By Punya Srivatsava
Forbearance is the only virtue which can return sanity to the highly reactive, rage-infested world of today, says Punya Srivastava
India is the land of forbearance, or titiksha. This land has birthed men and women who bore physical, mental and emotional pain with unflinching faith, and without a murmur.
Adi Shankaracharya extolled forbearance in his vivekachudamani as one of the six necessary virtues required in a spiritual seeker. He defines it as “The bearing of all difficulties, miseries, and problems, without caring to redress them or worrying or lamenting on their account.” Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela – all these avatars, realized souls and great men, validated the significance of forbearance through their own lives. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa said, “The quality of forbearance is of the highest importance to every man. He alone is not destroyed who possesses this quality.”
All the spiritual texts, scriptures and doctrines consider forbearance as the pre-requisite for spiritual evolution. Swami Yuktamananda, Minister and Spiritual Leader of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre of New York, says, “Not impulsive reaction but only forbearance will help us lead a saner and meaningful life. Every impulsive reaction results in loss of mental energy, which in turn, affects our physical health. Forbearance helps us gain a true perspective of ourselves, purifies our mind, strengthens our will, and paves the way for a fruitful spiritual struggle.”
But the question is how to practice forbearance in this rage-infested world?
Practicality of forbearance
The quality of forbearance has always been an enigma to me. Friends and family members inherently blessed with this virtue awe me and hold a high place in my heart. Yet, I couldn’t relate with this quality. It was as though they were of a different species, too sacred or godly to be among average humans like me. Moreover, by virtue of being a Libran, I seek balance in everything, and have quite a strong sense of justice, and fairness. I value practicality, and forbearance always came across to me as misplaced sentimentality. I found it too extreme a quality to appreciate.
However, in the course of writing this article, the Universe, with its highly amusing sense of humour, decided to give me a demo and pushed me into a situation where I witnessed forbearance being practised upfront.
Though an observer, I was placed too close to the situation for my own comfort. I was unsuccessfully trying to exhort one of my dearest friends to not accept injustice from another friend. I pleaded, cajoled, even shouted at her to stop seeing good in someone who did not have it in the first place. However, she valiantly struggled out of my ‘concern’, telling me amidst tears that it was not the other person’s lack of empathy but my constant struggle to get her justice which was hurting her. She had already moved on from the previous hurt. “It is better to appreciate the good in this person and her actions, instead of moping about feeling wronged or taken for granted. By being tolerant, and forgiving her I can maintain my inner peace. I am not justifying her wrongdoing, merely accepting it as a manifestation of the difficulties she is undergoing,” she said with finality. I was astounded by the compassion in her heart.
“Forbearance is a natural expression of true compassion,” says Geshe Thupten Jinpa Langri, former English translator of HH Dalai Lama, and the author of A Fearless Heart: Why compassion is the key to greater well-being. “It is defined as a stance that involves choosing not to respond to the other’s harm or injustice, with anger and vengefulness. It is an active stance, not a passive response to the situation. Forbearance also includes responding to situations of pain, disappointment, and failure with understanding and composure.”
Forbearance and its various folds
The three pillars of tolerance, patience and forgiveness constitute forbearance. When one becomes mindful in a difficult situation, one tends to choose to be peaceful and happy, instead of being right. This is when forbearance comes into practice. Shantideva, the most renowned eighth-century Indian Buddhist monk of Mahayana Buddhism, defined forbearance or Soe-pa (in Tibetan), in his treatise Bodhicaryavatara (Bodhisattva’s Way of Life), as:
Forbearance is best cultivated under adverse circumstances, and therefore it is better to welcome hardships instead of regarding them as problems. When the soul chooses to take birth as a human, it has on the soul level, chosen to subject itself to adversities of the flesh already. When one acknowledges this fact it becomes easier to accept body-related issues. Towards the end of his life, when one day Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa was lying in bed, suffering from throat cancer, someone asked him to pray to the Divine Mother to cure him. The master expressed his inability saying that the mind that had been given to God could not be made to dwell on the body.
Similarly, Shantideva says that when a person learns to separate the anger from the angry person, he is able to drop all rancour against the person. Instead one feels compassionate towards others’ pain and gets the strength to forgive abusers.
Difference between forbearance and passivity
However, there is a risk of confusing passivity with forbearance, especially in a relationship. There is nothing about forbearance, and even compassion, that precludes being firm. What is required is that we do not give in to the impulse of anger, resentment, and vengeance. Says Thupten Jinpa, “With forbearance you can firmly explain to your partner that what he or she did was unskilful and not constructive at all. Ideally, this kind of clarification should be done once the temperature has cooled down so that the other side does not take an immediately defensive stance. Generally, in close relationships where both the sides truly care for each other, there is a lot more room for people to bring their best through patience and understanding.”
What is also important is to recognise that bad behaviour is not in the best interest of the other. If our focus is on the other’s good rather than on our own injured feelings, what we say and how we say it will change substantially; and the energy of these words will impact the other positively.
“Forbearance and nonviolence are manifestations of inner strength. Inactivity resulting from incapacity cannot pass
for forbearance. Passivity is not restraint. If we are strong enough to react, but refrain from reacting, we practice true forbearance,” says Swami Yuktatmananda.
Forbearance in relationships
Forbearance is not the capacity to forgive the offender when he or she repents. Forbearance is the capacity to forgive without expecting any apology or repentance. You do it out of your own goodness, because it is the right thing to do. Often, I would scoff at my mother’s easy acceptance of people who were openly hostile to her. I would argue that she was being naïve, even stupid, for being tolerant of people who were taking her for granted. She would forgive people even before they had realised their mistakes. Once, I launched a tirade against a close relative who had the temerity to hint in my mother’s presence that she was tending to my bed-ridden grandmother out of an ulterior motive. This pinched her for a while, but she quickly overcame the hurt. When I asked her what made her forgive people so easily, she simply said, “Because that is the right thing to do.” I was rendered speechless.
This is when I realised the importance of not giving in to automatic reactivity, which often worsens the situation “If either of the two parties – especially in intimate relationships where emotional investments are high – are able to bring more forbearance into their interaction, they have an excellent chance of ensuring that difficult exchanges do not spiral into an exchange of reactivity. When reactivity dominates the tone of interaction, people become immediately defensive, and in such states, we tend to say hurtful things that leave lasting impressions,” says Thupten Jinpa. So forbearance helps us retain our sense of proportion, and deal with even difficult situations with calmness.
My younger sister, all of 22, shows tremendous tolerance in the face of unprovoked inflictions just like my mother. Being the youngest in the family, and somewhat of a nonconformist, she is often subjected to needless barbs, mockery and bursts of anger from elders. “I think it is better to work on myself and my life instead of reacting or moping about all the wrongs done to me. God has made me for a purpose. I would rather shape my soul to reach that purpose than waste my time in being petty and lose my peace of mind in the process. Egotistical tugs of wars hold little significance in my life now for I have better things to do. If this means walking on the path alone, then so be it. I forgive and forget,” she told me once nonchalantly.
Perhaps, the first step towards practising forbearance on a daily basis is by focussing on ourselves and our situations than on other people. Be mindful of every hassle, be it slow moving traffic or a long queue, so that these small, everyday things do not unhinge us. Explains Jinpa, “You can then start practising it in relation to persons. First practise it with people with whom you do not have strong emotional attachment. You can then bring the practice into your family and your spouse. In the case of family and spouse, because you have to interact on a daily basis, and extensively, and because our identities and emotions are closely tied with theirs, it is often the most challenging area of our life where we ought not to become reactive.”
“When I or my loved ones go through difficult situations, I undergo a lot of unhappiness, anger, fear, hatred and similar negative feelings. At such times I recognise with awareness that these feelings will intensify the problem and affect my inner peace. Hence, with immediate mindfulness, I move on for my own good with the mindset that lighting a candle is better than cursing the darkness,” says Purnima Pandey, Associate Editor with Life Positive, Hindi. She prioritises getting out of a messy situation for the sake of her inner well-being, over fretting about who was right and who was wrong. Moreover, forbearance is directly related to willpower. According to Swami Yuktatmananda, “Our capacity to bear the inevitable ups and downs of life is proportional to the strength and purity of our will. The will is usually held captive by desires in the mind. To free it to grow strong and pure, we need to be regular with our spiritual practices, stop identifying with the mind, and assert our independence as the Atman. We should practice this always, not just at the time of meditation.”
Perhaps this virtue of forbearance was predominant in his mind when the renowned lyricist Gulzar wrote this beautiful prayer song:
Humko man ki shakti dena, man vijay karein
Doosron ki jai se pehle khudko jai karein…
Roughly it translates into “Bestow us with the strength to conquer our minds so that before triumphing over others, we can triumph over ourselves.”
While reactivity and retaliation make us lose precious energy, forbearance, on the other hand, strengthens our character as well as our capacities. Forbearance is the attitude of strong, brave and responsible people. Such people are aware of the stakes in any situation, and take responsibility for maintaining harmony and engendering an energetic uplift in the life of people around them.
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