Our cat, the patience teacher.
The Art of Patience
by Cynthia Overweg
Reflections for Daily Life
In our fast paced, fast food and instant gratification culture, where speed and convenience are the prized hallmarks of commerce, the simple but profound practice of patience may seem quaint and outdated. Who needs patience when our cell phones can do just about everything but cook for us?
Yet in the great religious traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, patience is considered not only an indispensable virtue, but a sign of wisdom, compassion and spiritual maturity. Most of us find enormous value in these attributes because we have, at one time or another, needed and appreciated the loving patience of others.
The quotation at the top of the page by Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi (the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet), suggests that patience is a quality of being that needs careful cultivation. He says that patience is not “sitting and waiting." It is an active state of attention. If you have ever watched a cat wait for a mouse to come out of its hiding place, you have witnessed a very focused form of patience.
But Rumi also calls it a “foreseeing,” which indicates that someone who has developed true patience can “see” what others do not. A patient person can wait with full attention for something to unfold without grasping at the outcome; without frustration, anger or disappointment if what occurs is not what is hoped for. Patience asks for nothing in return. I see it as a form of giving that does not seek gratitude or approval. Patience is its own reward. And that’s not easy! Most of us want to be rewarded for our patience. We want a payback. But since patience is a virtue, we must “pay it forward,” as the expression goes.
Rumi uses a beautiful metaphor to help us understand the subtlety of patience. He says: “It’s like looking at a thorn and seeing the rose.” Notice how that sentence catches you off guard, and places the focus not only on a lovely and fragrant rose, but on those prickly thorns that surround it.
If you’ve ever pruned a rose bush or cut your own roses for a bouquet, you know how painful the sharp stab of a thorn can be and how quickly it draws blood. Yet in my view, thorns are as beautiful as the roses they protect because they teach us patience; they teach us to slow down and pay attention; they show us the way to a more balanced approach in how we interact with each other and all living creatures. When we reflect on the metaphor that Rumi puts forth, we can see our lives in the same way: We are the roses and the thorns.
And that brings me to another important aspect of patience. We cannot be patient with others, including our children and our pets, if we haven’t learned to be patient with ourselves. If you are criticizing yourself for the usual things you judge yourself for, stop it! Be patient. Know that just as night follows day, and day follows night, life is cyclical and nothing material lasts forever.
Perhaps you are in a difficult situation that requires more patience than you think you have. If so, ask yourself if you can be patient long enough and steady enough for it to resolve peacefully without a predetermined timetable. Then you can let go of outcomes and patience becomes easier. If it is a situation that is chronic and burdensome, take a look to see if you have become passive or lazy, or have been ignoring it. Patience is not idle and it’s not denial, though it can be mistaken for those things. So it’s important to be able to distinguish between the active attention of patience, and the lethargy of doing nothing because it’s easier, or because you tell yourself you have no time or make some other excuse.
What patience calls for is the courage and the kindness to allow ourselves and others the time to unfold as you pay attention to what is needed from within. Think of the cat waiting patiently for the mouse to come out of hiding – the cat listens intently and moves when necessary, careful to make adjustments while it actively waits. I once watched our cat sit erect for more than an hour staring at a pile of damp leaves. Then he suddenly jumped in the air and caught a field mouse. It happened in a flash. I gently rescued the mouse, but I will never forget the incredible alert patience of our beloved feline. He taught me an important lesson in patience.
The patience you may need in your daily life could be with a job hunt; a difficult boss; a relationship; a financial matter; a health issue; a rebellious teenager; or a two-year-old who wants your undivided attention. Just going out for an ice cream can demand patience if the place is crowded or you can’t find a parking space.
The patience that looks at a thorn and sees the rose is mature and wise because that kind of patience sees that everything in life is both the thorn and the rose. When we are patient enough to see that, then, as Rumi suggests, our patience is effortless – it becomes a way of being. It’s like "looking at the night and seeing the day.”
Wishing you every Blessing,
“Patience is not sitting and waiting; it is foreseeing.
It is looking at the thorn and seeing the rose;
Looking at the night and seeing the day.”