Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Patience Is The Key

I was running some errands over the weekend, which included getting a haircut at this old fashioned barber shop I frequent in the mall (one where you can get a relaxing hot-towel-and-straight-razor shave on the neck and the small parts of my face that get shaved). I always take a book with me when I go for a haircut, because you never know how long you might have to wait, and my current carry-around book is An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki. After my haircut, I stopped into a couple of the stores in the mall for a little browsing and to pick up a couple items. I was checking out at one store and the nice young lady at the register commented on my book. She said that her family had tried to raise her Buddhist but it had not stuck because, “I’m just too angry. They have a lot of patience.” As so often happens, this got me thinking in a few different directions.

I don’t preach, ever. I’m almost adamantly opposed to the whole idea. If you’re not one of my children, the only way you’re getting a moral or philosophical admonishment from me is if you ask for it (and yes, choosing to read my writings qualifies as asking), or if you see my Facebook statuses, where I frequently post inspirational quotes or observations. It’s my wall. That comes pretty close to the same thing as reading my writings. What I don’t do, what I won’t do, is give unsolicited comment to a total stranger in a store. So I gave a polite but noncommittal response, thanked her for truly good service (becoming far too rare, but you still find it sometimes in the most surprising places), and wished her a good day, but I thought a few things, and thought more as the day went on.

My first thought was, “If you only knew.” I’ve mentioned before, I know a thing or two about anger. As Banner said to Rodgers in the first Avengers movie, “That’s my secret, Captain, I’m always angry.” (By the way, easily my favorite moment in that entire movie.) In my experience, being angry is a great reason to study Zen, rather than a reason why you can’t. Anger can be such a debilitating emotion, but it can also be an amazing tool if properly focused. It is extremely easy to focus, though. There is no doubt about that. I certainly offer no judgment to anyone who must find their own method for doing so. For what it’s worth, this young lady didn’t strike me as at all angry, so I would imagine that whatever method she uses works well for her. It just struck me as an interesting juxtaposition.

Patience is the key. How one arrives at patience is incidental, but being patient is utterly necessary. Being patient is more than just counting to ten or taking a deep breath. Tricks of that sort can help you to get into the habit of using patience, but they aren’t, in themselves, patience. They’re stalling techniques, and sometimes stalling techniques are important, but stalling shouldn’t be mistaken for solving. Those are two very different ideas.

If I am counting to ten, for example, then I am thinking about counting. The idea here is that I am not thinking about what has made me angry, and anger tends to bleed out of not actively maintained. Anger is often like a child with ADD: if you can distract it, it might forget what it was going on about. That’s helpful. It prevents anger from leading to improper actions, but it doesn’t really do anything. It’s a non-action rather than an action. That’s fine, as far as it goes. Sometimes we need non-action, but we need action, ultimately, to achieve and maintain positive change.

Counting to ten, and similar distraction techniques, is a blank spot where you are substituting non-action for angry action, but patience allows you to actually substitute action for action. Hopefully it allows you to replace negative action with positive action. With distraction techniques, you are thinking about the technique rather than the anger, waiting for the anger to pass. With patience, you have the ability to think about what is causing the anger, and possibly find a way to not be angry in the first place.

So often, we get angry because we are reacting to an incomplete or inaccurate picture. We don’t have all of the information, or we are thinking of things from our own perspective without considering the other point of view. Having the patience to insert a pause between the anger and the action gives us a moment to ask what we might be missing. The answer might not solve the problem, but it might, and having less reason to be angry reduces stress, which leads to better health all around. It’s easy to turn the anger back on if it’s justified. It’s difficult to back out of anger once given full charge, if it turns out to be unjustified. Think about it like a hill with anger at the bottom and non-anger at the top. Going downhill is far easier than going up. The more you can stay up, the less effort you will have to put into going back up.

Anger can be a tool, but only if it is properly and carefully used. It’s like fire, difficult to live without, but able to destroy life completely if left unchecked. The more patience we can learn, the more effectively we can keep anger in check. With enough practice, it is even possible to reach that point where you can be angry and no one know about it until you’re ready to use it. Patience is not the only skill necessary to make proper (and healthy) use of anger, but patience is the key. It usually is.

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