By Eknath Easwaran
Nilgiri Press, 128 pages,
Hardcover $9.95 2010
Review by Margaret Arnold
Patience, A Little Book of Inner Strength by the late Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999) is a book of “pocket wisdom” regarding a difficult virtue and its relationship to strength, kindness, and compassion.
The strength of the book is its point that people who equate patience and passivity are wrong. Easwaran finds that the Gandhian principle of non-violence is not simply the absence of violence, but, moreover, a method of actively engaging the powers that be. He seeks to apply that insight to the less public day-to-day realities of dealing with difficult family members, co-workers, and even stray dogs.
This is a wonderful, practical, and even revolutionary way of being in the world. Unfortunately, the book’s editors (It takes an examination of the copyright page to realize that this is a compilation of bits and pieces from Easwaran’s various books and talks.) do not venture very far in fleshing out the concept.
The author, in earlier writings, put forth the concept of “Passage Meditation.” A practitioner chooses a spiritual text or passage that embodies his or her ideals, memorizes it and then meditates while silently and slowly moving through the passage. There are a few quotations in Patience that would work very well in that regard—passages by Saint Theresa of Avila, Sri Sarada Devi, and Sri Ramakrishna; wisdom from Easwaran’s own grandmother and, especially, the well-known Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi.
However, from those jumping off points, the reader is taken through a series of parables and quick commentaries. There’s nothing theologically or spiritually wrong with these writings. Yes, indeed, “When we live harmoniously with others, we do help them, but it is we who grow spiritually.” The problem is—well, how many times does one want to read that one sentiment in one book?
The book is at its strongest when Easwaran speaks of patience as perseverance — when he explains that as one practices the virtue, one’s stamina increases with the exercise. Clearly, just as one’s physical health increases with exercise, one’s spiritual health does as well.
What gets a little dicey are the repeated recommendations to practice patience by spending increasing amounts of time with the difficult people in our lives — even building from half an hour to a weekend. Not to disparage the value of family, but, wait a minute, a weekend? Did the author not have to work full time, raise children or get outside and breathe once in a while? And is it really in the best interests of those “difficult” family members, who often lose touch with a sense of day, night and time, to abet them in inhabiting a world without structure? Perhaps practicing patience and giving one’s self away are not, practically speaking, the same thing.
MARGARET ARNOLD is a Glendale, California-based news and arts writer and editor. She studied Religion and the Arts at the Franciscan School of Theology (Berkeley, CA) and has facilitated, over many years, workshops and trainings on non-violent political action.