Patience, Surrender, and the Spirit of Karma Yoga
“Be patient, be persistent. You’re bound to be successful.” –S.N. Goenka
Patience is an attitude of surrender. To be patient is to be content in the present moment. It means you accept and rejoice in the unfolding of life as it happens, which might not be the way you expected or according to the schedule you would have wanted.
Learning Patience from Nature
Spending time in nature, especially in solitude, is an excellent way to develop patience.
The natural world so clearly has its own pace and wisdom. Plants know just when to put out new sprouts and when to wither and go dormant for the season. Animals know when to shed their winter coats, when to migrate, when to mate and when to stockpile food. The sun and the moon move peacefully, month after month, year after year.
These rhythms are within us too, deeper than the plans and strategies we’ve built up over them.
In solitude, time becomes meaningless. There’s no reason to do anything at a particular time except for when your own intuition and spontaneous flow call for it. An activity for the afternoon might be sitting and looking at a tree or quietly existing in a field, and you can do this for as long as you want. You start meditating when it’s time to meditate, and when it’s time to stop, you stop.
This experience shows so clearly that although we take time as an absolute, it’s just a mental structure that starts to fade as soon as you stop looking at clocks and calendars.
These patterns will persist for a while after going into solitude from a busy life of goals, deadlines, and non-stop activity. I’ve often caught myself trying to make a schedule for a day in solitude: “If I meditate for two hours, then do three hours of Hatha Yoga, then take an hour for lunch, I can fit in a two-hour hike and a shower before I need to start the afternoon meditation…”
What an absurd concept! But when you’re used to living unconsciously in this way, of course, the habit doesn’t drop away immediately.
Detaching from the Pace and Outcome of Action
Most of us will not live our whole lives in solitude, free from plans and responsibilities. Still, in a world that constantly seems on the run, you can create space for yourself and others in the midst of all the activity.
Perhaps the first step towards developing patience is to realize that being impatient doesn’t make things any better. How many times have you fretted minutes away while waiting for the bus or standing in line at the grocery store? Did all of your fidgeting and groaning make that bus come even one second earlier?
Some of life’s events seem to be under our control, but more often than not, they are part of a larger movement beyond the scope of any individual’s actions.
You can plant a rose bush in your garden, water it, fertilize it, and pick bugs off its leaves, but do you give it the life that makes it grow? Do you decide when it will put out new shoots and in what direction, when it will blossom, and for how long those flowers will last?
When you believe that you are responsible for the fruits of your actions, you might become proud and arrogant when things go the way you planned, or guilty and self-punishing when they don’t. Either way, there is a karmic residue, a link of bondage to your limited perception of self.
As a gardener who plants a rose bush does the best they can to care for it while leaving the rest to God, we are caretakers of everything that arises in our lives. We put heart and soul into whatever comes before us while accepting that our best-laid plans may flourish or crumble into ruin through no virtue or fault of our own.
This is the basic attitude of Karma Yoga, the path of deepening awareness through action in the world.
Placing Priority on Self-Awareness
As Sahajananda says, the only thing that is urgent is Self-awareness.
When you are caught up with something that seems so very important, so important that you need to go into a frenzy to get it done on time, this is the exact right moment to cut that chain of reactivity. Stop what you’re doing, close your eyes, and center in your heart.
Whatever it is, is it more important than being aware?
Goals and tasks happen whenever they happen, but awareness is only ever of the present moment. If this is what matters, it has to happen now. Once you start thinking, “Well, I’m too busy to be Self-aware right now, but I’ll make up for it later in meditation,” you’ve missed the boat!
Yet without putting it so frankly in words like this, most of us are doing this all the time.
To get out of the cycle, you have to learn to practice Karma Yoga at all times—the deeper meaning of Karma Yoga; not just spiritual volunteering, but a way of turning every form of action into Self-Inquiry.
It is essentially a reorienting of your priorities. Before, the most important thing was to accomplish the task at hand, get the desired outcome in the decided timeframe.
Now, maintaining continuity of awareness is more relevant. Peace, detachment, and compassion are more essential than achieving any particular goal.
This isn’t to say that we have to become slow and sloppy in the name of Karma Yoga. On the contrary, this attitude of detachment can bring incredible efficiency, even under challenging circumstances.
When the pressure is high, going into agitation and identification won’t help even on a relative level: you’re more likely to make mistakes and create unnecessary stress for those around you without that patience. (I’ve learned this the hard way through many years serving in the Hridaya kitchen!) It’s much better to take a breath, close your eyes just for a few seconds, and continue from a place of centeredness and balance.
Patience on the Spiritual Path
When being patient with yourself, it helps to take the longer view.
As spiritual aspirants, we can be very harsh with ourselves. You might feel that you’re not evolving fast enough; your patterns and tendencies are still so strong, you haven’t yet had the peak experiences and deep states you thought should have happened already.
Panicking over uncooked rice won’t make it boil any faster, and this attitude won’t help your progress. Actually, it will only slow you down. “My” progress, “my” experiences, “my” purification… just drop the “me,” and you’ll be fine! The rest is incidental.
Recalibrate your perspective to see that your life and your journey of awakening are just one facet of Life itself, held and guided by that deeper wisdom.
The Tibetan Buddhists say that if you trap a school of fish in a pool with only a tiny opening connected to the ocean, all the fish will eventually find their way back to free waters. It’s only a question of time. And in the vast span of cosmic time, what difference does a day, a year, or a lifetime make?
Self-realization is inevitable. It is our very nature, the beginning and end point for all sentient beings. Truth lies under all illusion and will show its face sooner or later.
The fire of aspiration that drives you forward, that makes you feel you would rather die than continue living even one more day in separation, is in itself a touch of grace, an expression of Truth right here in the present moment.
Surrender, then, is allowing yourself to burn, to live in this fire without expecting or hoping for anything other than what is already here.
All that a plant must do to grow is let its roots drink from the earth, and its leaves be touched by the sun. All you must do is open your heart, drink from the fountain of wisdom within and let yourself be drawn towards the light. The blossom will come at the right time. For now, you are here, alive in that perfection of the eternal Now, complete in yourself.
Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.