“Patience is a virtue.” We’ve all heard it; my mother said it, your mother probably said it. But why should patience be especially virtuous?
In Buddhist practice we believe that each of us is primordially pure, but our true nature is obscured. We can’t see ourselves for what we are due to the “poisons” of ignorance, desire, and anger. Counteracting these three aspects of consciousness will bring us to a clear understanding of the way we exist in ourselves and in relationship to all other beings.
Patience, then, is the antidote to the poison of anger. No one who is angry lives at ease. But anger is not something that arises in someone else and is transferred to us, like a cold; it’s something we produce on our own. It’s a perverse gift to give ourselves.
Patience is a particularly difficult virtue to practice, since exercising it doesn’t mean tamping down or choking off angry responses to the things that provoke us. That’s just a recipe for becoming frustrated and repressed. Instead it means understanding where anger comes from, and how we can stop it from arising in the first place.
Anger comes from the ego being threatened. Our sense of “Self” is aroused strongly when we’re angry. And that anger is based on fears: of being hurt, left out, trampled on, lost, embarrassed. That fear swells until we lash out. Whether we perceive the threat correctly or not is irrelevant—we get angry, we react.
There are biologically appropriate reasons for fear. If we’re threatened by a wild animal or a schoolyard bully, the fight or flight response is appropriate, since we need to do something to keep ourselves safe. But though we should act to prevent harm to ourselves and others, we can do that without anger. If a snake rears up at you when you’re hiking, you might get frightened, but you don’t get angry, since it’s just in the nature of a snake to protect itself by threatening you.
Patience asks that we find our courage, that we recognize our fears and overcome them rather than attacking others. It means finding a way to counteract threats appropriately but without anger at the one making the threat, like dealing with the snake on the trail.
Patience also demands that we connect with our common humanity. If someone tries to hurt you, they are driven by the same impulses that drive you: greed, or fear, or jealousy. A great Buddhist teacher once asked, if someone tries to hit you with a stick, do you get angry at the stick? Because that’s just what an attacker is, a “stick” being controlled by their own anger and desires. If we’re really going to exercise patience, it means recognizing this fundamental truth of the sameness between ourselves and others. We should certainly duck the blow. But we have no need to allow ourselves to feel anger.
The odd part of all this is that you should cherish those who make you angry. People who are nice to you aren’t challenging you, they give you no opportunity to exercise patience and to grow from that practice. It’s only the people who drive you nuts that help you see your flawed view of the world, and who can ultimately help you gain fearlessness and compassion.