May We Be Patient: Finding Compassion for Our Inner Sisyphus

Patience and I were enemies for most of my life.  Like many of us, I wanted things done yesterday. I wanted to achieve my goals without much effort. I wanted. I wanted. I wanted. NOW! And when “now” did not happen, I felt like a failure or was disappointed or criticized myself harshly.  Patience is truly a virtue, but living with patience can feel more like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the mountain only to lead to an adult tantrum. I WANT THINGS THIS WAY NOW! (insert your own screaming voice.) It’s ok to admit it, we all have been there at least once in our lives. In a culture that promotes instant gratification, it’s a challenge to embrace patience. Nonetheless, patience is fundamental to our well-being.

It has taken me most of my life to stop fighting with patience and begin to view her as a loyal friend. She now takes the lead most of the time; yet, truth be told, there are still times I overrun her. Hey, we are human; it’s ok! This is where mindfulness and self-compassion have come in handy. I’ve learned ways to coach myself, to be a friend to myself, when I am feeling overwhelmed or anxious or controlling. May I be patient. More often than not, I recognize when I am experiencing impatience (via mind-body connection thanks to meditation) and attempt to ground myself through the skills of mindfulness and compassion that I practice daily. (To dig deeper into developing these skills, check out Tara Brach’s discussion of RAIN.)

Patience and CCT

In thinking about how to encourage people to take the CCT course I’ll be teaching in the fall, the phrase a practice in patience comes up repeatedly. While cultivating compassion is a true act of courage and deepens our connection with ourselves and others, it illuminates the undeniable role patience plays in our general well-being, and specifically in our growth as compassionate and loving beings.

In thinking further about this phrase, a practice in patience, I remembered a poem I wrote almost 20 years ago entitled “Curse of Sisyphus.” The poem depicts my frustration and desperation in finding contentment in life and truly accepting myself, but never seeming to achieve it. Near the end of the poem, I plead with Sisyphus to tell me how to end my suffering.  

Here I go again trekking up to the peak
Only to see the rock roll down to the
Mountain’s feet.
This time I demand Sisyphus to explain his
Laughter making ripples in my blood.
Tell me, tell me, tell me what I don’t know.
“Wipe the illusion from your eyes,” he advises me
As we descend to the valley,
My perpetual state of mind.

With two hands cupped around his mouth,
He hollers to all the people descending their own peaks,
“It is when you cease anxious seeking that you shall find peace.”
“It is when you cease anxious seeking that you shall find peace.”
“It is when you cease anxious seeking that you shall find peace.”
His echo returns three times singing:
And things will happen.
And things will happen.
And things will happen.

While I understood in my early 20’s that grasping anxiously to my wants and to my unrealistic image of happiness was causing deep suffering, I did not know how to help myself shift out of the myth of Sisyphus. I was stuck pushing the rock up the mountain only to watch it fall back down again. Patience was the least thing from my mind. I needed to take action; yet, I kept trying so hard to end my suffering that I suffered more. Sounds counterproductive, doesn’t it? Yet, this is our common experience. This is the illusion! It has taken me almost 20 years to learn how to shift my understanding of and change my relationship to suffering.

Pema Chodron writes, “Interrupting our destructive habits and awakening our hearts is a work of a lifetime.” Patience is the work of a lifetime. Finally for me patience has become a guiding light encouraging me to accept that human beings are beautifully flawed, experience unpleasant feelings and thoughts (i.e., suffering), and attaining a state of constant bliss and contentment is impossible (and, brain science supports all of this!).

Patience, nurtured through meditation and compassion practices, can strengthen one’s capacity and courage to be with suffering, to relate to one’s suffering and others’ suffering with tenderness, empathy and compassion. Overtime my suffering has lessened in its intensity as my response shifts from fight or flight mode to patience and compassion. This has helped me become more present, loving and supportive of others, even strangers and challenging people in my life. 

It is when you cease anxious seeking that you shall find peace…And things will happen.

Learning to be patient is in itself an act of patience. Sounds paradoxical, but it is a truth that I have come to know. Even in something so simple like breathing through the anxiety of awaiting a response to an important email, we cultivate a sense of patience which has a significant effect on our well-being. Cultivating compassion through meditation and daily mindful practices (as taught in the CCT course) supports my life-long quest to step out of the myth of Sisyphus and nurture an authentic, meaningful and fulfilling life. This journey began as a practice in learning to be patient, which I did not realize at first. Now, this journey is guided by such patience. And things are happening!

Let me end with this brief compassion practice: Take 2 minutes to sit quietly with your hand over your heart and your eyes closed. Breathe in and out at your natural pace and repeat silently these phrases:

May I be happy.
May I know peace and joy.
May I be free from fear and anxiety.
May I be a patient friend to myself.                                                                                                   

Feel the tenderness of your touch as you say these phrases. Allow yourself to experience the true meaning of these words as you breathe in and out.

Any time that you feel like you’re overrunning patience, repeat these phrases and focus on your breath. This small act can shift your thinking, calm your nervous system and nurture your heart and mind.

May we be patient as we embark on living a meaningful and fulfilling life. May we experience compassion for our common inner Sisyphus.

Please click here to learn more about the CCT course that I will be offering in the fall.

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