There is an old Chinese story about a new farmer. The farmer has just planted his first field of crops, and was very excited. Day after day, he would go out to the field, and see… dirt. Where were the crops? As one day passed into another, he grew more and more impatient. Finally, one day, he came in from the field covered in soil, his fingers muddy, with tiny shoots covering his clothing. When he was asked what had happened, this farmer replied: “My crops were taking too long, so I was helping them grow.”
One important value in spiritual life is patience. For me, it is probably the hardest value to master. In our modern times, it is a cliché that we want everything NOW. We have the greatest power in this day and age than in any time before. From washers and driers, to dishwashers, to cars, to computers, we have the ability to get what we want fairly quickly. It is no surprise that this attitude finds its way into spiritual practice.
The ancient sages have told us that we have been living our lives incorrectly. For many years. Perhaps for many lifetimes. Eons. We have formed habits of thinking and acting that have cut us off from our true natures. What we need to do is to cut through these habits, dissolve these blocks, be free of our past actions. So what we do is plant these seeds in our spiritual practice. But these seeds need time to grow. They need to be tended to. They need to be nurtured and cared for. So we practice. Perhaps we dedicate time to meditate, to practice yoga or chi kung, to be mindfully aware. We read spiritual books, have talks with spiritual friends. Over time, these seeds will develop and sprout of their own accord.
The human body takes time to grow and develop. Kids don’t grow taller faster by hanging weights from their ankles. Flowers need time to blossom. You cannot cook a cake by doubling the heat and cutting the time in half. We need patience.
The Bhagavad Gita says: No effort on this path is ever wasted.
So why is it so hard to be patient?
I remember the first time I met real spiritual teachers. At the time, my body and mind were on fire. I smoked. I drank. I cursed and swore. I was on an emotional cycle of high highs and depressive lows. My body was full of tension and aches. I felt desperate, as desperate as I would have felt had I just spend a week in the desert with nothing to drink. I wanted it all to stop, right NOW.
I was told at the first meeting: You can’t skip steps. This was so disappointing to me. After years of soul searching, I was ready for spiritual practice. I was eager to dedicate the necessary month or two, a year perhaps, to master the teaching!
Of course, it didn’t work like that. Patience is hard because it requires us to face the fact that we are absolutely powerless. At a certain point, there is nothing we can do. The universe operates according to its own laws, not on ours. Things manifest in cosmic time, not according to our personal schedule. The ego with its thoughts about how things should be is frustrated when it meets the way things actually are.
It is said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in something. That requires a lot of dedication, a lot of time, a lot of patience. We tend to understand this in the material world. It takes a long time to become a doctor or lawyer, to grow a business or raise a child. Yet, suddenly, we think the spiritual world should be an exception.
Like the Taoists before us, let’s look to nature to see what happens when things grow too quickly. In the body, this is known as cancer. In the environment, a plant or animal that reproduces too quickly upsets the whole system. Rapid growth is often a mutation, a deviation, an unnatural occurrence. If you come from dark into light too quickly, you can go blind. If you go from the hot to cold too quickly, your heart can literally stop. The same goes for the spiritual world. Most of the spiritual horror stories I have heard almost ALWAYS begins with someone trying to get ahead quickly.
Sudden rapid growth can burn out the system, producing illness, depression, insanity, or other dark things.
One of my initial teachers, sensing my impatience, did give me one thing to accelerate my progress. “If you want to speed up your development, pay more attention more often.”
Beyond this, sometimes we just have to wait for the seeds to sprout on their own.