The announcement from the cockpit was not welcome. Our plane was being held on the runway because of bad weather ahead on our flight path. Fifteen minutes passed, then thirty. With almost every seat in the plane occupied, the passengers were already primed for irritability. As the delays mounted, they progressed from being restless to downright angry. Some cursed. Others threatened to sue the airline. We were witnessing what is now being called “air rage.”
The only one who seemed unperturbed was the Tibetan Buddhist monk seated next to us. With his clean shaven head, dressed in long flowing robes, he sat calmly fingering his prayer beads. Catching Fred’s eye, he remarked: “This is an opportunity to practice being patient.”
Patience, we recalled then, is an essential element in the spiritual traditions. But in our culture, patience is not very highly respected. “In America an hour is 40 minutes” goes a German proverb. We like fast food meals over the leisurely dinner and prefer e-mail over snail mail. We watch recorded programs so we can speed through the commercials. Phrases like “do it now” and “get on with it” are common lingo. It’s considered bad customer relations to keep someone waiting.
In this speeded-up climate, being patient is a counter-cultural stance! Given the widespread feeling that each and every disruption of our plans is a personal catastrophe, being willing to wait and accommodate ourselves to others seems downright subversive.
God, in our view, has a wonderful sense of humor. Since most of us haven’t gotten the point about the value of patience, we are given plenty of opportunities to practice it in our daily lives. A recent study showed that the average person spends eleven or more days each year waiting in line. Add to that figure the time waiting for appointments, hours spent stuck in traffic, and all those moments when someone is late.
Make the most of these minutes by using them to deepen your practice of calmness. While you are waiting, don’t focus on what you want to happen in the future, simply be grateful for what you are experiencing during that very moment. Don’t think about what else you could be doing with this time; notice what you are actually doing and who is around you.
While you are standing in line, say a prayer of peace for the impatient souls with you. In a traffic jam, repeat a favorite phrase, such as “Glory be to God,” as you survey your surroundings. If you feel a surge of irritability or anger arising in you, recite the words of St. Teresa of Avila: “Let nothing upset you.”
Patience involves not only the ability to tolerate delays but also the willingness to let events unfold in their own time. For example, many groups are in such a hurry to get things done that they make decisions too quickly, without having enough background information or the input from members who couldn’t come to the meeting. Practice patience in your group by tabling discussions or postponing votes until the next meeting.
Practice patience in your relationships by not trying to force changes in others or demand immediate attention to your needs. Try this simple patience exercise. When you ask someone to do something, make it clear that this request is for “when you are ready.” Then don’t complain if it takes longer than you expected or wanted it to.
Finally, make patience part of your spiritual journey by accepting that you are not in control of the timetable. Accepting this truth is not easy. Especially if we or our loved ones are experiencing difficulties or suffering physically or emotionally, we long to have it over quickly. Let patience be a wall that protects you when waves of trouble crash over you.
It is also helpful to look at spiritual leaders who have waited until the time was ripe for their work. We must often proceed slowly, step by step, little by little. There is no way to push the river or hasten the harvest. Instead, spiritual maturity comes through diligence, persistence, and patiently waiting on God’s grace.