The Dharma of Western Literature

In this series on The Dharma of Western Literature, we consider six classic works through the lens of the six paramitas, or sublime virtues: generosity, ethical conduct, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom. Next up is patience, or kshanti


When you studied Macbeth in English class—or skimmed the CliffsNotes and hoped for the best—you probably learned the standard interpretation: Macbeth’s fatal flaw is ambition. Ambition, we are told, is the great error that fuels his ruthless drive to become king of Scotland, leading ultimately to his downfall and all that messy bloodshed. But after decades of teaching the play and practicing dharma, I beg to differ. This is a play about impatience. You’ve probably heard of the marshmallow test, the famous Stanford study of delayed gratification in which a child would be left alone in a room with a single marshmallow and be told that, if they could resist eating it till the researcher returned, they’d get two marshmallows. Macbeth flunks the marshmallow test, but his failure helps point us toward liberation.

The play opens with the three witches, who are actually called the Weyard Sisters. Weyard is an Anglo-Saxon word for fate; like the three Fates of Greek myth, they’re embodiments of destiny. They greet our hapless hero with the words “All hail, Macbeth, who shalt be king hereafter.” The crown is his destiny; that’s not a problem. His problem is with that vague word “hereafter.” Being king is in the cards, but he doesn’t want to wait for the hand to play out. Once he hears the witches’ prophecy, it takes him about three minutes to start thinking about whacking whoever stands in his way. Top of the list is Duncan, the current king. Macbeth briefly tries to resist the idea his imagination suggests to him—to assassinate Duncan—but soon finds himself caught up in it.

… Why do I yield to that suggestion,
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature?

Here Shakespeare is clearly showing us physiological symptoms of an arousal state—heart pounding, hair standing on end—in which we’re ready to rush past the sober counsel of our better judgment and better nature.

Last year, six centuries after Shakespeare and a little to the south of Scotland, we saw the counterexample of delayed gratification at its regal extreme: Prince Charles Mountbatten-Windsor’s elevation to the British throne after a 73-year wait. The world seemed to quietly tell him what so many customer service reps have told me after I’ve spent forty minutes on the phone, listening to some robot’s notion of soothing music: “Thank you for your patience.” I’m always tempted to answer, “How do you know I’ve been patient? Maybe I’ve been punching the wall in frustration.”

There’s a difference between patience and waiting. Sometimes we, like Charles III, have no choice but to wait: that’s situational. We might even drum our fingers on the desk and snarl between clenched teeth, “I’m being patient.” But that’s impatience. True patience is kshanti paramita, “sublime forbearance,” the third of the six sublime virtues that help bring about enlightenment. Like all the Buddhist virtues, it’s really a meditative exercise to be practiced in everyday life—not a strategy for earning brownie points in some alleged hereafter, but skillful means for lifting ourselves and others out of suffering here and now. 

We can apply it, for example, when we’re stuck in city traffic. The unskillful approach is to tighten our grip on the steering wheel, strain forward against the seatbelt, and try to magically will ourselves into the next block. We keep doing that, not only behind the wheel but in all of life’s traffic jams—professional, romantic, you name it—even though (surprise!) it keeps not working. The skillful approach, kshanti paramita, is to breathe out, relax your grip, sink back in the seat, and know for sure that you’re going to be in this block till the traffic moves; that the traffic is perfectly immune to your magical thinking, as always. 

That’s liberating. Contained within the word kshanti is shanti, peace, and bone-deep acceptance of present reality leads to bone-deep peace. We still get to our destination when we get there. Our only choice is whether we get there with a settled buddha-mind or a mind like Macbeth’s, “full of scorpions.” I first learned about this sanity-preserving wisdom from a lama who used it to endure torture at the hands of the Chinese Communists. I’ve shared it with prisoners facing thirty-year sentences, who found that it helped them stop banging their heads against the bars—in some cases, literally. 

There is one character in Macbeth who understands this: Macbeth’s war buddy Banquo, who is with him when he meets the witches. Unlike Macbeth, Banquo takes their prophecies in stride. His is a relaxed, big–picture view:

If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grains will grow and which will not,
Speak, then, to me, who neither begs nor fears
Your favors nor your hate.

This is just the right attitude; not caught up in craving a rosy outcome or in dreading a dire one; just being, without hope or fear. Banquo respects the natural ripening of events, like the sprouting of seeds in their own good time. When the witches tell him he won’t be king but his children will, he’s OK with it. He’s a Type B, in for the long game. The notion of Type A and B personalities was first conceived by the cardiologist Meyer Friedman when his upholsterer remarked that the chairs in Friedman’s waiting room—used, naturally, by lots of impatient hypertension patients—were the only ones he’d ever seen that had worn out first on the front edge instead of the back. We can imagine Macbeth in that waiting room, on the edge of his seat.

The paradox of impatience is that, in trying to hurry toward enjoyment, we hurry past it.

Whether or not we live on the edge of our seat is up to us. The first step out of such unskillful behavior is simply awareness—noticing that we’re doing it. Sometimes it’s easier to see these patterns in others and ask ourselves, “Hmmm. How’s that working out for them? Does their pushing against the moment help matters? Or does it just create stress?” Then we can look in the mirror and ask the same question about ourselves. If we’re worried that relaxing our grip on Type A impatience is going to make us lazy, we can remember that the next virtue on the list is virya paramita, diligence. When we stop wasting energy champing at the bit, we actually become more effective at diligently taking care of business. Macbeth drives his kingdom into chaos and his wife into suicide, then gets his head chopped off. How effective was he?

If it seems too hard to practice kshanti paramita with regard to the big things, we can start with small ones. A practice that I’ve found useful is, when I’m eating, to put my fork or spoon down after each bite. Then, instead of hovering vulture-like over the next mouthful, I’m sitting back and enjoying this one, the present one. All experience, all reality (as we keep having to learn) is in the present. That makes it the only place where we can enjoy things. The paradox of impatience is that, in trying to hurry toward enjoyment, we hurry past it. The paradox of kshanti paramita is that by being OK with delayed gratification we find gratification here, now. Relaxing into the richness of just being, in this moment as it is, turns out to be completely gratifying. Virtue, it turns out, really is its own reward. 

And if in the process we also wind up getting a marshmallow, or two marshmallows—well, fine.       

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