Awakening the Heart: Patience
Part 3 in a series of posts about improving any type of relationship by practicing basic Buddhist teachings, based on a non-residential day retreat taught by the lamas at the Buddhist temple where I used to work. The six basic Paramitas (a word which means ‘going beyond’): generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom. For this series of posts, I have been writing about the first three Paramitas, which focus on our relationship with others (the second three Paramitas, equally important, have more to do with our inner selves). [Read Part 1, Generosity, here]
If you thought the previous post, Ethics, was hard, brace yourself for patience. When we think of patience, the first thing that comes to mind is waiting in line at the grocery store or maintaining your composure when your young child asks “Why?” for the twenty-eighth time that day. But patience is much more than waiting or grinning and bearing.
It involves endurance and forbearance, and as such, is about strengthening ourselves. When I first heard this tenet, it resonated with me on a deep level. At the time, I was dealing with some very challenging behavior with my young adult son (who has autism, epilepsy, and bipolar), and I realized how important the concept of strengthening was for me. I wondered what on earth I could do to strengthen myself even further, since I figured I had already developed an excess amount of patience over the years. What more could I do? How could I continue to live with the emotional and verbal abuse?
I learned that I could start by “demilitarizing” myself on the inside. According to the Buddhist view, we are victims of our emotions unless we notice how we express them. We must be present, alert, and aware. And we should try not to aggravate the situation by thinking negatively.
For example, my son’s worst episodes of abuse (directed at me) occurred before his bipolar was diagnosed and managed by medication. Negative thinking caused me to lash out in my defense, and to take personally the ugly things he said. I wasn’t realizing that the malfunction of his neurotransmitters had caused it.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that we should just continue to take the abuse. We need to know when it is necessary to defend ourselves and to what degree. When we are in danger of being harmed physically, we should get out of the way. When we are at a point of lashing out, we should leave the room.
The hardest thing is to be patient with a being who causes hurt to ourselves or others. Patience is an antidote to anger, aggression, and aversion, which are obstacles to peace and harmony. Buddhism teaches that the anger is the enemy, not the person. We need to investigate the nature of the one causing harm before taking it personally. Perhaps a loved one had just died. Perhaps they just lost their job or their home. Perhaps they are in pain or have an untreated disorder. This doesn’t excuse or justify the behavior, but it could explain it and help us to find ways to alleviate it.
One of the central teachings of Buddhism is that suffering is a part of life – it’s a universal condition. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” (attributed to several different sources), is highly applicable here. In my case, my son’s behavior improved for a while, then became abusive again. It was a huge part of why I pursued having him receive supported living services while moving him into his own apartment. I was getting out of the way, strengthening myself. And it worked.