Are We There Yet?

Why is patience so hard?

Posted Nov 07, 2020

We are still intrigued by Walter Mischel’s classic 1972 “Marshmallow Experiment.” A scientist in a lab coat offered young children a choice—they could either eat a marshmallow immediately or if they could wait a short time, they could have two marshmallows. The experimenter then left the room and watched behind a one-way mirror. Some children were in agony, smelling and licking the sweet, finally giving in to desire, where others found a way to endure. Scientists followed the children over years and found that those who could delay gratification were more successful in life, as measured by SAT scores and other measures of educational achievement.

However, like many in the world right now, as the election results of 2020 seem to move in geological time, I’m feeling restless and irritable, I check my phone constantly. Are we there yet? It feels like forever! So, trying to find a constructive way to deal with my anxiety,  I find myself thinking about patience. Why is it so hard?

So, instead of “doom scrolling,” I’ve been researching patience and finding things I hadn’t thought about. Looking at the literature on mindfulness, I’ve been reading that Patience is considered to be an act of compassion toward ourselves. The definition hasn’t changed much from what Walter Mischel was looking at in his work: patience is the capacity to accept or tolerate delay and difficulty without getting angry or upset. It turns out that lack of patience triggers a stress response that we feel in our minds and bodies. OK, sounds great, but how?

Here is a simple three-part practice that I’ve put together from my research.

1. Notice Impatience.

I find that it is useful to find it in the body. Where are you feeling it? Sometimes we notice it in a clenched jaw. A knot in the belly. When we stop we realize that maybe we are taking shallow breaths. Are you making a fist with your hands? You might simply say to yourself, “Ah, this is what impatience feels like. This is a very human emotion. It’s OK to feel it.”

2. We Want Control.

We tend to get impatient when things don’t go the way we want. We want what we want when we want it. So, notice what is happening in the mind. Yes, this is not the way we want things to be. In some ways, it brings us back to the children in Mischel’s study. Sometimes we too can have tantrums when we get frustrated. Notice what is happening in your mind. What thoughts and feelings are arising?

3. Bring in Compassion.

Notice that we are all human, and we are wired in similar ways. Just like me, millions of others are feeling angry and frustrated. This is hard for all of us. Ask yourself if there is anything you can do so you don’t make things worse for yourself and others? Can you practice some deep, slow relaxing breaths? Can you bring interest or curiosity to what you are noticing? Can you imagine that you are an experimenter studying your impatience? See if you can bring some humor and friendliness to these reactions. Add the gift of self-compassion. All human beings get impatient. You aren't the only one who feels this way. Put a hand or two hands on your heart. Often just feeling your feet on the ground can really help.

Finally, see if you can trust in the law of impermanence—this too will pass.

I take comfort in the wisdom of teacher Pema Chodron: “Patience has a quality of enormous honesty to it, but it also has a quality of not escalating things.”