Have you ever wondered why the word patient is both a noun and an adjective? The dictionary defines patient as:
- a person who is under medical care or treatment.
- bearing provocation, annoyance, misfortune, delay, hardship, pain, etc., with fortitude and calm and without complaint, anger, or the like. (1)
The word patient stems from the Latin word patientum, which means: “bearing, supporting, suffering, enduring, permitting.” (2)
Patient is closely related to the word patience, which is defined in the modern dictionary as:
- the quality of being patient, as the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like.
- an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay.
- quiet, steady perseverance; even-tempered care; diligence. (3)
The word patience comes from the Latin patientia, which means: ”patience, endurance, submission,” also “indulgence, leniency; humility; submissiveness; submission to lust;” literally “quality of suffering.” (4)
It is not coincidence that the word patient refers both to a person undergoing medical care and to the quality of “bearing hardship with fortitude and calm.” For anyone with a health concern it can be incredibly difficult to have patience, yet this quality of bearing, enduring, and permitting is so important! If you are using your energy to fight against your condition, becoming upset, irritable, or frustrated, then you have that much less vitality to devote to healing yourself. Bearing calmly with your situation creates the necessary space to affect a transformation of your condition.
In my own healing journey, I have been confronted with the requirement of patience on many occasions. I have always decided against using medication to try and take away my symptoms, choosing to look for the deeper roots and address them in a transformative way. This has, as you might guess, led to some very uncomfortable times, such as when I needed to get up in the middle of the night every night (for two months) and take a bath to soothe my inflamed skin. I resisted using steroids to make the inflammation go away, because I knew it would only suppress the issue and I would most likely have to deal with it again in the future. Despite all the help I was receiving from multiple practitioners, it still took time to resolve. These types of experiences emphasized the importance of having patience with myself and my body.
In Chinese Medicine one way to define health is to have smooth and unhindered movement of Qi. This movement requires enough Qi to move past and through any obstacles that arise to block the flow. Anytime you fight against something happening in your body it is like throwing a big rock into the river of Qi, creating a type of blockage. If there is enough water, or the rock is small, the river continues to flow smoothly; if the rock starts to stick up out of the water, it may begin to obstruct the flow. Having patience is like removing all the rocks and allowing the river to flow more easily. Sometimes the rocks are buried in the bed of the river, and can’t be taken out. Then you do what you can, and allow the water to wear away the rock slowly, without throwing in more stones out of frustration.
Acceptance is an important aspect of having patience. It is critical to make the distinction between acceptance, resignation, and complacency. Complacency is different from acceptance because being complacent connotes a lack of awareness and attention to the situation. Complacency could also be actively denying what’s going on and insisting everything is ok. Acceptance requires full awareness and understanding of what’s happening (to a degree that’s possible, of course). Resignation is also different from acceptance, because resignation goes along with feeling powerless and unhappy, stuck in something which you wished was different.
Acceptance means fully embracing the present moment and stopping the fight against what ‘is’. If you are in pain, then acceptance is embracing the experience of pain in this moment, with the understanding that this moment, what is happening “right now,” cannot be changed. Change will happen in the next moment, but not “now.” This doesn’t mean you don’t try and change, that you just suffer in pain forever. Movement forward is continuous, and every moment brings something new: an opportunity to shift your experience. The paradox is that with full acceptance it becomes infinitely easier to work towards future change. Working towards change can be separated from fighting against the present. And once acceptance frees up that energy hope and enthusiasm will come naturally.
Note the link between being a patient, having patience, and the experience of suffering. Of course, as a patient, you are suffering. Otherwise, why seek medical treatment? However, the qualities of patience provide a way to bear the burden of suffering. Patience requires an acceptance of this suffering, calmly enduring and submitting to the experience. This goes against our instincts, which are to fight, kicking and screaming, against that which we don’t like. The difficulty is that healing requires a different perspective, a transformation from the old pattern of disease to a new pattern of vitality. Developing patience is almost always a part of this process.
If you are suffering now from any health problem, whether acute or chronic, physical or emotional, mild or severe, remember that your body is working hard to help and heal you. Spending energy on impatience will only prolong the duration of your suffering. One must work on patience, just as being a patient requires work. You might say that the work of a patient is learning patience. If you could go to a doctor and in one visit all your health problems were cured, then patience wouldn’t be necessary. But it’s not usually like that. The road to health is one step at a time, and we need to be patient patients.
The Work of Patience
For me, the nitty-gritty of building my patience muscles comes down to the practice of acceptance. This is the acceptance of moment-by-moment experience, especially as I feel in my body. It’s difficult to simply sit with uncomfortable body sensations, but it’s even harder to sit with and fully accept thoughts and emotions. Every thought and emotion is represented in the body by something that you can tangibly feel, so start there. Impatience can feel like a tightening of the muscles, or a vibration in the chest, or a heat in the abdomen. Sadness can feel like a heavy sensation, maybe in the chest, maybe the head, maybe the legs. One sensation that is guaranteed is breathing. The movement of breathing is always there, and easy to recognize. Pay attention to your breathing, or these sensations, and practice allowing them to exist without fighting against the discomfort.
It is useful to spend some time with a practice like this every day. Don’t do anything else during this time, as doing something else will distract you from paying attention to yourself. I often recommend five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening of focused self-attention. Right as you wake up and just before bed are good times when hopefully you are already relatively quiet in body and mind. This will also help you sleep better, helping your body recover and heal. And remember, be gentle with yourself.