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Perfecting Patience

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According to the Buddha and the great masters who followed in his footsteps, there are two types of bodhicitta, or awakened heart: absolute and relative. Absolute bodhicitta is a spontaneous recognition that all sentient beings, regardless of how they act or appear, are already completely free from whatever limits the patterns in their lives seemingly impose on them. A person who has attained absolute bodhicitta sees everyone, deep in their natures, as fully awakened beings and quite naturally treats them with deep respect.

When we meet people who have attained this level of awakened heart we sense a degree of kindness, generosity, and patience that stirs something very deep with ourselves. We feel lighter, brighter, a bit more open to others and more forgiving to what we have typically considered faults or flaws within ourselves and others. We actually taste a bit of the absolutely awakened experience.

Most of us would like more than a taste, though, don't we? Deep down, whatever moved us to step onto a path of personal development was a sense of our own magnificent potential and a desire to develop it.

In order to develop absolute bodhicitta most of us need travel the gradual path of relative bodhicitta, which involves sincerely dedicating ourselves toward helping all sentient beings to become completely free of suffering through recognizing their true nature. This effort is referred to as relative, because it is still grounded in a dualistic perception of reality in which subjects and objects, selves and others-- as well as various characteristics of experience, such as good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant--are defined and experienced in relation to one another.

That dedication is practiced, or enacted in our lives, through our conduct -- specifically through engaging in those positive qualities or characteristics known as paramitas. We've already explored the first two , generosity and discipline. The third paramita -- ksanti in Sanskrit and zöpa in Tibetan -- is often translated as "patience."

Like the two previous paramitas, patience can be understood on several levels. The most obvious is to refrain from our impulse to retaliate against someone who acts angrily or violently toward us. Someone hits us, and more than likely we want to hit him back. Someone insults us, we want to insult him back. Someone starts spreading gossip behind our back, we feel an urge to spread equally hateful gossip behind his back.

Practicing patience in such situations doesn't mean that we try to suppress or deny whatever difficult emotions may arise. For example, if someone doesn't respond to our generosity, or says something or does something unpleasant, we might feel a burst of anger or fear. Patience, in this case, means that we acknowledge our response, but refrain from acting on it. We take a moment to recognize -- and perhaps to dialogue with ourselves -- that someone is causing us pain because he or she is experiencing pain. We don't lash out at someone because we're overtired, uncomfortable, or stressed, and we accept that those around us may be experiencing similar conditions.

A second aspect of patience involves being willing to endure pain and hardship without losing our basic motivation to help others experience freedom, kindness, openness, and warmth. Because of that goal, we're willing to cope with whatever obstacles come up in the process of accomplishing it. Sometimes practicing this kind of patience involves doing something as simple as agreeing to take someone to the doctor when we don't necessarily have the time or energy to do so; maybe we'll have to rearrange our own schedule or go without an hour or two of sleep. It may involve a more significant commitment, like making time to visit a chronically ill or aging friend or family member. I'm sure we can all find situations in our own lives that require extending ourselves beyond our comfort zones. The point in approaching such activities and situations with patience is to maintain our connection with the desire to be of service -- to be the light for someone who feels pressed by darkness, to be the warmth for those who have lost the connection to their own spark.

When we maintain our motivation we often find, to our surprise, that we actually have more energy than we thought, and that the hardships or obstacles we face aren't as intense, scary, or prohibitive as they initially appeared. We begin to experience a subtle and inspiring joy in stepping farther away from our comfort zones. Gradually, we find ourselves becoming that person who makes others feel lighter, brighter, a bit more open and more forgiving.

And as we experience that "becoming," we actually begin to spontaneously practice the third aspect of patience, which is traditionally understood as "having certainty about the dharma" -- or the teachings of the Buddha. Of course, the Buddha gave many teachings, quite a number of which challenge our habitual beliefs and understandings. But one of the most significant, in terms of cultivating bodhicitta, is that our essence is completely open, infinitely capable, and unconditionally loving. In other words, we're really developing qualities that we already possess in abundance, or looked at from another angle, we're uncovering aspects of ourselves that we've already perfected but have simply forgotten.

So here's a question for this week: When we encounter situations that requires patience, can we look at it as an opportunity to be the person we already are?

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