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Patience is Something You Do, Not Something You Are

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At the height of Summer, I try to go for a short run after I’ve done some writing but before it gets too hot, which is usually about 11am.

The most uncomfortable part of the run comes at its very end, just after I step inside my front door, into the small, poorly ventilated foyer between the door and the stairs to my second-floor unit. Nothing happens in that space except the putting on and taking off of shoes.

As soon as I step into this hot, stagnant space, the intensity of the whole run seems to congeal in my body, kicking on all the recovery systems. The heart is still thumping, breathing still heavy, and the sweat glands open up like faucets.

It’s gross and unpleasant. At that moment, there’s nothing I want more than to kick off my shoes, strip off my running clothes, and go sit in front of a fan with a glass of ice water. (I’m a reluctant athlete, descended from cold-climate people.)

The sheer force of impatience that arises in this twenty-second window is profound. But I respect my fancy runners too much to kick them off, so I make myself patiently bend down to untie and remove them.

It took a few tries to truly do this patiently—as in, to perform the task of removing my shoes without resentment or scrambling. But as soon as I did, I noticed it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it had been when I rushed through it. There was still discomfort, but no awfulness to it.

Because this experience was so predictable, it became a kind of “patience ritual” I performed after every run. I could be ready, the moment I came up my steps, to allow this sweaty scenario to unfold without resentment.

Perhaps most importantly, my patience ritual made the whole idea of summertime running a less daunting proposition, because the most intensely uncomfortable part stopped being dreadful.

I’ve come to call this small-scale, intentional non-hurrying micropatience. The idea is that we can be patient for just about anything if we know it’s only for a short amount of time, and often that’s all that’s needed.

It’s a straightforward matter of intending to let those most intense seconds simply happen—without succumbing to resentment or desperation—knowing that there won’t be many of those seconds.

When you dissect any unpleasant task into its component pieces, you might be surprised to find that most of those pieces are trivially easy. Often there’s just one truly unpleasant bit, and it doesn’t tend to last very long.

If you know that bit is coming, and you do your best to not to hurry or resent just that part, you’ll probably find that you do have sufficient patience to get through the whole thing calmly. Or at least you can develop it in just a few tries. Then the task is no longer dreadful.

Historically, I‘ve felt a pang of aversion whenever it’s time to take out the recycling. But what, exactly, am I dreading?

Picking up the blue box is easy. Taking it down the stairs is easy. Putting on my shoes is easy. Going outside is easy (often enjoyable, in fact). Walking around the house is easy.

It’s only the moment when I’m trying to simultaneously hold open the big bin and tip the blue box into it that is so annoying, and that little spike of annoyance has come to characterize the whole task in my thoughts.

Since I started applying micropatience to just that moment—letting myself perform, without resentment, the minor contortion that’s necessary to tip the cans into the bin—there is really nothing objectionable about the whole job.

Why micropatience? Why not regular patience? Well, as far as I can tell, patience can only be applied directly to the present moment, which is not very big. What else is there to be patient with, except an immediate, challenging experience happening right in this moment?

To be patient over days, or longer—waiting to hear back about a job application, say—really only entails being patient with those little moments when the discomfort around it spikes into prominence. Aside from those moments, we’re not really “being patient” in any discernible way; our minds are simply on something else.

A patient person is simply someone who’s in the habit of applying patience to these moments, which is to say they refrain from trying to be already past them while they’re happening.

So all patience is ultimately micropatience. If we learn to apply patience to the inevitable momentary discomforts peppered throughout each day, and we learn to do that habitually, we become a relatively patient person.

The “micro-“ prefix really just points to the doability of patience. It’s not some lofty quality we either have or lack. It’s an intention we can apply to singular moments—and this is especially doable with routine discomforts we know are momentary.

It’s just a matter of refraining from resenting reality for a short time. A little bit of mindfulness; an intentional staying-with, instead of a habitual pushing-away. Twenty seconds of this conscious non-resentment is enough bridge our usual reactions to spiteful loading screens, bubbly podcast adverts, awkward bin-dumpings, sweaty shoe-untyings, and many other everyday things that periodically drive us nuts. (Your peeves may differ.)

Patience, as a lofty moral quality possessed by some, is a myth as far as I’m concerned. We’ve been told our whole lives to “be patient,” but not what to actually do with our natural impatience.

As children, we were told to be patient during long car rides, or when we wanted to leave the dinner table early to go play. Of course, those commands didn’t actually confer upon us any capacity to be patient.

Quite the opposite, really. They were really just commands to stop complaining. All we could do was continue to suffer, quietly, from that persistent urge to somehow not be in that moment.

As grownups, we aren’t so stuck with that fate. We can understand that uncomfortable, unskippable moments are necessary in life. We can’t always be somewhere else. In fact, we never can.

So it’s always worth practicing as much non-resentment as we can muster in those moments, especially with the predictable ones. Twenty seconds of it, applied where we know it’s needed, can spare us a remarkable amount of pain.


Photo by Ben White

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Joe March 8, 2019 at 4:57 am

A “trick” I often employ in such moments is to realize that my enjoyment or the “liking” of whatever unpleasant thing I’m currently in the process of doing is simply not required. Somehow the realization makes all the difference and I relax into it feeling more ok and less judgmental about myself on it and move on.

Nina March 8, 2019 at 8:31 am

I like that idea, Joe — so simple. Is there a particular mantra/phrase you use to remind yourself of this?

David Cain March 8, 2019 at 8:56 am

Yes, totally… We’re complex organisms, but we’re largely driven by a pretty simple algorithm: seek the pleasant, avoid the unpleasant. But it isn’t possible to arrange a life of all pleasant and no unpleasant, and the harder we cling to the former and flee from the latter, the more unpleasant it gets. But I really like your way of putting it: “enjoyment is not required here.”

Rocky March 8, 2019 at 7:26 am

Howdy David….In your wonderful book “You Are Here”, you talk about rushing. “This discrepancy between our actions and our attention is called rushing. Having your attention on what you’re doing is non-rushing.“
In the world of music rushing means you are exceeding the tempo of the song.
Playing music with other musicians has has taught me that non-rushing is fundamental to playing together. If someone is rushing what you have is a train wreck. So what is required is an overall attitude of patience. This has spilled over into my daily life for fifty years. So I realize that it’s all about being in the moment, but I also think you can carry a baseline of patience with you wherever you go.
Many thanks for your great work!!

David Cain March 8, 2019 at 9:00 am

Hey I love that. Life really does have its own tempo, though it isn’t always so musical :) We have a way of getting ahead of the beat when we’re in a segment that’s too slow for our preferences. But we can settle into it if we try. Thanks for the kind words Rocky.

Marina March 8, 2019 at 8:45 am

Does patience have a judgment built into it? When I’m being patient it feels like I’m tolerating something that provides discomfort, therefore, I’m judging it as something I don’t like, or it’s a form of suffering.

David Cain March 8, 2019 at 9:07 am

That’s a good question… we can get pretty philosophical here. My view is a rather buddhist one: we cannot help but feel the basic sense of pleasant, unpleasant, or neither to our various sense experiences. That’s a matter of conditioning, which we don’t control.

But we can learn to recognize that initial sense, and consciously refrain from clinging to the pleasant, pushing away the unpleasant, or ignoring that which is neither. Then there may be pain or displeasure, but no suffering. Micropatience is really an opening up to an unpleasant experience, letting go of the idea that it’s bad and we can’t experience it without resentment.

Susan Ward March 8, 2019 at 9:14 am

Good morning David,
Thanks for this post. Your words resonated strongly with me this morning. Having just completed my first week of retirement after 50 years, I find myself still mulling over later today, tomorrow, next week – all in a scheduled fashion. A very patient nurse with others, patience with myself is really necessary but has been neglected in this new transition. A favourite suggestion by me to my patients has been – ‘Stay where your feet are’ – which your words today have invoked for me. By the way, this quality of self-patience, speaks clearly to the Depth of things (I belong to the Facebook group). Have a patient and in depth day!

David Cain March 8, 2019 at 9:31 am

Your words here resonate with me too: stay where your feet are. Especially appropriate for the removal of shoes :) Congrats on your retirement!

Rodrigo March 8, 2019 at 12:25 pm

Just my 2 cents about it…
To be patient and and less anxious, I use this simple trick: I imagine myself looking at me in third person, like I’m filming myself, you know?
Then the camera gets more distant. I see myself inserted in my state, then in my country, then in the Universe… And while I’m doing this I feel aware that I’m… nothing.

People are nothing and I just want to do whatever I’m supposed to without judgements, with peace of mind. Everything is forgettable. What are you doing rushing things up? What do you want to achieve that is so embarassing or annoying that will be echoed forever in the universe?

Do without fear, do with patience, do with love.

Rodrigo March 8, 2019 at 12:30 pm

Sorry my bad english, btw

David Cain March 8, 2019 at 2:26 pm

This actually really helped me gain some real perspective just now, thank you Rodrigo. We are small organisms on one of many rocks floating around one of many many stars, existing for a very brief time.

I wrote a post once on a similar trick: picturing yourself going about a regular day as though you’re looking at a miniature, and it brings so much more perspective: https://www.raptitude.com/2017/02/choices-are-effects/

But I forget to do that, and your comment went even further with it. Thanks!

Mary March 8, 2019 at 2:49 pm

Thanks David for your insights! I’m also a runner who lived up north for many years and now live in Texas.. and in the summer if we aren’t done by 10am.. it is unbearably HOT! so I can relate to your running story :-), but that’s not the place in my life where I get impatient. For me, I need to be patient when I feel like I don’t have enough time to finish something or for others to finish. Finding that spot in the present moment where I can say “it’s okay, there will be time enough” and that is sometimes very tough to do! But I’m working on it! Thanks,Mary :-)

David Cain March 9, 2019 at 11:50 am

It is definitely an idiosyncratic thing — the little moments where we tend to get impatience. I used to have a lot of them on airplanes — when I’m waiting for someone to put their bag up so I can get by, for example. I’m proud to say I’ve completely transformed the aviation experience with this non-resentment practice.

Do you find you’ve become accustomed to the higher temperatures somewhat? My Canadian standard for what’s “hot” is undoubtedly very different than a Texan one. I consider 80F to be “hot”, and the hottest day of the year here is around 95F. I guess wherever we are though, the earlier the better in the summer.

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