The Practice of Patience: An Interview with DaeJa Napier

Reprinted with permission from the Dharma Mirror. Published by the Southwest Dharma Association.

The following is based on an interview conducted by Elizabeth Avery, John Boland, Lorraine Schechter, and Colin Selleck on November 11, 1998, in Santa Fe, NM.

The quality of patience comes up often in Buddhist literature. It’s one of the paramis (perfections), as well as one of the eight causes that lead to the growth of the controlling factors of faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. Patience is also said to be necessary to develop the brahma-viharas: lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. How do you view patience and what are some of the ways patience can be applied in practice as well as in day-to-day life?

Patience, or khanti, has many meanings. The Visuddhimagga refers to patience as power. This power is considered a protection from anger arising in the face of hatred and blame. Along with metta and equanimity, the cultivation of patience is a prerequisite to the fulfillment of the resolve of peace. It is suggested that a quality of patience be developed that is likened to one who is emptying the ocean with a teacup. Instead, we are apt to notice the ocean of sorrow flooding everywhere with tears wept as a result of the insensitivity of impatience.

The modern world is collectively chanting the mantra “I don’t have enough time”. The fact that we repeat this so often and believe that it is true is very dangerous. It has an unwholesome abandoning effect. Impatience by nature is fragmenting and cruel. Wherever impatience is a part of us — in one’s relations with oneself, with children, partners, friends, or in career related matters — it generates unwholesome results. The tendency to rush around trying to keep up with an inhumane sense of time arises out of and perpetuates the reactivity of agitation, ill will, and hatred. It is likely that we have all experienced someone’s disdainful prodding to do more, to do it quickly, and to push beyond the boundaries of a healthy balance of doing and being. When pride forms a relationship with impatience, tyranny emerges. I sometimes think that the word, patience, is becoming an archaic term that will soon be struck from our dictionaries. Conventionally, patience is seen more as a disempowering, passive acquiescence.

When teaching a metta retreat, I offer at the beginning a contemplation on the power and advantages of patience and the dangers of anger. This conditions the mind to a greater receptivity and malleability supporting the development of concentration. Otherwise, metta and the other divine abidings remain assigned to a limited role as an ethic, a code of conduct, and a highly admired virtue. Patience is a power in the role it plays in the cultivation of the mind state of metta. It is said that the mind/heart of metta sees all beings as dear. One translation of the metta sutta suggests that this is the state that is best for this world.

I enjoyed your talk last night and the way you pulled together the two ideas of patience and confidence. Can you speak a bit on the origin of confidence?

Patience is the confidence in the heart. The purifying aspect of patience allows for the mind/heart to rest in the confidence and trust in its own good intentions. Confidence is synonymous with the deepening of faith in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. As well, confidence and faith are related to the beautiful enriching qualities of reverence and gratitude. As confidence and faith ripen, it is faith itself that provides the real inner support. Faith is the basis of conviction and perseverance in the practice. It is an important factor in the cultivation of samadhi.

Could you elaborate on the samadhi aspect?

Patience is an antidote to irritation. The calm, spacious, cohesive state of mind calm associated with samadhi cannot be accessed without patience. Without this mental power, hidden layers of illusion remain and the mind is not prepared to penetrate the depths of the profound nature of the Buddha’s teaching.

Can you speak to the role of patience and pain?  For example, when you’re meditating, how does one deal with pain?

Without patience, it is difficult to find the distinction between mental and physical phenomena. Patience allows for the slow methodical transition from the preoccupation with mental plane to an inquiry into the nature of sensation, the second foundation of mindfulness. Here one is able to identify the distinction between pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. Once this distinction has been objectified, one is also able to examine the components of pain. One can identify whether it is registering as physical, mental, psychic, or emotional. In the case of physical pain, patience is utilized all along the way. As the practice deepens, patience assists in providing a spacious acceptance while viewing the actual nuances of the unpleasant sensation. As a result, negative conditioning associated with pain becomes dismantled. We hold the belief that pain is bad or unnatural, rather than a part of the reality of life. Patience will allow for one to trust the experience and stop fighting against it.

The question of pain reminds me of an interaction between a Dharma student and teacher. The student asked, “Why, in the Theravadan view of enlightenment, are there four stages?”  The teacher replied, “Otherwise, one would not be able to bear the pain”. There is great freedom in the understanding that pain is existential and a part of change.

I think what also helps is remembering that life is ever changing, and so too the pain will change.

Yes, change, flux, and impermanence are aspects of anicca, one of the three characteristics of reality that are revealed through insight. Impermanence is also wholeness for it contains everything: the beginning, the middle, and the end. With patience, change leads to freedom. When one is working with, rather than against change in whatever theme and variation, there is tremendous freedom in the faith that everything is allotted a certain amount of time. Long enduring patience is timeless attitude that allows everything to take the time that it needs to be complete. This includes the inevitable suffering associated with birth, sickness, old age, and death.

This brings up an interesting point. My uncle is in a wheelchair after being hit by a car. He lost one leg and the other leg is withered and useless. He’s in a lot of pain and he takes medication for relief. I’ve heard that meditation practice can be useful in trying to relieve the pain. What are your thoughts on this?

Ideally, a concentration practice could be very helpful. Strong relentless pain can be fragmenting and disorienting. One often feels that there is no option other than to struggle with pain. There can also be the complications of self-judgement, resentment, and self-pity.

When pain is so strong, the practice has to be built up slowly, with assistance and in a way that oftentimes needs to be personally adapted to the unique experience of the individual. It takes a strong mind to work with pain, but there are many ways to build up this strength and confidence that is necessary to develop mindfulness. However, it is difficult to begin a practice in the clutches of debilitating pain. This is why it is wise to begin now to build up the forces in the mind/heart to incorporate difficult experiences as they arise. For me, one aspect of the development of strong faith in the Dharma comes from the confidence that it offers antidotes for any form of suffering that arises.

In an interview I recently read, a Vipassana practicing psychologist spoke about a child analyst who describes how children develop a pattern of over reliance on thinking. He states that when a child is impinged upon or ignored in her environment, the most common defense mechanism experienced is to figure ways to manage the situation. This in turn takes the child away from feelings and thus leaves the child spinning in the mind. Does this ring true for you?

Yes, it does. I feel deep compassion for this all too common expression of suffering. It explains one way that the mind compensates for a fragmented and injured state that is often the basis for manufacturing various unwholesome techniques to cope with trauma and neglect. Again, inadvertently, this is a contemplation on the dangers associated with a lack of patience. This reminds me of the teaching that refers to the good fortune associated with being born to parents who are practicing the Dharma.

Yesterday was difficult for me and I was very tense. And then I thought, wait a minute, I have and option here. Why am I responding this way? Do I really want to feel this way? Do I really want to be at the mercy of this? And I said no I don’t; I’m not going to be. And I laughed and laughed, and I said, “Oh, it’s that simple.”  And it struck me that this happened because of my practice.

What a great testimonial for practice. It speaks well to a yogi who’s sitting wondering why he or she is practicing when nothing seems to be happening. The spontaneous arising of mindfulness brings clarity and reorients one’s experience. When teaching a retreat, I sometimes think of we yogis as chickens sitting on eggs. Just patiently sitting while the whole universe cracks open through insight in its own good time. The practice is timeless and evolves in ways that are mysterious. As the result of cultivating patience and mindfulness in the ordinariness of being here while sitting, standing, walking, and lying down, one actually begins to recognize the option not to suffer. This reminds me of a joke about choice: After a long and arduous spiritually inspired climb up a holy mountain, one comes to the top and finds two signs. One sign says “To Nibbanna,” and the other says “To a Dharma talk about nibbana.”  Which way would you go? 

I find that Yoga has helped my practice as, through Yoga, I am able to release some of my bodily pain, so I can sit easier. I’ve noticed a direct relation between constriction of the mind and constriction of the body. You need to open the mind and open the body, so you work on both, opening the mind in practice and opening the body in Yoga.

Awareness is the essence of freedom. The Buddha said that the “whole of the universe lies in the fathom long body and mind.”  The Buddha invited all to look deeply into the phenomena of mind and body in order to see the inner workings of this lawful mechanism.

Patience is an important factor in doing deep Yoga. As in any other mindfulness based practice, the whole point is to establish a permeating foundational awareness of the body and sensations while standing, sitting, and walking, and lying down. As a result, the conditions are in order for anything to open like a flower in the still light of clear intuitive seeing.

For the last five years I have not watched the news or read the paper. And some people say that’s avoidance. Perhaps this is so. But I see enough suffering around me and I see that the media is usually biased towards reporting on violence, and I just don’t want the violence in my life. Is that OK?

Yes, it can be overwhelming to open to this magnitude of suffering. Impatience, in the form of anger and violence is everywhere within and around us. On any account, it is helpful to investigate all forms of impatience, aversion, ill will, anger, and fear as they have deep roots in each of us.

According to the Buddhist cosmology, this plane of existence that we all share is the first of the happy realms. Every breathing being is in search of happiness and exploring one form or another to fulfill this desire. It is disheartening that this search takes so many aberrant forms that seem to turn in on themselves, creating endless cycles of suffering. It seems that everyone is doing the best that he or she can to find the way to the end of suffering. To assist us, the Buddha pointed out the distinction between two kinds of happiness: the happiness of the sense pleasures and the happiness of Vipassana, which is the happiness of clear seeing. I find this distinction very helpful.

You spoke of this plane of existence. It brings to mind something that I read. We are actually lucky to be born as humans because we have the right balance of suffering and joy that allows us to be enlightened. In the deva planes, there’s not enough suffering, so one is never motivated toward enlightenment. Whereas in the lower realms all you worry about is eating or being eaten, you have no time for anything else. So, is the balancing element in human existence the capacity to make a choice?

In the distinction between the happiness of sense pleasures and the happiness of clear seeing, wise discernment is an important factor in sorting out the difference between that which is wholesome and that which is unwholesome, that which leads to suffering and that which leads to the end of suffering. Perhaps the most we are able to do is to align the intention to be present with the mindful attention out of which wisdom arises. The ultimate choice is just to be present and to return when not.

Each of us is living the life of the Buddha. As a boddhisattva, he was born into conditions that were highly rarified and pleasing to the senses. Gotama had a father who wanted to keep him bound within his limited view of this world. Out of the fear of the loss of his son, his father strived for perfection in every aspect of the environment in which his son lived. For example, his son never saw even a flower that was wilting; they were picked while he was sleeping. His every desire was anticipated and met.

As the story unfolded in the Buddha’s life, as in ours, there is an undeniable discovery of a deeper integrity which is slowly arising in our consciousness. With patience and practice, this very universe in which there is such dire suffering also contains everything that is necessary to realize the first noble truth of suffering.