My 21-year-old cat Peter is a testimony to a feline life well lived.
He’s escaped more than a few fights with the neighborhood pride, as well as near misses with screeching car tires. But mostly he’s lived his life in blissful, languid leisure.
In his remarkably old age, though, he’s become cantankerous and as finicky as…well, a cat. He’s also terribly whiny.
When Peter caterwauls at 5 a.m., 6 a.m., or 7 a.m. – I’m still drowsy, so I don’t know what time it is – and demands food, my first reaction isn’t: “Poor, sweet, hungry baby.” It’s: “Shut up!”
I am, in a word: impatient. It’s not a good look, no matter how early the hour. Impatience is a fire hydrant of reactivity. It’s primes the pump for lashing out at those you love and those you don’t know – the nameless who cut you off in traffic, keep you on hold, or botch your take-out order.
We all know patience is a virtue. But putting it into practice isn’t easy. Even Aristotle said: “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”
No matter how difficult it is to do, opening your heart and becoming more patient is exceedingly worthwhile, particularly during an unrelenting pandemic that has stretched our tolerance as thin as paper.
How do we cultivate the ability to wait calmly in the face of frustration or adversity?
Understanding and mindfulness help. Let’s start with a bit of understanding. Some people are born with more patience, just like some of us are born with a talent for languages, music, or athleticism. Most of us know someone who is effortlessly unflappable, and some of us are even lucky enough to live with them.
Patience also is variable. So, don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re foot tapping while waiting in line at the post office. If you’re hungry or haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep, you’ll be far less tolerant of long lines or other people’s foibles.
Yet, we can all learn to become more patient. At least that’s what Baylor University professor Sarah Schnitker found when she studied 71 undergraduate students who went through patience training that involved identifying emotional triggers, learning to regulate emotions, and empathize with others, along with learning to meditate. After the two-week training, study participants reported that they were indeed more patient.
Schnitker also discovered that patience is nuanced and comes in categories such as dealing with life’s significant adversities, small daily hassles, or dealing with other people. We might be patient in one category, but not another.
Either way, mindfulness can help. Through mindfulness, we can become aware of what sparks our impatience. We can learn to work with our frustration and irritability as it arises and respond rather than react to the circumstances in our lives.
We can even learn to become so patient that when our cat wakes us up in the wee hours of the morning, we’re more than happy to hop out of bed and crack open a can of Fancy Feast.
In the meantime, while you’re working on becoming a model of forbearance, here are three ways mindfulness can help:
Tune Into Your Body: The body is not only miraculous; it’s highly communicative. It tells you when you’re feeling agitated and upset. And these emotions come with bodily sensations that give you clues that your impatience is outweighing your composure. Whenever that happens, pause, take a breath, and feel your feet on the ground. Allow your body to soften and create more space for impatience to move through you before acting upon it.
Somebody Else’s Shoes: Sometimes, being patient is simply a matter of giving someone else the benefit of the doubt and imagining what it might be like to be in their shoes. The person who cuts you off in traffic might be rushing to the emergency room. The person who puts you on hold is likely doing their best. And my poor cat Peter isn’t trying to give me a hard time; he’s just trying to get his need met by meowing (very loudly.)
Meditate: Meditation is training in patience. As we sit in silence, attending to the breath or sound or sensations in our body, we learn to be with things as they are. In the process, we become more tolerant of the chatter in our minds, our neighbor’s loud music, or the niggling itch on the ball of our foot. And as luck would have it, the tolerance we cultivate during meditation often shows up as patience in our daily lives.