This is the first of a series reflecting on what Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to as the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness. As we cultivate our capacity for mindfulness it can be very supportive to develop these attitudes as a way of staying active in the process. The seven interconnected foundations are patience, trust, beginner's mind, non-judging, acceptance, non-striving, and letting go. Dr. Kabat-Zinn also plans to add two additional attitudes, gratitude and generosity, which we will explore later in this series.
Cultivating our capacity for mindfulness is not limited to following a prescription and waiting for something to happen. The fruits are largely dependent on the attitude we bring to the practice and our experiences, moment to moment. When we begin to consciously cultivate these attitudes, together with engaging in the meditation practices, we are creating a receptive, rich, foundation for the healing power of mindfulness to emerge. In this piece we will explore the attitude of patience.
Patience is a good embarkation point for the discussion of the seven attitudes, as, interestingly, the word comes from the latin root “pati,” which translated means “to suffer.” Patience, according to the dictionary, means the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, difficulty, or annoyance without getting angry or upset. At first glance this definition may evoke a feeling of acting one way despite feeling another. Perhaps, the sense that being patient means to grin and bear it all. On the other hand, patience imbued with mindfulness does not infer non-action and with practice gives rise to equanimity.
Mindfulness has two highly connected components, worth distinguishing. The first component involves the capacity to maintain attention on present moment experience and the second is intentionally adopting a particular orientation towards those experiences. The particular orientation we are cultivating in mindfulness is one of befriending our experiences as they are, without the need to push away the unpleasant or attach to the pleasant. Holding each of them with a kind, curious, and non-judging attitude. If we look at the attitudinal foundation of patience through this lens, we see that it is not our capacity to accept or tolerate stress, rather our capacity to orient ourselves in a way that allows things to be exactly as they are, without trying to change anything. Relating to our experiences with a sense of trust and calm abiding, in the midst of it all.
The first step towards cultivating patience is to become aware when we are experiencing impatience. This can happen rather quickly by noticing what impatience feels like in the body. You may just stop now for a moment and visualize something that triggers impatience or call up a time this week when you experienced impatience. See if you can go directly to the impatience in your body and notice what qualities it has. For most of us there is an unpleasant feeling tone. You may also try to notice what thoughts immediately get conjured up in response to the unpleasant feelings.
Next, we work with the second component of mindfulness by orienting ourselves in a way that allows us to befriend the unpleasant feeling of impatience that we are experiencing. This is often the difficult part and like anything that we have to unlearn and relearn in life, cultivating patience can sometimes require us to “fake it till we make it.” Contrary to the long standing belief that our brains are rigid structures, in fact, our brains are more like plastic. This characteristic of neuroplasticity of the brain allows it to adapt, rewire, and change its structure in response to new experiences. Research suggests that if we intentionally practice a new behavior (faking it) daily for in the range of six weeks, it will become wired in to the infrastructure of the brain. You may try turning the corners of your lips up in to a smile (also faking your brain) or seeing if you can bring in a child like curiosity in the moments of impatience.
Cultivating patience takes gentle perseverance and compassion for yourself and others. It is a strong antidote to the stress associated with our need for instant gratification and allows us to enjoy, more fully, the process of life. It also gives us an opportunity to see the shared experience of stress we have as humans, allowing us to connect more deeply and treat ourselves and others with more kindness. Give yourself the space to practice patience this week, beginning with seeing clearly, moments of impatience. Work with transforming one moment at a time, seeing if you can hold each experience with soft, loving, presence. In the next installation of this series we will explore the attitude of non-judging and begin to see how interconnected each of the attitudinal foundations are.