Mindfulness practice is more than just a technique for bringing a wandering or inattentive mind back to the present. Practicing mindfulness is an art; it involves cultivating certain ways of being, or attitudes, that offer different ways of returning to the present moment. One of these attitudes is patience.

When you observe your mind closely as you go about daily life, you might notice that it is impatient much of the time. It doesn’t want to be in traffic or waiting in line at the grocery store. It isn’t satisfied with the current conditions and is trying to figure out how to get to the next better moment. Meanwhile you are missing this moment. Mindfulness means paying attention to things as they actually are, from moment-to-moment, even if the here and now isn’t particularly pleasant.

So how do we cultivate patience and stop reaching for a better moment? The desire for things be different from how they are is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. So cultivating patience means developing the capacity to tolerate the discomfort that arises when things aren’t as we’d like them to be. The good news is that, thanks to neuroplasticity, the capacity to tolerate discomfort can be developed with repeated practice.

Practicing patience involves checking in with the internal landscape of the mind and body in three ways:

  1. Seeing thoughts clearly: Impatience launches our minds into problem-solving mode, trying to blame someone or something for the unsatisfactory state of affairs. We can get into a narrative about ourselves and others (“I always choose the slowest line”, “That cashier is so slow!”) or about the future (“No matter what I do, nothing will change”). We cultivate patience by noticing that our thoughts are simply mental events that come and go, and that many of them are inaccurate or unhelpful. By taking a step back and seeing our thoughts more clearly, we get unhooked for their stories about how this moment is not worth living.
  2. Coming to our senses with kindness: Once we let go of the “propaganda” of the mind, attention becomes available to check in with the body. What are we feeling and sensing right now? With an attitude of kindness, we notice whatever emotions and sensations show up, without needing to get rid of unpleasant feelings or chase pleasant ones. Our non-reactive awareness lets us simply watch the ever-changing and fluctuating field of sensations, observing their pleasantness (e.g., joy, contentment) and unpleasantness (e.g., frustration, tension, anger) without judgment.
  3. Broadening attention with curiosity: Watching thoughts and feelings come and go with non-reactive awareness, we can begin broadening attention to notice what else is going on in the present moment, with an attitude of curiosity and discovery. Maybe we notice new things in the environment, like the sensations of breathing, or pleasant sounds, smells, or sights around us. Maybe we connect with the people around us. We are no longer as fixated on getting to another moment. By paying attention to the bigger picture and maybe even appreciating things we hadn’t noticed before, suddenly we are no longer waiting for a better moment. We have arrived!

Cultivating patience can be restorative, and can be profoundly healing when practiced regularly. Importantly, it allows us to see what is happening in the present moment more clearly, so that rather than reacting automatically in potentially unhelpful ways, we can rest in a wiser space and take effective action to change what is in our control.

So next time you find yourself impatiently waiting in traffic or in line at the grocery store, see what happens when you get curious about your moment-to-moment experience rather than waiting for a better moment.