Impatience is a Cultural Problem in America
We have a ‘I want it yesterday’ culture in the US. It is integral to the original promise of America, the land of potential for all. The potential for riches. The potential for individual freedom and freedom from oppression. It is a part of the central myth of American exceptionalism, a myth that is in free fall.
All too often instant gratification is temporary
Desire is nearly always transitory. We want, we get, we want something else, in an unending cycle of dissatisfaction. One of the central teachings of Buddha is the realization of infinite patience. In the fictionalized story of Buddha’s life, Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, Siddhartha, though appearing on the surface to be without resources, a poor forest dweller, decides to become successful. The goal is to win the affections of a costly courtesan, Kamala.
He approaches a wealthy merchant to ask him to teach him. The merchant, naturally enough, says ‘what do you have to offer me? You have nothing’. Siddhartha responds that he has three skills: he can wait, he can fast, and he can think. He then uses these skills to convince the merchant to help him and quickly becomes a material success.
These three skills are often devalued in our country. We do not want to wait, we eat too much, and we like to avoid thinking if we can.
Are we learning anything from the pandemic?
A lot of us had to learn to wait. We are still waiting but things are gradually becoming available. But a significant number of us had no desire to wait for the virus to be defeated and demanded the instant gratification we have been trained to expect.
The really sad thing about this past year is that many had to learn to fast too, not just from food but from many basics. Americans for the most part are not good at fasting. In fact we have an eating problem here that we are exporting along with prosperity.
Thinking is a different challenge. Knowledge is not thinking- you have to have the ability to think to gain knowledge and apply it. This is an American anomaly. We are still the most technologically advanced and innovative society on the planet, but we also have terrible poverty, racial injustice, and a lot of anger.
That anger has become a tool harnessed by politicians in this country. And anger is, at its core, impatience.
Patience can be learned
There is a great hunger these days for another way. Psychedelics offer a fast path for some but the fast way is seldom the best way. And most can’t risk trying to access them or the requisite guidance needed to reap their benefits. A cardinal rule of patience is the willingness to sometimes just wait for your actions to bear fruit. A more effective practice is sitting, meditation, or mindfulness training.
We are not good at doing nothing. And, to many, meditation looks like doing nothing. But the nothing you practice when you sit or do things mindfully, is the point. It is the release from being owned by a constant stream of thoughts. You don’t push them away, you simply observe them until they lose their hold on your attention.
Anyone who thinks meditation is easy has not done it. Our impatient thoughts constantly pull us away from the goal of stopping the world for a while, of recharging our mental and spiritual engines. It teaches that wanting does not have to drive us.
This, in turn, automatically helps us see others in a new compassionate light.
‘Why, they are just like me, pulled left and right by thoughts, emotions and desire! Maybe I can help them, or at least not make things harder.’
That’s the core of Buddha’s teaching and in this country we could use a lot more compassion, especially for those we may not like or have anything in common with.
We can’t teach a whole society patience
We can teach ourselves. And we can try to set an example by not needing too much, too quickly. The Chinese, historically, are known for thinking about the long run. They have the ability to work on projects that will not see completion in a lifetime or lifetimes. While this may be a grand generalization, they have been working steadily towards where they are now. They made some incredible mistakes and tried to take shortcuts to prosperity but they are getting there.
Our system is not conducive to mass societal change. The dark side of the Chinese miracle is the means they have used to achieve it. The government basically forced behaviors onto society through intimidation and fear. That’s one way but it won’t work here. We need an individual path.
Our influence on the world extends far beyond foreign policy. We have spread our insatiable need for ‘the good life’ out into the world. China, for example, has become a very materialistic society, driven by the great dream of what the US looks like from a distance. They may be losing their patience skills.
The individual can learn patience
Simply sitting and counting breaths for twenty minutes or so can have remarkable effects. You find yourself calmer and able to distance yourself from problems and see them more objectively. This means a life not fulfilled through your needs and desires. When you achieve this, stress becomes easier to deal with.
Imagine a life without stress. Not a catatonic life, a life where each moment is a little more important and we don’t constantly dwell on problems. The irony in this is that most problems start to resolve themselves when we step back and observe them neutrally. That’s the nature of patience, the ability to not personalize everything.
It’s worth pursuing. And it spreads out to others. The presence of a calm person is often a requirement to stop the spread of panic, fear, or indifference. If more of us see patience as the virtue and power source it is, we can initiate change. Try sitting, it will change your life.
Note, there are many guides to mindfulness and meditation. Some claim to offer secrets and others are merely attempts to make money or sell ideas. But there are very good guides that have stood the test of time. My favorite is Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Roshi Shunryu Suzuki. It doesn’t require knowledge of Zen or even Buddhism, it simply relates the art and value of sitting in simple, timeless language.