NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Patience” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
Motorcycle maintenance has always been an important part of riding for me. Knowing the basics gives me confidence that I can get the bike going if it breaks down on the highway, and it also helps me feel more connected to the machine. I used to be good at it. Back in the mid-70s, on a long road trip, I seized a piston in Ohio climbing a steep hill on a hot day. I limped all the way to Chicago, where I dragged the bike into a friend’s basement, set up an impromptu repair shop, and with only the tools in my tool kit and his tool box, disassembled the engine. I got the cylinder bored out, replaced the damaged piston with a new one, and rode the bike another 2,000 miles that trip.
After a 33-year hiatus from motorcycling, the learning curve for riding was steep, but I climbed it in four days. The curve for maintenance and repair, however, has been more difficult to navigate. I am a long way from the confidence and proficiency I once had. Simple tasks such as removing the tank or changing the oil and air filter are still daunting. Jobs that were easy back then seem to take me four times as long as I expect them to, and as often as not, my tinkering makes things worse.
One of the main obstacles has been lack of patience with the process.
My first year back, I put off some difficult maintenance tasks until I was in Syracuse, where my brothers and I converged for my mother’s 90th birthday. My brother Mark, a mechanical engineer and motorcycle trainer, agreed to help me check the valves, which were overdue for adjustment.
My bike is an old design with a single cylinder with four valves. Accessing them is straightforward, but fitting a thin piece of metal known as a feeler gauge into the adjustment gap and manipulating wrenches and screw drivers in the cramped space available seemed almost impossible to me. But not to Mark, who has an engineer’s confidence that if one engineer can design a piece of machinery, another can manage it.
Mark’s first attempt at adjustment, however, did not succeed. When that happened, I could feel my body tense up and my jaw tighten – I was 350 miles from home and now the bike was unrideable. But Mark didn’t panic. Instead, he stepped away from the engine, seemed to reset himself emotionally, and reflected for a couple of minutes on his initial attempt. Then he came at it again, this time bending the feeler gauge so it more easily reached the gap and rethinking how tight to make the nut that held the adjustment screw in place. On his second try, he came closer to getting it right, but it was still off. Again my tension rose, but Mark just stepped back again, reset himself emotionally, and again reflected on what he had learned. On the fourth try he got it, and the remaining three valves were quickly adjusted.
Riding back from Syracuse on my freshly tuned bike, I thought about my brother’s approach: make an attempt, and if it doesn’t succeed, reset yourself, consolidate what you learned, and try again. This attitude and method, I realized, must have been what Thomas Edison was describing when he famously remarked, “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” It epitomized patience.
I am not a naturally patient person. Impatience has gotten me into relationships that were doomed from the start, jobs that were dead wrong for me, difficult places to live, and disastrous medical and financial situations, as well as a plethora of smaller fiascoes.
I am a little more patient now, in my 60s. This lesson has not come easily. I have had many teachers.
My greatest so far has been a near-fatal event 20 years ago. It took five years to bring to justice the doctors who nearly killed me, and another two to imprison the lawyers who stole my medical malpractice award. I spent three years recovering from the physical injuries I incurred, and 10 integrating the person I was before my near-death experience with the one I was becoming. I have had other teachers, too: grieving the loss of deep relationships, the opportunity to have a son or daughter, years spent in the wrong career, learning to manage the tendency toward depression that haunts my mother’s side of the family.
Much of what I do today is a practice in patience, and more and more I see the value of that. Events unfold whether we are patient with them or not.
This book is an example. To create it has required me to take thousands of photographs of flowers, select hundreds of “possibles,” take perhaps a dozen slices through each image and work them into the basic mandala shape, and then to spend hours on each prototype, refining the image. Then there was the selection of concepts to assign to and quotations to accompany each Flower Mandala, followed, then, by the lengthy process of finding out what I can say to you about these concepts.
Psychotherapy, too, is a patience practice. Week after week, clients struggle with the same issues, and it would be easy for both of us to throw up our hands in frustration. But we don’t. Instead, we go down a path of potential healing, continue along it as far as seems helpful, and when that changes, we reset, reevaluate, and start down another. Our patience informs us that these problems keep showing up not because nothing has gotten better, but because enough has changed to enable deeper layers to be exposed.
Life presents all of us with opportunities for developing patience, and conscious practice can help the process along. You don’t need a motorcycle, a book project, or a psychotherapy practice to develop patience. Our small, regular tasks will do: cleaning the bathroom, washing the dishes, doing the laundry.
We all have more formidable challenges: recovering from a loss or illness, obtaining an education, tackling a major project, finding our path, raising a child, aging with grace. Paying attention to what comes up when we tackle or avoid the small tasks helps us learn to move through fear, frustration, and other emotional obstacles. The lessons learned from treating our little tasks in this patient, mindful way can then transfer to the larger challenges we face.
Without patience, qualities such as forgiveness, opportunity, perseverance, resilience, and acceptance are all difficult, if not impossible. Patience with ourselves and others allows us to forgive. Patience with loss permits us, little by little, to overcome it. Patience with opportunity helps us both to see it when it arrives and, when it does not, to wait for the moment it can be seized.
Patience is deeply intertwined with compassion. With patience, we can see the difficulties presented to us as the opportunities for growth that are always there, and we can pause long enough to feel compassion for others and ourselves as we step through these difficulties. Moving into our newfound compassion, we can also be more patient. And so on, back and forth, patience generating more compassion, compassion generating more patience.
When I was a college student, the phrase “Don’t push the river, it flows by itself,” a Chinese proverb popularized by Gestalt therapist Barry Stevens, became a meme. At the time, I thought it was synonymous with the also prevalent “Go with the flow.” But now, decades later, I see it as encouraging patience. Whether that river is the congested highway at rush hour or the temporal currents that direct us toward the ends of our lives, we don’t need to push it. With patience, we can let it carry us along.