Patience is a virtue, except when it morphs into procrastination. I am pretty good about not procrastinating (all right, maybe emptying the litter box, according to my cat) but I do find myself drawn to impatience, its opposite. Impatience is living in the future, whether it is waiting for Christmas, or the kids to grow up, or the workday to end, or the new president to be inaugurated. The grass is always greener in the future (especially since I am writing this blog at the winter solstice!).
The spiritual practice that is the best known cure for impatience is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of living in the moment and doing one thing at a time, a foreign notion to the familiar modern American world of multitasking and planning ahead. I eat breakfast while writing in my journal and drink my tea ( a recent switch from coffee to reduce my over-stimulation) while reading the morning paper. I cannot watch television without something to occupy my hands (jigsaw puzzles are a favorite in the winter).
I took a six -week class in mindfulness meditation several years ago, and the experience that particularly stayed with me was mindful eating. Focus on the food. Think about where it cam from, and be grateful for those who made it possible. Look at it, experience it. Don’t take another bite until you have finished the first. Mindful eating is not only a good spiritual practice, but also a good way to reduce one’s intake!
I grew up in an environment where eating was competitive, especially with my older brother, who was a voracious eater. It was fueled by his growth into a 6 foot 5 inch frame, while I topped out at 5’4″. But the habit persisted. When I eat out with a friend, I always finish first. Now I watch the same story play out between my 60 pound dog and my five pound cat. The tiny 20-year-old cat eats mindfully and returns to nibble throughout the day. If I do not shelter her food from the dog, my big barking protector will hunt out her food and finish it off, which is not good for either of them. And trust me, both cat and dog practice mindfulness to the nth degree. Always focused on what they are doing in the moment.
As I write this, I am resisting the temptation to multitask by turning on NPR for the news of the day. When I finish this blog, I will turn my attention to the next round of my daily routine, the most challenging in terms of mindfulness. Five miles, 15 minutes on the exercycle to energize the active part of my day. There my challenge is to silence the monkey mind by concentrating on the body, the exercycle, progress toward my goal.. It helps if, before mounting the exercycle, I make out my to-do list. Writing things down is off-loading those jumping monkey thoughts to the hard drive, so that I can be patiently in the present, knowing that my list will be waiting for me when I am ready for it.
There is a longer term dimension to patience and impatience as well. I dashed through life at warp speed. Married on my 21st birthday, I took three courses in summer school to graduate from college a year early and start graduate school. At 28 I had a Ph.D., a husband, two children, and an assistant professorship. I can’t go back and live those years more slowly, but when I retired (early, of course!) I did go back to graduate school to get a master’s degree in theological studies and to savor the experience. In part to deliberately slow the process and in part because I was commuting a fair distance, I took three years to get a two-year degree. Graduate school in Emory University’s Candler School of Theology was a good place to practice mindfulness.
As I approach my 80th birthday in the summer of 2021, I am very aware that I have a limited number of years left, especially years of good health, eyesight, and stamina. The past is long and the future is short. I cannot afford to live the future any longer. I need to savor the present. Yes, I need to plan for those final years—that’s prudence, the first virtue on my three virtue list for 2021. But I also need to live them! I hereby publicly declare that I am committing to patience and its cousin, mindfulness, in 2021.
There is an old joke about Unitarians that goes something like this. Why do Unitarians sing hymns so badly? Because they are always reading ahead to see if they agree with the theology. Reading ahead does get in the way of experiencing and singing joyfully in the present. I wish you, and me, a mindful, present-focused, patient 2021.