• We live in a fast-paced world and so it being patient doesn't necessarily come naturally

  • Counsellor Sandra Hilton explores the value of patience and how it can help us find self-compassion

As spring nudges those of us in the northern hemisphere into the world, how many of us have marvelled these past weeks at the brash daffs and the generous snowdrops and crocuses delighting with their bloom in the frosty undergrowth? I’ve both enjoyed the nascent promise of each bud and also felt my impatience willing them to open, not giving a thought to the predicament of each flower. For I, and we, are creatures of a culture of immediacy, disinterested in the blossoming and longing for the bloom. Yet I feel the invitation to delve into all that lies beneath the surface, and sense the gear change required to follow the natural flow and discover where the magic really is. If I am to respond to the invitation, I need to connect with what it means to be patient. According to the dictionary, patience is: “the ability to wait, or to continue doing something despite difficulties, or to suffer without complaining or becoming annoyed”

The Buddha considered patience to be a 'perfection of the heart', one of the basic spiritual qualities that expresses our deepest nature. Tara Brach reflects that this 'opens up to the mystery and beauty of this life. Rather than racing to the finish line, ultimately death, patience helps us to slow down……By releasing our attachment to having a life a certain way, we receive the blessings of the awareness that is always and already here.'

Franz Kafka wrote:

'Patience is the master key to every situation. One must have sympathy for everything, surrender to everything, but at the same time remain patient and forbearing… There is no such thing as bending or breaking. It’s a question only of overcoming, which begins with overcoming oneself. That cannot be avoided. To abandon that path is always to break in pieces. One must patiently accept everything and let it grow within oneself. The barriers of the fear-ridden I can only be broken by love. One must, in the dead leaves that rustle around one, already see the young fresh green of spring, compose oneself in patience, and wait. Patience is the only true foundation on which to make one’s dreams come true.'

These interpretations feel so counter intuitive in our 'hurry up', linear culture of deliverables. These lives, governed by a natural law that we seem to have lost connection with in ourselves. Jungian analyst, Marion Woodman reflects on this in her book The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation:

'Our computerised society, fascinating and efficient as it is, is making deeper and deeper inroads into genuine human values. A machine, no matter how intricate, has no soul, nor does it move with the rhythms of instinct. A computer may be able to vomit out the facts of my existence, but it cannot fathom the subterranean corridors of my aloneness, nor can it hear my silence, nor can it respond to the shadow that passes over my eyes.'

She adds that we are programming ourselves out of our instinct, out of love, out of connection, and that it becomes harder to know ourselves in this world structure. And at the heart of this sits a lack of patience with what it means to be human and a part of the natural order.

The language is familiar. We demand of ourselves that we make things happen/drive forward/get results, imagining that if only we apply ourselves hard and fast and long, that we can achieve all that we wish for. And all the time, we’re living in a future place, rejecting life as it is right now and heading on a wild goose chase to the promised land. And if we don’t make it happen, then the failure is ours and ours alone. We forget the systems we’re part of – the family, the organisation, the culture, the country. We feel wholly and solely responsible. And so we vow to do better next time, to “be” better, to make up for our mistakes. This fast paced drive is against life. It doesn’t take account of our humanness, of our budding potential, lying just beneath the surface, and needing time and nourishment to be loved into life.

What does the word patience conjure up for you? What do you associate with it? A card game? A biblical reference? 'Patience is a virtue'…. I recall a woman named Patience who was always so late, that she set her watch half an hour ahead of the actual time as a counter to her inclination. It meant that she often had to wait for others but she wore that willingly. I also associate it with being small and being told I need to be patient as I waited for the adults to finish what they were doing; waited for a sweet reward or some long awaited attention. The feeling that this word evokes is one of restlessness; shifting and changing positions; checking for clues that I might be about to get what I had waited so patiently for, a racing ahead to a future event that felt way more attractive than what was happening in the present moment. So of course, what it evokes in me is not patience at all, but the experience of impatience. 

Patience after the pandemic

I’ve been noticing a lot of this in clients and in life as we emerge from the pandemic. A sense of time having been lost over the last two years and a push to 'make up for it'. A willing for situations and people to be other than they are. You’d have thought that the last two years would have been the ultimate lesson in patience but it seems not. I can’t help feeling that patience is seen as a weakness in our world – a settling for something rather than going for it. To be patient requires the 'negative capability' that poet, John Keats wrote about. He described this as the ability to be 'in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason'. Ultimately, the ability to be with the world and ourselves as we are; to trust the unfolding as it happens.

Marion Woodman wrote: 'I am a mystery, not a problem to be solved.' Patience brings us closer to our mysteriousness and to our true essence. 

Therapy teaches me patience. To sit with clients week in, week out and to listen, to laugh, to cry, to marvel, to be inspired and explore with them how it is….how life really is, is such a privilege. 

Creating teaches me patience. To sit with myself and my pen, or my paints or other tools, and feel words and images and symbols flow through me is a liberation. 

Being in relationship teaches me patience…..writing this newsletter and being in my garden teach me patience. 

Life teaches me patience, if I allow myself the living, rather than the forcing.

'There is only one world, the world pressing against you at this minute. There is only one minute in which you are alive, this minute here and now. The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable miracle.' – Storm Jameson

How are you learning patience?

Sandra Hilton is a verified welldoing.org counsellor in London and online

Further reading

How coaching can help you thrive in times of change

Why self-compassion is key to success

Mental flexibility and resilience to change

Where success really comes from

How to nurture more self-compassion