Patience supports mindfulness practice when it is joined with gentle persistence and active exploration. Such patience allows for our practice to simply unfold, neither discouraged about nor anxious for results.
As the Indian Vipassana teacher Munindra-ji said, “When the fruit is ripe, it will fall from the tree.” For me, this image has been very helpful when it seemed nothing much was happening in my practice. Sometimes an apple looks red and ready to pick, and yet it doesn’t release easily from the tree. The ripening, the sweetening of the apple takes its own time and isn’t always apparent from the outside. Yet it releases from the tree in an instant. Similarly, the path of practice has a gradual nature, though freedom may come in an unexpected moment. We can think that freedom is the only thing that is important, yet it would never happen without the many, many subtle moments of “sweetening” that came before it. The nature of fruit is to sweeten, given good conditions for the tree it grows on. Cultivating good conditions requires patience and gentle persistence, and in our practice we patiently cultivate conditions that support the deepening of mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. As wisdom ripens, we experience the fruits of practice.
The Thai teacher Ajahn Thate talked about the patience of a farmer. This patience is the sort that knows you can’t plant a crop one day and expect to have yield the next. A farmer tends his fields and knows that certain tasks need to be done promptly when the time is right. When nothing is needed, the farmer simply lets the crop grow on its own, sometimes imperceptibly. But when the crop ripens, a farmer can’t delay the work of harvest. The patience of a farmer is not about being slow or casual. It is about taking time, paying careful attention, and doing the work that needs to be done, when it needs to be done.
This is the patience of our practice. It isn’t simply settling back and waiting for something to happen. Rather we practice like a farmer, doing what needs to be done, knowing that we don’t have control over the ripening of the practice, and allowing the path to mature in its own time. Often, we don’t even really know what the fruit of practice will be. Both the fruit of our practice and the time of its ripening depend on conditions: the conditions of our mind, the conditions from our past, the conditions of how we meet this moment.
The suttas offer another analogy about the gradual nature of the path. This analogy speaks to what we let go of in the course of practice:
“Suppose there were a seafaring ship bound with rigging, that had been worn out in the water for six months. It would be hauled up on dry land during the cold season and its rigging would be further attacked by wind and sun. Inundated by rain from a rain cloud, the rigging would easily collapse and wear away. So, too, when one develops and cultivates the Noble Eightfold Path, one’s fetters easily collapse and wear away.” Samyutta Nikaya 22.101
The images of the gradual ripening of fruit and of rigging slowly wearing away speak to me, since much of my own practice has unfolded gradually. Sometimes a sweet quality of mind ripens in its own time; sometimes a clinging wears away in its time.
Each day the fruit ripens a bit and a bit of the rope wears away, but we can’t see it happening. Yet months later the fruit comes off the tree easily, or you try to pick up the rope and it simply falls apart in your hands. Our practice unfolds in a similar way, as a gradual, slow maturing of good qualities and wearing away of the habits and patterns that hook us and cause our struggles. We have small recognitions of release, of space, of equanimity. We get tastes of the fruits of the path. And yet the unfolding is happening as we apply ourselves to the practice, whether we are aware of it or not.
Burmese Buddhists have a saying: “Patience is the road to Nibbana.” Practice requires patience of us because we don’t have control over the results, because the results happen in their own time. Settling in to this truth supports us in practice. Recognizing the quality of patience itself also supports us. On one retreat I was experiencing a particularly painful contraction around my heart. I explored the experience in meditation; opening to and allowing the painful contraction, and yet not noticing much change. The thought that popped into my mind during this time was a bit of wisdom, as I look back at it: “At least I’m cultivating patience.” There was a sense of willingness to persist with this difficulty, and a recognition that the beautiful quality of patience supported my ability to meet the difficulty.
As patience deepens, a sense of allowing and acceptance permeates our experience. We recognize the very thing we are struggling with is actually the doorway to wisdom and freedom. Acceptance does not mean passivity. It means understanding that the experience of this moment is the natural outcome of causes and conditions. The patient application of energy and mindfulness cultivates skillful conditions for both the present moment and the future. We can make a skillful choice in this moment. But we cannot rush the process of change.