A Modern Mystic

Musings on life, work and contemporary spirituality

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Patience or Tolerance? What’s in a Word?

wireheartIn my work with coaching clients, seekers, beautiful and truly well intentioned people, I see sloppy language at the heart of many of our deeper dilemmas. We use words that we haven’t properly defined for ourselves and it’s so easy to hide behind them. Words such as “spiritual,” “angels,” “grace,” “compassion,” “positive thinking,” and “judgment” seem to be common places to store our misunderstandings about who we are and how things work. Yet as often as not, a few minutes of contemplation and research on our “spiritual” vocabulary can clear up a belief or habit of thinking that is keeping us stuck and unhappy.

Last night I attended a Buddhist teaching on patience. Along with generosity, discipline, diligence, mindfulness and knowledge, patience is one of the Transcendent Perfections or “Paramitas,” the heart of the bodhisattva’s practice.

After the teaching the group got into a discussion about tolerance. Wasn’t tolerance the same thing as patience? Shouldn’t I strive to always, under all circumstances, quietly put up with unacceptable behavior from others? Isn’t that the peaceful Buddhist way?

Well, no. This is a misunderstanding of the term patience. If we look closely we see that tolerance usually has an underlying flavor of anger. We don’t like something – a behavior, a person, or even an idea – and yet we refrain from acting, stewing about it all the while, presumably because we think that eventually some good will come of our forbearance. We should speak up when we see injustice or harm and try to muster the thought, “May this person be free from suffering and its causes!”

Unfortunately, a good result can never come from a negative intention. True patience means not reacting in anger, whether in thought, word or deed. At first this is a mighty challenging thing, and yet we improve with practice. Perhaps we first reach for tolerance, non-reaction, while understanding that we don’t like the anger that we’re feeling. Eventually, if we renounce our anger, true patience has a chance to take root.

It all starts with a word and the understanding of its true meaning.