The world's spiritual traditions tell us that patience is a good thing to have in times of great stress and difficulty. Yet it is human nature to want things to change for the good, right now, not in some distant time.

Waiting has become almost uncivilized in this era of hyper-speed. How many times have you stood in a line and almost burst a blood vessel fuming over some minor inconvenience? Blowups with family members at home, honking horns in traffic jams, angry confrontations in public places, the stampede to get off airplanes, the cursing at automated message systems, the lack of etiquette everywhere — all of these and many other societal problems can be traced back to impatience.

For those of us who yearn for peace, the continuation of the war abroad and the vexations of the wars within us can be quite taxing. Orthodox author and peace activist Jim Forest compared the labors of peacemakers to those of the artisans who built the great medieval cathedrals, working generation after generation on projects whose completion most would never see. We think of the patience of Dorothy Day whose lifelong battles against injustice and the engines of war challenged many others to carry on the work. The Dalai Lama remains an inspiration to us when he speaks of how our enemies teach us patience, a strong reminder that even in the most harrowing circumstances we can exercise our compassion, forgiveness, and love.

To get you in the mood for dealing with your impatience about the war, the little difficulties in your life, the imperfections of others, and the parts of yourself that refuse to yield to change, here are two teaching stories.


  • "An ancient story from the Jewish Talmud tells about the time two men made a bet whether Hillel, the wise and famous rabbi, could be made to lose his patience. One of the men waited until late Friday — the sacred Sabbath night — and interrupted Hillel as he prepared for his day of rest. Three times the man knocked at Hillel's door, and each time he asked a silly, if not trivial, question. And yet each time, Hillel respected both the questioner and the question with a worthy answer. This was just too much for the man to bear, and at last he blurted out that Hillel's patience had just cost him a large sum of money. Again, the rabbi calmly answered that the value of patience was worth much, much more than any worldly sum."
    — Donald Altman in Living Kindness
  • "Conquer haste, the Zen masters say. The writer Joe Hyams, author of 'Zen in the Martial Arts,' describes how he learned that lesson in a meeting with the master Bong Soo Han. The two were having tea when a letter arrived from the teacher's family in Korea. Hyams says: 'Knowing he had been eagerly anticipating the letter, I paused in our conversation, expecting him to tear open the envelope and hastily scan the contents. Instead, he put the letter aside, turned to me, and continued our conversation. The following day I remarked on his self-control, saying that I would have read the letter at once.'
    " ' "I did what I would have done had I been alone,' he said. "I put the letter aside until I had conquered haste. Then when I set my hand to it, I opened it as though it were something precious."
    " 'I puzzled over this comment a moment, knowing he meant it as a lesson for me. Finally I said I didn't understand what such patience led to. "It leads to this," he said. "Those who are patient in the trivial things in life have the same mastery in great and important things." ' "
    — Philip Toshio Sudo in Zen Sex: The Way of Making Love


The Terminal on Waiting as a Spiritual Practice
Steven Spielberg's latest film, now in theaters, takes place in JFK International Airport where Victor Nagorski, a resourceful man from an Eastern European country, finds himself stranded for months. Here is a light-hearted and character-driven parable that illustrates the truth of the African proverb that a patient man has all the wealth in the world. Check out our review and the Values & Visions Guide with its questions and spiritual exercises on being fast or being last, cultivating resiliency, the gift of listening to others, dealing with difficult people, and waiting as a spiritual practice.

Book Excerpts

  • Paula D'Arcy on Being Present while Waiting
    In her spiritual memoir A New Set of Eyes: Encountering the Hidden God, Paula D'Arcy describes a time when she struggled with impatient thoughts while waiting to see a Native American Ceremonial Dance. She discovered that to experience anything fully, you must first be fully present.
  • Eknath Easwaran on the Role of Patience in the Journey of Transformation
    Meditation teacher Easwaran notes that "when you are able to be patient with others, you can be patient with yourself, and that will give you all the inner support you need to persevere and make the changes you want to make in your life." But to get its full benefits, you need to push your patience, to consciously extend its limits.
  • Hazrat Inayat Khan on Patience as the First and the Last Lesson
    The great Sufi mystic identifies four different kinds of patience and two acts of patience. He describes the cross as a symbol of patience: "The vertical line indicates activity, the horizontal line control." Calling patience the first and last lesson, he notes that in reality this virtue always wins something great, even when to all appearance it loses.
  • David Baily Harned on Patience as a Source of All Virtues
    Harned declares that there are no virtues without some attribute of patience — calm endurance, expectant waiting, forbearance, and perseverance. In this excerpt, he focuses on how patience makes it possible to have hope — "its heart and soul is the readiness to endure the present in the expectation that tomorrow will offer more than today."
  • Doris Donnelly on Active Patience and Perseverance
    Donnelly uses Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple to illustrate the value of waiting as a way to move from hopelessness and despair to a creative future. Patience is part of this process, and it is virtually synonymous with perseverance. Her explanation of a patience that is not passive is very helpful one for wartime.
  • Mark Riddell on Learning Patience
    Riddell rightly identifies our modern fixation on time as one of the obstacles to patience. "Waiting does not need to be a source of frustration, but can become the way in which we honor existence and its enticing allure."

Spiritual Practices

  • Exploring your Impatience
    In your journal or on a notepad, write in one column the things in your life that regularly trigger your impatience. In a second column, write an attitude or action that could help you slow down in that situation. At the start of day, make an intention to be more patient. See what hindrances come into your mind. Write those down too.
  • M. J. Ryan on Starting a Patience Movement
    In her book, The Power of Patience, M. J. Ryan offers some helpful suggestions on how to practice this virtue. Here are two of them:
    "Thank others for being patient when you've been the one fumbling for the right change and holding everyone up. It will defuse their tension and yours, and perhaps encourage others to do the same."
    "Ask for help. Lots of times we are impatient because we are overloaded. There's no prize at the end of your life for doing so much, particularly if you do it in a frazzled state."
  • Everyday Moments for Patience
    Every little bit helps. Here's a practice from the Buddhist teacher Tenzin Palmo:
    "When the traffic lights are red in New Delhi, they display the word 'relax.' Every time you come to a red light, instead of grinding your teeth, try seeing as an opportunity for practice. Connect with the in-going and out-going breath. Be one with the breathing."
  • Using Quotes as Patience Reminders
    Use inspirational quotations to firm up your resolve to practice patience. Copy the quote on a notecard and post it in your home, office, or car where you will see it every day. Here are a few of our favorites:

"Patience is the companion of wisdom."
— St. Augustine

"A person must be very patient with himself."
— Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

"Do not give way to impatience. It is not good for you. It's not good for anyone."
— Sylvia Boorstein

"With patience, we are more able to stay calm inside no matter what is happening on the outside."
— Anthony De Mello

"Patience furthers."
— Lama Surya Das