Story behind the Passage
Today, I almost finished writing my first short book on horseback riding. Most of it is not about horses but about humans — in this case me. When I started riding more seriously about a year and a half ago, I was still more impatient than today. I cannot say that I am not impatient anymore but things have improved. That is not all the horse’s achievement — but to some extent it is.
I just checked the etymology dictionary and the word origin of patience actually goes back to the 12th century. Patience thus refers to the “quality of being willing to bear adversities, calm endurance of misfortune, suffering, etc” (Etymonline). When I just read this, I immediately agreed — especially since I spent almost an hour in the saddle today with about three quarters of the time standing still in one spot.
Sometimes, the horse, Lucky, simply does not want to move. And yes, this is always a leadership issue but every horse also has its history and its very unique stubbornness. This leads to the fact that on certain days, there is just more standing still than on most other days. And standing still actually means standing. Only after arguing intensely, she does move one step forward or two but then again, she steps backward. As a stable mate commented after I had brought the horse back to the box:
“The hard dances also need to be danced sometimes.”
Yes, I could not agree more. And in the end, after having danced for about 30 minutes on the same spot more or less, Lucky did move again and actually enjoyed it, as far as my own horse vocabulary told me and that of my riding instructor. Still, there is hardly any human being that puts my nerves so much to the test like her. I guess, one could very well claim that the riding lessons strictly speaking are no riding lessons, they are lessons of patience.
This is exactly why I remembered the book by Richard Carlson after returning home. I have no idea where or why exactly I bought it. I think, it was not because of the author but because of some recommendation by a colleague. I do remember enjoying it a lot because it offers much wisdom in a way that can be applied and practiced easily in daily life. And practice is also the starting point for talking about patience because the passage above opens the chapter “Create Patience Practice Periods” in the book.
“Patience is a quality of the heart.” As most people around me know, I have been struggling a lot with the supposed opposition between head and heart. This dichotomy is a legacy of the 19th century and very much related to the discourse on women’s emancipation. For me, however, it is a real-life pragmatic challenge that is not related to any gender stereotypes because I know that men and women struggle with it, just in different ways. There are certain jobs and activities that require much rational thinking (head). And there are other tasks, like writing, which require more emotional and creative thinking (heart).
This separation already highlights the stupidity of any binary thinking in this context. Both emotions and rational thinking happen in the brain. But I do not want to drift into cognitive science discussions now. What I mean is that mixing head and heart while pursuing one particular activity is not always easy, nor is it recommendable. When writing, for example, it extremely disturbs me if I consciously focus on using my brain in an analytical mode. When holding a business meeting, in contrast, and we only have a few minutes, I try to really keep out all emotions, also in my use of language.
While writing this, I already notice that any separation between head and heart is impossible because I know that people always tell me, no matter how “unemotional” I am trying to be, that I am very passionate — and thus emotional. The problem is: I know this is true. I can hear myself talk and notice this. Still, I often wish it were otherwise because the kind of passion I put into stuff is for real and that means that I also respond emotionally if things start bothering me.
This aspect of being bothered takes us to patience as quality of the heart, as it says above. I think, there are not many things that actually bother me, not even things that go “wrong” in some way. I have gotten used to the fact that this is life and I embrace things the way they happen. The only thing that really bothers me, however, is when things get boring. I cannot say what exactly this means but the most general definition to me probably is: things that repeat themselves; a lack of novelty and surprise.
The reason why I do believe that patience is in fact a quality of the heart is because it needs to become an unconscious skill. It needs to kick in before your brain starts telling you: “Hello, this is boring, I am getting upset now.” And Lucky indeed is a good teacher for this. I did get annoyed today when she was not moving for such a long time but I cannot say that I lost my patience.
“… practice periods — periods of time that I set up in my mind to practice the art of patience.” This sentence is so interesting because it goes one step further than what I have been writing so far. Again, one could argue that taking riding lessons might be my practice times for patience. But the statement above does not talk about actual lessons with a sparring partner like my horse. It talks about practice in one’s mind. How is that possible?
Even though I never intentionally looked at learning patience in this mindful way, I do think I have an idea what is meant. To me, meditation actually is one form of this patience practice of one’s mind. You sit still on the mat for 20-minute sessions or longer and the only thing you do is train your mind to shut down. Now, calling meditation ‘patience practice’ would miss the point, as anyone practicing meditation knows. However, the result of meditation is indeed, at least in my experience, that you are able to live in the here and now. And it is the mind that does that — not a horse and not another human being.
If you actually acquire this skill of the mind to fully be in the present, it is a natural consequence that impatience makes room for patience. Impatience can only occur if your mind runs ahead and prefers to be in some sort of imagined future. This simply cannot happen if you are really focusing on the present moment. It does not take any thinking for this. It just takes awareness and observation of what is happening without any judgement.
In this respect, I guess, my riding lessons with the horse also form lessons in which my mind is taking its own independent practice time. Yes, physically, Lucky and me are out there performing a dance of our own on four hooves that are not moving sometimes. In my mind, I am observing this without judging it and without thinking of whatever might come next — at least, this is how I manage the situation on most days. And I can truly say that I do not even think about all this while I am practicing the art of patience with the horse because this would not work. You cannot think about patience and practice it at the same time.
“Life itself becomes a classroom, and the curriculum is patience.” Well, that life is in fact a classroom, I guess, hardly anybody can deny. I think, the concept of “classroom” is even too small to express that life is based on learning in every possible way. And I do not just mean rational learning; the stuff you do in school or university. Our body also learns all the time, even without us noticing it. Riding is a good example of this because only when your body has fully learned the movements will you be able to ride smoothly. Hence, life is not only the classroom, it is the teacher as well.
With respect to patience forming the curriculum, I am not so sure. A curriculum to me is only the path you are walking, not the skill you gain or the mindset you develop. I mean, after all, if you have math or physics in the curriculum, these are just subject labels. The actual skills you gain are calculating or experimenting. Hence, patience is more than a curriculum. It is a value for me that only results from embracing all other challenges that the curriculum of life has to offer.
I wonder, however, how my horse looks at this “curriculum.” As my riding instructor rightfully mentioned today: “I wonder what Lucky would be like if she were human. She would have friends and enemies.” This made me smile because it was so true. We will never know how the horse would be treated in our human world if she were able to enter it. Still, her unique stubbornness and the ability to resist any of my leadership attempts are remarkable, exactly because I hardly know any human being who is so patient while practicing resistance.
This, at least, does meet the definition of patience as a curriculum. What we are still debating, however, is who the teacher is and who the student. Today, I think, we switched roles back and forth. In the end, we gave each other a decent grade, although horse ‘experts’ would make Lucky and me fail. As far as my patience learning goes, however, I am truly grateful to have her and my riding instructor as teachers. Only the teachers that put together a difficult curriculum and challenge you are the ones that will make you succeed. And I have no doubt that Lucky knows how to handle the patience curriculum. As my riding instructor commented: “She is not stupid at all.”
1) Do you think that patience is an ‘inborn’ talent or do we all have to learn it in the course of life?
2) Which situation in life made you learn patience and has this skill of the mind persisted?
3) Do you think patience is generally a good thing? When can patience even become a problem in life?