(As published on Elephant Journal)
I am not at all what anyone would – or could – call a patient person by nature. At the age of 17, my ego’s desire for speed, intensity, and ultimately, immediate gratification, led me to New York City: the fastest paced city I have ever lived in, visited, or even heard of. A “New York Minute,” after all, is widely known for being the tiniest measurable length of time in the world. Johnny Carson once explained it as ‘the interval between a Manhattan traffic light turning green and the cab driver behind you honking his horn.’ Everything in my life in New York, from traffic to meetings to meals to time with friends and loved ones could best be described by one word: FAST. Even the Yoga classes I used to attend in New York could be most accurately characterized as both quick and intense. The same practice of Yoga, which was originally designed and intended to help one slow down enough to relax and connect with one’s inner Self, was something I, in part and unknowingly, used to fuel my addiction to speed.
Ayurveda, the ancient art of healing from India, would attribute this addiction to the fact that my physical constitution consists primarily of air and ether. Air and ether form a state of matter (known as a “dosha” in Sanskrit: the ancient Indian language of Yoga and Ayurveda) called vata. Vata dosha governs the principle of motion and change. From Ayurveda, we learn that “like attracts like,” and therefore it is no surprise, looking back, that I had such a strong desire for life to move quickly.
As I continue to delve deeper into my studies of the great vidyas (Sanskrit for “bodies of knowledge”) of Ayurveda, Yoga and Vedanta (a spiritual philosophy about the nature of the soul), the value of patience has become increasingly more important. The ultimate purpose of all three of the ancient spiritual sciences is “atma bodha.” “Atma” is Sanskrit for ‘soul.’ “Bodha” means ‘to know.’ “Atma bodha,” then, means ‘to know one’s own soul,’ to see and connect with that in everyone we meet.
To attain knowledge of the soul, the ancient rishis (sages) from India have provided a profound inner roadmap to realization of our deepest nature. This roadmap, which is said to have been revealed to Manu, a rishi known as the world’s first man, in deep meditation, is called Dharma. Dharma is one of the four goals of human life in the Indian spiritual tradition (with the other three being artha, or the acquisition of wealth, kama, the pursuit of pleasure and moksha, which is spiritual liberation). Similar to the ten commandments,Dharma is a list of ten qualities to be cultivated by sincere spiritual seekers. The first of these ten virtues is patience.
Because patience is not an inborn quality of mine, it is one I continue to learn and receive much from attempting to cultivate. I have had the wonderful fortune of working closely with many children as a teacher, ever since I was a child myself. And it is from children who I always learn the most about what it means to be patient. To be a teacher requires great patience, as the role of a teacher is really to plant seeds of knowledge, the fruits of which can only be reaped if the seeds are given enough water, a proper environment in which to grow, adequate sunlight and love. And while it is always beautiful to see the growth of another, being a teacher also means planting seeds without attachment to the fruit of growth, which ultimately happens in God’s time – and we may never even see. Teaching is like parenting, and patience itself is like a parent that calms and soothes the inner child in all of us. As the first quality of Dharma, patience is truly the parent of all other virtues, which can only developed in time.
Swami Vivekananda once described the essence of true spirituality as a realization, about being and becoming, not merely hearing or acknowledging. “Not an intellectual assent, but the transformation of one’s whole life.” In today’s modern, globalized world, we are all conditioned to “want it all and want it all NOW.” True transformation, however, takes time. Patience is deeply connected with its sister qualities of humility and faith, both of which make a spiritual journey even possible. To seek Truth, after all, we have to be able to accept that we don’t always have the right answers, while also trusting that we contain somewhere deep within ourselves all the wisdom we need to navigate our lives with ease and peace.
Ayurveda is, by one definition, called “the art of living.” One of my teachers once told me there is “a real art to waiting,” and I feel that the art of waiting is deeply connected with the art of living. Patience, to me, is connected with the deep inner knowing of intuition, the instinct within that can sense when something or someone in our lives just “feels right” or not. Visiting the Taj Mahal and meeting the ancestors of the artists who built this architectural masterpiece really brought the value and art patience to life for me. As we saw how much care and time and attention was put into each single, tiny piece of colored glass, that had to first be cut by hand, chiseled precisely to the right size, traced onto cement, which then had to be carved out to fit the piece of glass in just the right way. This process repeated at least 20 times just to complete one of the millions of flowers that comprise the interior and exterior walls and halls of the Taj Mahal, with each design being no bigger than the size of one’s palm. The Taj Mahal took 16 years of intensive, dedicated, patient labor like this to create, and now it serves as a great wonder of the world that inspires so many people. I bought a small elephant sculpture made by these artisans, with the same designs that are carved into the Taj as a reminder to myself of this lesson in the art of patience.
To be a patient, too, takes great patience. Contrary to the common quick fix solutions we are taught to seek out by our modern medical system, true healing takes time. Patience in Sanskrit is called dhriti. Dhriti also means to endure, or persevere. Ayurveda provides lasting health results on all levels, over longer periods of time than most western medications and without any side effects, since Ayurvedic medicines are made from all-natural sources. Ayurvedic medicines never have harsh chemicals, which often create the need for use of medications to help treat problems created by the original medications we were prescribed. This is because modern medicine treats symptoms, while Ayurveda, being based upon principles that have withstood the test of time and are rooted in the laws of physics, looks at and accordingly treats the root causes of disease and imbalance. Ayurveda gives patients who employ patience the opportunity to reclaim true health, by learning how to eat, sleep, work, play, exercise and live in a way that brings balance to one’s physiological constitution.
Implicit to both the theory and practice of Ayurveda is the universal law of karma. Our current state of health or imbalance is the effect of whatever we have put our bodies through until this point in time. In my case, 25 years of constant motion, activity, over-exercise, stress from overwork, imbalanced diet, irregular eating and sleeping habits, excess emotions and too much thinking added up to create my current state of vata imbalance. Though I’ve made many changes to my diet and lifestyle and am taking many herbal medicines to bring my body back into balance, I can’t expect to suddenly reverse the effects of my past 25 years of actions.
Ayurveda teaches how vata dosha is responsible for the majority of diseases. This is because motion and speed naturally lead to decay and destruction. Though western medicine has always informed me that I am in ‘excellent health,’ I have always felt a lot of previously inexplicable physical pain, particularly during menstrual cycles. I also used to suffer from many nightmares, headaches, anxiety, insomnia and noticed that all my joints started cracking over the past five or six years. All of these symptoms are signs that vata dosha has gotten to the point that, without intervention, it would have surely developed into osteoporosis and any number of other diseases before I even reach the tender age of 27. I no longer have nightmares, headaches, or insomnia and feel a lot less physical pain. And I feel profoundly grateful to the great science of Ayurveda for teaching me not only how to act, but also how to think and speak in such a way that does not create suffering for myself or others. The art of living is, indeed, intimately connected with the art of waiting. For teaching me the patience needed to be a patient, before I have even suffered from any diseases, as well as the knowledge of how to prevent developing future diseases and how to protect the true health that Ayurveda teaches is our birthright, I bow to this ancient art and science of life.
This is the first of a series of reflections on the ten qualities of Dharma – feel free to subscribe to the blog to stay posted on explorations of the next nine. Your insights are also most welcome, as I tend to write about what I myself am learning and thus look forward to what you can teach me and whoever else reads this.