Monday, February 15, 2016

Active Patience

When I was a kid I had a poster in my room that was a picture of a cat crouching in front of a fishbowl, ready to pounce. It read, "The real secret to patience is finding something to do in the meantime." My concept of patience ever since has always been that it is a passive activity, a time of waiting for something that you either want (or dread) to happen. It's a time when you have to quiet your nerves, distract yourself, find something else to do, even as a part of your mind remains preoccupied with the awaited event. It's often required when waiting in a doctor's waiting room, a government office, a grocery store line. And many times, that is exactly what patience consists of; that's why magazines populate all of those spaces. But not always.

There is another kind of patience entirely, one that is more active. Patience is a key part of any endurance activity, even as we are busily plugging away at something that we are just as anxious to complete. Only we cannot complete it as quickly as we would like. This is true for distance runners, of course. I also notice myself developing a similar feeling of impatience when doing things like kneading bread, where it's important to continue the physical activity for a certain amount of time. In those cases, it is not a matter of finding something else to do in the meantime, because you are not waiting for something to happen; rather, you are already engaged in an activity and wishing for it to end.

When practicing active patience-- and it is a practice-- I think it's more helpful to lean into the activity and explore its contours that to distract yourself from it. There is no getting out of it, only getting through it. It helps to notice all the aspects of what you're experiencing, to take a survey of your body and what each part is feeling and doing; to try to heighten awareness of your surroundings through each sense; to pay careful attention to our breath and form; to fully inhabit the moment. Often when an endurance activity feels stale and boring it's because our mind has drifted off; we've gone elsewhere.  While we may mentally check out of difficult experiences as a coping tool, on the assumption that it will make the task easier, it is actually counter-productive as we lose our sense of fully participating in the event.

This kind of patience requires strength and builds strength. It is a mental and spiritual practice that is every bit as demanding as the endurance activities themselves.