Have you ever been in a restaurant with friends or family when the service has been slow and sloppy? Did you get frustrated, maybe distracted by and impatient with the situation? But to what end? Going out for a meal is about spending time together. Sure, it’s nice if the food is good and the service crisp, but those are not what it’s about. By allowing impatience to enter the situation, you detract from what could be a wonderful time of intimate connection.
It’s all too easy to become impatient. There are many demands on your time and deadlines to meet; you are under pressure to deliver on results and outcomes rather than examine process and flow; you need to finish your business lunch and get back to the office.
We need to be practical about this, but impatience has many negative consequences.
Have you noticed what’s different at those times when you are more relaxed? Those times when you don’t feel the relentless pressure of the clock, pushing you to impatience? Sitting on the beach with a cocktail and a book it’s much easier to be patient. And you know that you feel happier and healthier in this place. I believe you are also more productive and that it’s worth looking at the practice and benefit of cultivating patience in the rest of your life.
Noticing Your Impatience
Let’s start by looking at impatience and at its consequences.
If you have kids, think about times when you’ve been impatient with them: perhaps when they forgot to take their homework to school – again! – and got a poor grade; perhaps when they tried to skip their chores; perhaps when you are trying to get out of the house and they just seem to be dragging.
If you don’t have kids, think of another important relationship: perhaps your partner, or a parent, or a dear friend. Look closely and find times when you know you have been impatient with this person. What is really going on?
Doing this exercise in the context of a loved one allows us to see the stark contrast between those times when we are impatient and those other times when we are not: those times when we sit down to help our kids with their homework; the times when our partner is struggling with a difficult issue or problem and just needs us to be there with them; the time when our friend or sibling is doing something dumb that they just can’t see – maybe they’re in a relationship with the wrong person – and we need to stay with them as this runs its course.
When you are patient with this person, the conversation is about “us” and “you”, but when you are impatient, it’s about “me”. When you are patient you are listening and learning and connecting, and when you are impatient, you have closed your ears and are not able to grow.
Impatience Leads To Feeling Disconnected
Impatience focuses us on the outside world and takes us away from the relationship. It creates a gap and shifts our experience from the personal to a goal-oriented one.
Yes, we can be impatient with objects – like the traffic light that seems to never change! – but the most noticeable effect is when we are impatient with people. And we seem quickly to turn our impatience with objects towards people – for example, from the traffic light onto the driver in front of us!
That gap impatience creates between us breaks the human connection and creates separation. By moving us away from the happiness that exists in human relationships, impatience is a direct cause of unhappiness. And it also puts us in a place where we are not able to take a breath and listen to the other, thereby setting the direction of increasing disconnection.
Disconnection correlates directly with unhappiness, but it also correlates with ineffectiveness. In a hierarchical model, the boss issues the commands and everyone else executes, but in a more complex organizational structure, and in any group dynamic where creativity and innovation is valued, the human connections within the group are invaluable. And let’s face it, pretty much anything is better if creativity is brought to bear. Impatience cuts it off.
Long Term Thinking and Planning
Several years ago the beams in the dining hall at Jesus College in the University of Oxford (where I went to school) were aging and needed replacing. Like the dining hall at Hogwarts, this is a large room with a single span and it supports several stories above it. The beams were enormous! Management was in a quandary: where could they find mature trees in sufficient number to do the job?
The answer came from the wisdom of stories carried down over the centuries. The bursar, then an older man, remembered being told when he took the job that a copse of oaks had been planted on college lands last time the beams were replaced several hundred years ago for precisely this purpose: to be harvested for beams!
In Japan a similar mindset is shown in the bamboo stands planted for future generations of archers to use in making bows. And Shunryo Suzuki, the founding abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, responding to a comment from one of his students about wanting to finish building the monastery while Suzuki was still alive to enjoy it, said, “There’s no rush; we have to leave something for those to come.”
These examples of long term thinking are admirable and demonstrate a particularly lovely patience. We tend to contrast our culture with this as seeking instant gratification, and our lives as a frantic rush, but we actually have more examples of long-term thinking than we might notice at first:
- Taking out a mortgage to buy a home with a view to paying off the note in thirty years;
- Putting money aside out of every paycheck into a retirement savings account and letting compound interest work its wonder over time;
- Spending evenings studying for a post-graduate degree;
- At a municipal level, taking out bonds for road construction, and at a corporate level making an investment in a factory that will be paid back over many years of production.
Natural, Everyday Patience
By telling ourselves we seek instant gratification and have no time for patience, we are doing ourselves a disservice. Actually we practice patience a lot more than we realize, and we directly experience its benefits. The short list above are some obvious examples, but beyond that there are more mundane, everyday examples.
- You practice the patience of mastering the skills required in your work every day. You don’t think about it, it’s just what you do;
- While you might not be the most patient person in the world with those you love, there are certainly times when you are extremely patient with them, most obviously those times when they are in deep emotional need.
In a sense, much of the patience in our lives happens naturally. We just need to be patient with ourselves about it! The chief operating officer of a client which had implemented a massive and complicated set of operating systems told me a couple of years into the project that things were going really well with the implementation. She reflected on not being so happy about things a year previously, and then said, “We tend to overestimate what we can do in a year and underestimate what we can do in three.”
Patience Is Its Own Reward
Another way to look at your propensity for patience is to look at those things in life that give you the most pleasure. It might be that you enjoy cooking or that you love restoring old cars. Your hobbies might include painting or writing or crochet. You might like hiking or running or going to the gym.
Each of these has definable milestones or goals: the meal you put on the table, the finished sweater or shawl, the time you run in your next marathon. Of course you are working towards these, but you are not in a rush to finish. Rather you are enjoying what you are doing and enjoying doing it right. And the pleasure you gain from accomplishing your goal includes a level of pride about the integrity of your process, about doing this well and doing it right. When you restore a car with all original parts, the only person who really knows is you; when you knit a sweater or crochet a shawl, the only person who knows whether there was a missed stitch that you didn’t go back to correct is you; when you go out camping, the only person who knows whether you cleaned up the camp properly, or what the photo on facebook really represents is you. Yes, in each case there is an outcome, but in an important sense the outcome is incidental. It’s a token we can carry with us to mark completion, something we can share as part of our story and enjoy for itself, but in this sense it is something that allows us to connect with the joy we experienced when engaged in the activity.
In another sense, though, the outcome is crucially important, for it is a statement to yourself and to those you love of what you stand for. It is something you worked hard for, into which you invested deeply of yourself, and it is the very best of which you were capable. It is a measure of you and of your self-identity.
The Practice of Patience
Patience is not something simple and fluffy that just exists to help others feel good. Nor is it a distraction that we don’t have time for in our work. Patience is deep and important and goes to the heart of who we are as human beings. It is through patience with others that we can pay attention and listen and connect. And it is through patience with our work that we produce something worthy of ourselves, something of which we are proud, something we can stand behind. Without patience, our relationships are hollow and our work is a sham. Without patience, we are not fully engaged in our lives.
You’ve already seen that patience is not hard; we practice it all the time. We all know, though, that we could do it more.
So how do we do it? Where do we start?
The trick is simple: it’s all about cultivating awareness, mindfulness. It’s paying attention. Notice your own behaviors and examine them.
Start by allowing yourself to be honest about your impatience. After you’ve had one of those episodes where you were anxious and impatient and pushing yourself and perhaps others to get something done fast, take a pause. Allow yourself to notice what happened, and take a little time to reflect on it. Think about how you might have handled things a little differently and about the positive benefits of doing so. With practice, you will become more honest with yourself and your reflections will be clearer. You’ll start to recognize the ways in which more patience would have been helpful. You’ll start to see how it would have opened you up to the possibility of other – and better – possible outcomes; how it could have improved your connections; and how it could lower your stress!
This practice will also, quite naturally, cause you to start noticing your impatience not after the incident, but during it. As you start to notice your habit patterns, you’ll start to notice them as they engage. “Ah, there I go again…that’s just what I did with Juanita last week. Boy it really pissed her off!” You’ll develop the discernment to decide whether to continue down that path or whether to end that behavior and do something different. And you’ll find not only that your patience strengthens, but that your intimacy with and connection with your life deepens, and that you become a more effective and happier human being. You’ll find the practice of patience transforms your life.