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Patience is also a form of action.

—Auguste Rodin

Last week we explored the promise of meditation and yoga as a flower that, according to a Zen teaching, is never seen by the seed from which it grew. This week, let’s look at it from the perspective of the process.

Meditation and yoga promise deep peace and contentment. After a meditation sitting or a yoga class, we may feel refreshed, calmer, or less stressed. But that’s not always the case—sometimes we feel disturbed, confused, or disappointed. And even when we feel good afterward, we may not find our lives as a whole more peaceful or more contented right away after practice. It’s not like taking an aspirin, where we can reasonably expect prompt relief from whatever discomfort we’re having.

When we plant a tomato seed, we know not to expect tomatoes that day or the next day. We know that first there will be some time before a bud emerges from the soil, then there will be some more time before the bud grows into a mature plant, then there will be yet more time before that plant begins producing tomatoes, and finally there will be further time before the tomatoes ripen enough to be picked. Even if we’re impatient to taste our tomatoes, we don’t fret about the slowness of the process, and we don’t worry that the process isn’t working if it doesn’t produce ripe fruit as fast as we might like.

But people can get discouraged in their meditation or yoga practices, even when they’re working just as they should. These practices offer significant transformation, and that takes time. And there is no genuine transformation that doesn’t involve letting go of something that’s been a part of us for a long time. That kind of loss never feels good, even though it’s in the service of something we may want badly. Over the course of a practice, it’s necessary to have sessions that are uplifting and motivating, and also to have sessions that feel very challenging. And sadly, we don’t have control over when it’s one or the other, or something in between—which can itself be difficult, because it can feel like nothing is happening. The process of transformation has an intelligence of its own that we don’t have the ability to perceive, except with hindsight. While we’re in it, we can’t see where we are or where we’re going.

Actually, this is how the world around us operates—sometimes it’s exciting, fast-paced, energizing, rewarding, etc., and sometimes it feels plodding, aimless, antagonistic, and even off-course. And we never really know where we’re headed, or what’s going to happen along the way, or where we’ll end up. Our practices mirror our lives and the world we inhabit; they are training grounds for living a peaceful, contented life in a universe that is fundamentally unknown and unknowable, and that we have no control over.

One piece of good news is that it usually doesn’t take that long to start to see results after we begin a practice, and we continue to see further results periodically throughout the practice—we don’t have to practice for a long time, seeing nothing from it, and then getting the promised result all at once only at some end point. The results come gradually, but regularly: every session, regardless of what it feels like or how we feel afterward, contributes to, and is essential to attaining, the results. One of the keys to a successful practice, then, is patience. Like the tomato seed that will never see the tomato and that will take time to transform into the tomato, our practices produce ways of being in our lives that we can’t really comprehend (though of course we try to imagine them), and we have to wait some time to realize that we’ve changed.

As Rodin recognizes, patience is an action; it is not passive. It takes determination to stick with a practice that doesn’t pay off every time we do it. When we “do” patience, we advance our cause meaningfully, because we deepen our commitment to attaining our goal in the face of real challenges and we resist the urge to flee to something else that's more gratifying in the moment. When we “do” patience, we accept that, like the seed and the young plant, every day, every session, is a part of reaping the rewards, even though we may not yet be able to pick the fruit of our efforts.

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