.” (https://www.ted.com/talks/chris_hadfield_what_i_learned_from_going_blind_in_space) In the midst of performing a spacewalk while on a shuttle mission to repair a satellite, the antifog coating on his face shield condensed and got into his eyes, temporarily causing him lose his vision.  It doesn’t take much imagination to sense the overwhelming panic that would come from being out in space and suddenly not be able to see.  As it happened, NASA had already developed a contingency even for such an unlikely emergency as losing one’s vision on a space-walk, and calmly talked him through a series of steps to get him back inside the shuttle.  That ability, to check one’s inclination to simply react and work through a problem thoughtfully, is perhaps the capacity that gives humans the best opportunity to realize our potential.

We need to cultivate our ability to defer immediate gratification and resist violent reactions to most problems with the same dedication that we cultivate faster internet connections.  We need to practice our ability for compassion with the same zeal that we collect and develop weapons.  Our capacity for empathy is at least as important for our survival in the world than our capacity for technology.  We can infer the cognitive experience of others.  We can know with a fair degree of accuracy about how someone else interprets an experience and make allowances for communication before war.  These are possibilities of the advanced social intelligence that has enabled homo-sapiens to dominate the planet.  Closely related but as yet less well used is our capacity for moral reasoning.  We are capable of perceiving justice, and regulating our behavior according to principles that value the well-being of others equally with our own well-being and that of our immediate family, friends and community.  We have the ability to appreciate the legitimate perspective and needs and desires of others.  We can see the correctness of deferring our own preferences for the sake of the greater good.  We have the intellectual tools to negotiate, innovate, cooperate, and share.  Patience is the cultivation of that wisdom – the discipline by which we rise above self-indulgence and make room for the emergence of a more important and beautiful reality.

Back to my walks with Daisy.  Being members of different species as we are, our experience and expectations of a walk through the neighborhood started out as very different.  For her, the idea of navigating based on strait lines and right angles, ignoring countless interesting possibilities to explore and chase, must be very frustrating to her as it is perplexing.  Now and then we’ll pass by some point on our route that is very interesting to her, something salient – just begging to be explored and pursued.  Because it is on what I know to be the someone else’s property, and/or being approachable only by clambering through a row of hedges, I indicate we will not be proceeding in that direction, and signal her to continue with me along our normal route.  Given the sacrifice she no doubt feels she is making, her ability to disregard whatever she knows to be on the other side of the hedge and rejoin me is more than admirable.  I admit I am still not as advanced at letting go of such enticements as is she.  And I can tell you that her skill at mentally letting go of something important is the product of patient teaching.

When she was young, cooperative hiking skills were not her forte, partly because of genetics, and partly because I was not a skillful trainer.  Daisy pulled on leash almost constantly, and found it very difficult to remove her from interesting sights and sounds and smells around the neighborhood.  Going for a walk was unpleasant for both of us.  I wanted her to walk at my pace and along my chosen path, while she wanted nothing but to roam hither and yon in pursuit of things that were legitimately interesting to her.  It took a long time for her to gain the skills she has now, and progress was glacial for weeks and months on end.  There was a time I reckoned she would never succeed – that she would always be this galoot, unable to focus and cooperate when on leash.  My frustration was made the worse by my anxiety of being judged by my training colleagues – “Ryder can’t even train his own dog to walk politely on leash.”

It means a great deal to me to be able to say that I very rarely lose my patience with Daisy.  On the rare occasion that I do, it amounts basically to a brief instance of raising my voice, and with practice I’m getting better at collecting my composure and doing whatever the situation calls for methodically and in a gentle manner.  With positive reinforcement training and a willingness to accept progress at a pace that Daisy was capable of rather than what I would have preferred, she is now a delightful companion on morning walks, and I believe she experiences me the same way.  When I ask her to, she’ll walk next to me for a long as I need, ignoring whoever and whatever else is is around until I indicate that she can “go sniff” and check out whatever is important to her within the radius of the 20’ leash we share.

Maybe patience is the simple understanding that things proceed at a at pace not usually engineered for our satisfaction.  Patience recognizes that events must unfold in their own time without human meddling or pressure.  A common example in the teaching of mindfulness is the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.  Seeing a chrysalis implanted on a tree branch, our first impulse might be to open the casing to see and enjoy the new creature living within.  Obviously this is almost certainly going to harm or kill the butterfly rather than hasten its transformation.  More than the capacity to check our impulses, patience is a spiritual perspective, and way of being faithful, that recognizes and cooperates the necessary order to things.  It considers the well-being of others, it understands the legitimate needs and desires of one’s neighbors, community, even one’s enemies, and insofar as possible proceeds for the benefit of all concerned rather than simply for the efficient satiation of their own immediate preferences.