When we are forced to wait, say in a traffic jam, our instinct is to do something to distract ourselves from the discomfort of waiting. We turn on the radio, call or text someone on the phone, or just sit and fume. Practicing mindfulness while waiting helps people find many small moments in the day when they can bring the thread of awareness up from where is lies hiding in the complex fabric of their lives. Waiting, a common event that usually produces negative emotions, can be transformed into a gift, the gift of free time to practice. The mind benefits doubly: first, by abandoning negative mindstates, and second, by gaining the beneficial effects of even a few extra minutes of practice woven into the day.

As you undertake this practice, you learn to recognize early the body changes that accompany impending negative thoughts and emotions such as impatience about having to wait, or anger about “that idiot” ahead of us in the checkout line. Each time we are able to stop and not allow a negative mind-state to come to fruition (say, getting irritated at the traffic or angry at the slow cashier), we are erasing a habitual and unwholesome pattern of the heart/mind. If we don’t let the cart of the mind keep running down the same deep ruts, down the same old hill, into the same old swamp, eventually the ruts will fill in. Eventually our habitual states of irritation and frustration over something like waiting will dissolve. It takes time, but it works. And it’s worth it, as everyone around us will benefit.

Many of us have a mind that measures self-worth in terms of productivity. If I did not produce anything today, if I did not write a book, give a speech, bake bread, earn money, sell something, buy something, get a good grade on a test, or find my soul mate, then my day was wasted and I am a failure. We give ourselves no credit for taking “being” time, for just being present. “Waiting” is thus a source of frustration. Think of the things I could be getting done!

And yet, if you asked the people you care about what they would like most from you, their answer is likely to be some version of “your presence” or “your loving attention.” Presence has no measurable product except positive feelings, feelings of support, intimacy, and happiness. When we stop being busy and productive and switch to just being still and aware, we ourselves will also feel support, intimacy, and happiness, even if no one else is around. These positive feelings are a product that is much desired but that cannot be bought. They are the natural result of presence. They are a birthright that we have forgotten we have.

From How to Train a Wild Elephant by Jan Chozen Bays © 2011. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications.

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