Action and Patience

“Nothing ever changes in this world through hating the enemy. Nothing ever changes through aggression and hatred. So if it’s pushing your buttons, whether it’s Hitler or an abusive parent or an immoral war — Hitler was wrong, a parent who abuses a child is wrong — you have got to keep working with your own negativity, with those feelings that keep coming up inside you.

“We have also had the experience of seeing wrong being done when there is no confusion and no bewilderment and we just say, ‘Stop it!’ No buttons have been pushed. It’s just wrong, unaccompanied by righteous indignation. When I feel righteous indignation, I know that it has something to do with me. In order to be effective in stopping brutality on this planet you have to work with your own aggressions, with what has been triggered in you, so that you can communicate from the heart with the rapist, the abuser, the murderer.”

— Pema Chödrön, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Vol. III, #1

Last night, we watched a videotape of Pema teaching in 1999 about the paramita (‘activities of awakening’) of joyous exertion, also talked about as enthusiasm, or energy, or steadfastness. A metaphor for this particular paramita is ‘to practice as if your hair is on fire’ or ‘to practice as if a snake (with a rattle on the tail) has landed in your lap.’ The idea is that if your hair is on fire or a viper lands in your lap, you aren’t going to go back and forth within your mind considering the best course of action, doing some meditation to get in touch with the fear or to bring about compassion towards the snake, etc. — you should just put your head under the tap, or stand up! So while all the paramitas are meant to be actions, not just aspirations (although they can be practiced on an aspirational level), this one particularly suggests that there are definitely times to dispense with philosophising, consulting a list of rules or teachings, second-guessing ourselves, etc., and to simply act to prevent harm or to do what helps.
In the excerpt above, I hear Pema say that while there are times for urgency in action, that time is not when we are parhaps most likely to act, i.e., when we are triggered by someone else’s actions and in habitual reaction to the trigger. At those times, it seems, we might practice the paramita of patience, which she also taught about in the video last night. The practice of patience works with restlessness, aggression, and reactivity. When buttons are pushed, we react, and almost always with a form of aggression, whether it is with fear, anger, anxiety, a fight-or-flight urge, a cold shoulder, seething resentment, or a bewildering confusion of emotions.
The practice of patience, as I heard it, is to, in the very moment, do tonglen, which in this case means to take a moment, in the presence of the person or situation that’s triggered your reaction, to breathe in and out, and while doing so, share your emotional experience by considering that millions of people are experiencing the same feelings you are in this moment, and by letting yourself feel compassion for them and for yourself; and on the out breath, send forth an aspiration or intention to create a place of spaciousness in the universe and in this particular situation. And then, perhaps, speak or act. As Pema said, what you say or do may not be at all compassionate! But the possibility that it will be is increased by practicing patience.
What struck me particularly concerning patience is that it’s not about endurance. It’s not about being virtuous. As with all the paramitas, the three-fold purity comes into play, so that there is the instruction to not make a big deal of yourself as ‘the patient one,’ to not make a big deal of the person with whom you are practicing patience, and to not make a big deal of the activity of practicing patience. As for the other paramitas, its underlying purpose (if it can be said to have a purpose) is towards compassion, courageous or daring loving-kindness, and the pathway is usually to awake to and challenge our habitual reactions. More practical suggestions from Pema on aggression and on practicising patience.
And now, my dog wants some loving-kindness, in the form of my grabbing her yarn toy and helping her re-enact the brutal kill of the prey. :-)


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