We all know that the Buddha was a noble warrior, so it’s no surprise that there are similes in his teachings where he compares meditators to soldiers, elephants in battle, or warhorses.

What we don’t usually appreciate is that the Buddha was also part of a farming culture. The Majjhima Nikaya talks about his father plowing one day when the Buddha was a young boy. There’s also a passage in which his cousins talk about the drawbacks of lay life, wherein many have to do with farming: you bring in the crops, plant them, cultivate them again, and bring them in once more. There’s no end to it.

It’s good to think about what it would do to a person’s mind, living with crops, and being a farmer. One of the things that you learn as a farmer is patience. You do what you can to get the crops to grow, but they grow on their own. You can help them along to some extent, if you are consistent in your support, but you still have to be very patient about the results. If you plant a rice grain and then, when the shoot comes up, you pull it up to make it taller, it’s going to die.

There’s a similar principle in cooking. Some things must be put in the oven at a very low temperature. If you turn up the heat to make them cook more quickly, they will burn.

In our culture, which tends to be very impatient, we have to learn patience. And there’s no quick solution; learning patience itself requires patience. When you meditate, for instance, you have to keep coming back to the breath, learning how to talk to yourself as you’re doing this. You’re trying to quiet the mind, and it won’t get still. You give yourself encouragement. You focus on the causes of a quiet mind, you keep coming back to them, and after a while they will begin to have an influence on the mind.

We can’t tell beforehand who’s going to be fast or who’s going to be slow in making progress on the path. As the Thai Forest Tradition meditation teacher Ajaan Lee says, some people are like banana trees. You cut the trees, and they grow a couple of inches within a couple of hours. Other trees are much slower. You watch them day after day, and they don’t seem to be growing at all. So whether you’re going to be a fast tree or a slow tree, you can make sure that you’re a healthy tree. You try to keep encouraging yourself.

Learning patience itself requires patience.

This encouragement has to do with dealing with both the unskillful qualities that you see in yourself as well as the skillful qualities that you wish to develop. With the unskillful qualities, you have to remember that you don’t just sit there and accept them. You accept the fact that they’re there, you don’t deny it, but that’s not the total solution to the problem.

There’s so much modern dhamma where practitioners are told to just learn how to accept things. Accept everything and it’ll be okay. But the Buddha said you don’t accept the fact that you’ve created aversion and delusion in the mind and that they’re going to stay there. You accept the fact that they’re there, but you want to do something about them.

This is going to take time because the roots are deep. They’re old habits. You’ve been letting them run your lives for how many lifetimes, you don’t know.

This is where the Buddha says to take delight in abandoning and delight in developing. That means that with each little step in the right direction, you learn to encourage yourself. Appreciate it. Each step in the wrong direction, you tell yourself, “This is just a temporary setback.” You have to tune your emotions.

I know a therapist who works in a school for kids with challenges. She asks the students to rate on a scale of one to ten different negative things that can happen in their lives. For most of them, everything is a ten. Your brother gets stabbed: ten. You’ve got a date and you can’t figure out which dress to wear: ten. That attitude turns everything into a crisis. You have to realize that some things are minor, some things are major. Your ability to make things minor—in other words, to see a setback as not such a big deal—is an important mental skill.

Patience is a skill in learning how to talk to yourself, learning how to give yourself encouragement, to remind yourself that what you’re experiencing right now is a combination of past habits and present habits, present actions. The past habits may be very strong, but they’re not consistently strong. And because they’re past karma, they’re going to wear out someday. But you can speed up the process a bit by being as skillful as you can in your breathing, in how you talk to yourself, and the perceptions you hold in mind: those three fabrications.

Keeping the image of farming in mind, of plants growing, is one useful perception to help with the process and relax the mind into a more patient observer. As for times when skillful qualities might even get in the way, a lot of that problem is impatience. As my teacher, the Thai Buddhist monk Ajaan Fuang, used to say, there are two types of people who come to meditation: those who don’t think enough and those who think too much. Those who don’t think enough don’t have much trouble getting the mind to settle down. But once they settle down, they don’t know what to do with it and they like to stay right there. Those who think too much like to think, and are proud of their thinking, or are entertained by their thinking. Those are the ones who have to learn how to be quiet and let the mind grow at its own pace.

With each little step in the right direction, you learn to encourage yourself. Appreciate it. Each step in the wrong direction, you tell yourself, “This is just a temporary setback.”

Again, it’s like a tree or a plant that you’ve planted in a field. You tend to it, but the plant’s going to do the growing. If you want to get everything well figured out ahead of time, what you get is what Ajaan Lee calls vipassana-sanna: ideas about the insight but not the genuine thing.

As the Buddha said, if you’re good at insight but weak in tranquility, you’ve got to work on the tranquility. Figure out how to get the mind to settle down, how to get it to enjoy staying here.

Part of that has to do with talking to yourself about it. The other part has to do with learning how to talk to your impatience. We’re so used to living with computers that move their ones and zeros around at incredible speed. But the mind isn’t composed of ones and zeros. It’s organic. Again, think of the tree, especially a large tree. It has many different branches to grow. They have to nourish many fruits. So it’s going to take time.

Here again, learn how to talk to yourself. Remind yourself that there are a lot of things you can’t figure out ahead of time, so you’re going to learn as you feel your way. As you get a better intuitive sense of what’s going on, then you can know where to push, where not to push.

The farmer knows not to pull the plant up out of the ground, but the farmer also knows when to water, when to add fertilizer, when to weed, when to be quick in harvesting, and when to wait. Even though the work may be repetitive, have confidence that the results are going to be good. Remind yourself, if you don’t train your mind—and part of training the mind is getting it to be still—it’s just going to go back to its old habits. You’re going to learn something new, to create something new, grow something new.

Learn how to be patient when you need to be patient, and the patience here goes together with persistence. We know the Buddha said to be heedful, to act “as if your head were on fire.” Learn to translate that into a consistent persistence. Don’t bash your head trying to put out the fire.

This article was adapted from a talk given on January 24, 2024, and originally appeared on dhammatalks.org.

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