Kshamā – Finding the Patience, Peace and Gratitude to Handle Anything
Sometimes life can throw us a curve-ball. Events occur in our lives that disrupt our established patterns. These can be unhappy events, but they don’t always have to be bad or traumatic to be unsettling. Sometimes great opportunities can turn up in our lives and these can be disruptive as well.
My husband went to law school and practised as a solicitor for ten years. He was Chairman of the Board of Governors of a new primary school whose founding principles included a rigor in a traditional academic curriculum, a rich cultural element which included singing Mozart and performing Shakespeare, and a deep commitment to philosophical enquiry and spiritual practice.
The school had only been in operation for a few years and it had an enrolment of thirty-five children. It was operating out of a small suburban house, the garage had been converted into one of its classrooms. The board and the headmistress at the time felt that if the school was to succeed it needed someone who would take it on and build it up into a well-established educational institution. My husband was involved in these discussions and several names were raised as candidates. Then, to my husband’s surprise, he was offered the position.
He and I discussed the offer and all the practical details and issues, including our own financial circumstances. And then together we decided that this was one of those hinge moments in life. We either had to take a courageous step into the dark or stay on an established and predictable path. He took the job. He and I and a superb team of teachers, office staff and parents, worked together wholeheartedly in the school for nearly thirty years, establishing it as one of the outstanding academic primary schools in Australia.
What can we take away from this story? When events come our way that upset the apple cart, a fruitful way of dealing with them is to take stock of where we are in our lives. We can examine the things we hold dear, the things we take for granted, things we have grown comfortable with, sometimes without even knowing it. This comfort zone is aptly named because when we are forced out of it the first feeling is one of discomfort. Change will do that; in fact, one of the hallmarks of genuine change is the feeling of uneasiness and discomposure.
Having taken stock, the next step is to find out what the men and women of wisdom have to say. What advice can we glean from the wisdom traditions. It is in challenging times that the guidance of the wise is especially valuable. By definition, the wise are insightful, knowledgeable and clued into the realities of life. That’s why we call them wise. And that is why it is intelligent to turn to them for answers.
As an aside, it is curious that even those of us who have dedicated significant time and effort to study the words of the wise and put their teachings into practice, seek out their wisdom only when we have space, time and leisure. But we often fail to do so when the need is urgent, the situation pressing, and the time short. In fact, one of the reasons that I recommend that you engage in spiritual and meditative practices when you have the time and space to do so, is so they will come to your mind when the pressure is on.
The reason we consult the wise is to discover what approach they would recommend when life throws up a challenge that jolts us out of our comfort zone. When, say, a lawyer with his own established practice is asked to take on the responsibility for a new primary school.
What do the wise have to say that can be helpful in times of change and challenge? What virtues and values can we turn to and cultivate to help us? There are many such virtues that are extolled in the wisdom of Sanskrit: abhayam (अभयम्) fearlessness; balam (बलम्) strength; buddhi (बुद्धि) reason, kshamā (क्षमा) patience and forbearance.
All of these – fearlessness, strength, reason, patience - would be of great help when the pressure is on. They certainly were to my husband and me.
But when I reflected on these words of wisdom it was kshamā – patience and forbearance – that ‘spoke’ to me, and that I felt would be the most useful to explore. After all, what could be more helpful when life takes a sudden turn than patience and forbearance?
In its ordinary meaning, kshamā simply means ‘patience’ - the ability to wait upon events without judgment or criticism, without demanding that the universe serve up a different reality to us. This requires an inner steadiness, an ability to find rest, satisfaction and fullness within ourselves, a certain consciously developed confidence.
This beautiful word - kshamā - is full of deep, practical wisdom. It is derived from a root form which relates to remaining calm and composed. It carries the sense of allowing events to take place, of not resisting the reality of the moment. After all Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is; Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, said “When you argue with reality you lose, but only 100% of the time.”
The root form of kshamā also means fortitude, the strength to bear any burden.
There is a Zen story which illustrates both aspects of kshamā – patience and fortitude.
Hakuin, a Zen master much respected for his teaching, was falsely accused by one of the village girls of being the father of her child. All the villagers now reviled him and his reputation plummeted. When this accusation was levelled at him his only response was to say: “Is that so?”
After the child was born it was left on his doorstep and Hakuin again said: “Is that so?” and took the baby in. He made sure it was fed and well-cared for.
After a while the young mother could no longer bear the situation and she confessed that the real father was one of the young men of the village. When all the villagers converged on Hakuin’s hut to apologise, and the baby was returned to his actual parents, all Hakuin said was: “Is that so?”
We may not have the same response as Hakuin, but that is not the point of the story. What Hakuin demonstrated was the patience which involves not fighting reality.
Following Hakuin’s example may seem at first to be hard. We may think that we are being asked to be passive and docile in the face of life’s ups and downs. This is not so. The approach is a practical way of stripping away our negative hasty reactions to events, to allow more considered and effective action to take place. And it is easier than we may think.
One simple way to discover the beauty and power of kshamā for ourselves, is to change our story about the events that come our way. We go from judgment, criticism and requirement to gratitude and acceptance and calm. Again, this acceptance is not a passive inert condition, but a starting point from which we can see the situation clearly. In this way we have the space and time to apply our natural intelligence and reason, and to respond in a full-hearted, effective and fruitful way.
This feeling of gratitude and acceptance can be cultivated and practised. We can start by realising the universe is a great giver of gifts, and that anything presented to us is for our benefit. The offer to head up a new and growing school was an incredible opportunity for my husband and me, and we knew it at the time, although we had no idea where it would lead and what challenges we would face along the way. We were under no illusions that it would always be plain sailing, but we grasped the opportunity gratefully.
Sometimes, if a situation is especially challenging, cultivating the feeling of gratitude requires effort. Affirmations can be helpful here. They give the mind strength, focus and discipline. A few examples of helpful affirmations are: I can meet whatever life presents with courage and gratitude; I deal with challenges happily and easily; I am never presented with anything I can’t handle.
Some of these affirmations may sound unrealistic or naïve. Try them anyway, give them some emotional backing. What have you got to lose? And, you never know, something in your heart may be listening.
Another simple technique is to ask questions that focus your energies on the positive aspect of the situation. Perhaps you might ask yourself: What can I learn from this situation? What is here that will make me stronger, that will help me grow? What inner resources do I possess, what courage, what strength, what intelligence, that will help me meet this face on? Courageous questions such as these can give us space and strength and, yes, patience and fortitude, to meet life and turn whatever it presents to good effect.
So, let’s work together to meet the challenges life throws at us - the fear, insecurity, distress, and grief - head on, by cultivating kshamā. Let’s feed those positive feelings of gratitude, patience and fortitude. This will leave us free of some of our own burdens, so we can be ready and willing to face what life presents, and also to give our love, our compassion and our support to the many friends, family and even strangers who are also in need of some strength and comfort.