How to be patient

Tim Ferriss asked this on Twitter today:

My response(s):

Tim then asked:

I tried to fit a reply into a tweet but I didn’t have time to make it short enough.

Tim mentioned meditation as a possible remedy for impatience. As I said in my response to him, meditation is great periodic practice for something you need to do all the time. If you practice meditation constantly and you only get good at controlling your thoughts while meditating, the best you have done is given yourself a way to unwind and rest.

The bigger benefit of meditation is that it trains you for regular, everyday life.

The hard part in the beginning phases of learning to meditate is detecting the “wrong” thoughts that don’t belong in your practice as they come and gently pushing them away. I say “gently”, because at first most people spend more time internally berating themselves for not being able to avoid distraction than they do actually being distracted in the first place. This itself is, of course, a distraction. The thoughts are going to appear .It takes practice to recognize them and let them go without getting derailed.

With enough practice, most people can achieve the goal of sitting silently in a controlled environment, and observing their own thoughts. Pushing away the ones they don’t want, and focusing on whatever it is they do want to focus on during meditation (possibly nothing at all).

This is the easy version of the skill it takes to avoid impatience and related bad action in daily life.

But, meditation is not the goal. Meditation is a way to practice the skill of mindfulness in a controlled environment. Mindfulness is the ability to recognize what’s happening around and within you.

My ability to be patient and compassionate leveled up when I started taking my meditation/self-hypnosis practice into my daily life. At first, I clumsily scanned my thoughts for negative feelings as I progressed through life, asking a series of questions for each one: What is this negative feeling? Where did it come from? Why did I generate it? What harm or benefit might it bring me? What’s the most effective way to react to whatever triggered this emotion?

The first major revelation for me was answering the second question: “where did it come from?” If you break down any given negative emotion, the answer to that question is always the same at the root: me. An external event may have triggered it, but it’s always me that generates a reaction, whether negative or positive.

It’s hard to even recognize the existence of these thoughts in the beginning. I remember almost having to run an internal timer to ask myself “are you thinking something negative right now?”.

Eventually, with enough deliberate practice, the process becomes automatic. The analysis leads to an ability to view these little negative thoughts, bubbling up from the subconscious as separate objects. They just exist. The mind generates them, and here they are. But I get to decide what to do with them. I even get to decide whether to feel the negative emotion.

With even more practice, the mind generates less of them. I don’t claim to understand the science of any of this, but my gut tells me that fear and insecurity are the original source of these thoughts and that constant analysis and control have a concrete, lasting effect on fear and security.

Patience and compassion naturally arise from this practice. Impatience and irritation are the culmination of the subconscious’s little negative thoughts, bubbling up and out before we catch them.

Tim asked for an example. Here’s a contrived one:

You ask someone to do something, and they do it wrong again. A firey ball of anger shoots up from the subconscious. It makes you a little sick. You recognize the sick feeling and ask yourself where it came from. You are mad that they don’t seem to be listening to you. Do they not respect you enough to pay attention or to take your requests seriously? Wait a second — that’s insecurity speaking. What might really be happening? Maybe they didn’t understand last time when I explained how I wanted this done. Maybe I was unclear. Maybe they are even aware that they don’t get it, and are currently right now terrified, waiting to see if they delivered the right thing. If that’s the case, education can still work. An honest, dispassionate conversation about the problem can probably clear things up.

But, maybe they’re lazy and just intentionally doing half-assed work. Even so, anger won’t help. Let’s find out why. Again, an honest, anger-free conversation will more effectively lead to a solution than letting the rage pour out. Even when the answer to all of these questions is unacceptable — they just did bad work — problems can be solved without letting them hurt us. Fire someone compassionately with a clear head and move on.

To summarize:

  • Patience is derived from mindfulness
  • Mindfulness is a skill
  • Skills can be mastered with practice
  • The best way to start practicing mindfulness is through meditation
  • Triggers are extrinsic. Emotions are intrinsic.
  • You can control the intrinsic.