Updated: Dec 30, 2018
Without giving too much away, I can divulge that towards the end of many 8-week mindfulness courses there is an opportunity to send a message to oneself as a reminder of what has been learned (or recollected) during the course. Doing this exercise recently, when I sat to write some words of wisdom to myself, the words “join the human race!” popped into my head. What did it mean? I immediately understood that this was a reference to a way of being that I have inhabited for much of my life, wherein because I am focused on striving towards some future goal, I am too preoccupied, busy or tired to participate in the life that is happening around me and the people I am actually with. Perhaps I took after my father, who, a bright lad growing up in a Glasgow tenement block, was motivated by the need to ‘get on and get out’; himself reacting to his own father who, after five years in the first world war trenches, had zero ambition.
It would be ridiculous to assert that striving towards a worthy achievement is necessarily a bad thing, but my experience is that life lived too much in this mode sooner or later becomes a joyless affair, with the habit being so entrenched that one barely pauses to appreciate the delights and struggles – and even the achievements – happening along the way. One consequence of an overemphasis on future-striving is impatience.
Recently I was helping my elderly mother into a car in a narrow street while a group of cyclists sauntered past. A driver of a car had to stop and wait for us all. The moment the roadway was clear, he revved loudly and rapidly accelerated past us – I assume showing his displeasure at being made to wait a few moments. “Idiot!” came my automatic response. A moment later, I found myself inwardly laughing - the driver’s behaviour was humorously childish. With cringing self-recognition, I saw myself reflected in his angry, ’how-dare-you-be-in-my-way’ reaction. The truth is that I am all too capable of having an impatient reaction based in the same belief that the car driver was expressing: that “I am the centre of the universe - and I have important places to go and people to see”.
There is a play on walking meditation that I’ve done a few times on courses. Initially everyone is invited to walk around a room mindfully, with present-moment awareness in the soles of the feet, noticing the movement in their feet and legs and so on. Then, by contrast, one is invited to try walking with the thought ‘I’m late for an important meeting’. I found it fascinating and shocking how quickly I started relating to other people with irritation, as obstacles in my path. The exercise finishes by returning to mindful walking, making the contrast very clear.
One typical occasion when I have repeatedly noticed impatience haswhen a computer is buffering or slow, my standard response being “for goodness sake, come on! I haven’t got all day!” Needless to say, getting cross doesn’t help with the task in hand, it just leaves me feeling tense and less able to think clearly. In a group discussion on a meditation course a couple of years back, I was acknowledging this tendency and made a resolution to see if I could turn these moments around: into a recuperative mindful moment rather than one of frustration. The following week one of the other people on the course asked how I was getting on with buffering moments. I realised that I had completely forgotten the intention to see if I could find a different response. Having been reminded, I then did go away and actively explore a different way of relating to these times of enforced waiting, with a moderate level of success.
Taking a moment to notice my body and breathing when I would formally have been tight and impatient is a small miracle; an opening into a universe of spacious presence: the richness of ‘now’. What a difference! Not only do I end up feeling so much better, but others around me don’t have to suffer my impatient vibes.
Here we come to a limitation of writing about mindfulness practice. To understand the revolutionary nature of this sort of shift, you have to actually experience it. Each of us needs to individually experiment with our own particular tendencies. If you form an intention to explore a different way of responding, as I did when encountering buffering, you may also find it helpful to tell your intention to someone else who can remind you of it later, when you might have forgotten all about it - something that can easily happen in relation to changing longstanding habits.
A few weeks ago at the end of a lively and enjoyable 8-week course with a great group of people, a few of the course participants decided to go for a drink together in the pub next door. I felt a bit tempted but a 'sensible' voice in me told me I should get home and do whatever tasks were necessary to round off the course - and not get to bed too late. It was that old mentality: that there was something more important, elsewhere, to get onto. I got into my car to drive home. Then that phrase ‘join the human race!’ came into my mind. I got out of the car, went into the pub and joined the others – and thoroughly enjoyed my soft drink in the company of these good people.
Impatience is a difficulty with the idea of waiting. The concept of waiting focuses attention on a future expectation – whatever we are waiting for - rather than this moment, right now. There is an old saying that says ‘all things come to those who wait’. Maybe the promised benefits aren’t necessarily about being willing to wait, but rather about being so alive to the present moment that the concept of waiting is irrelevant.