fishing alone

Maybe you think you need a vacation. Maybe you think you need certain kinds of food, or a certain amount of sleep, or certain clothes, or certain makeup, or certain books or friends or likes. Maybe you think you need a better cell phone or job or spouse in order to be happy.

Actually, there are just two things, beyond the necessities, that you need in order to be happy: you need patience, and you need discipline.

I didn’t title this post “Patience and Discipline” because neither is very popular. When I hear those words, my mind flashes on a memory of being a small child in a scratchy blouse, trying to sit through a long Catholic church service being given in a language I don’t understand.

But, as an adult, I’m forming a new relationship, and new memories, with patience and discipline, because I’ve seen again and again how powerful each can be. I know that I’ve thought, more than once, “Patience is magic.” It can seem magical — I think of myself as a Very Impatient Person, but when I do manage some patience, and do nothing, and things work out better (often) than they would have had I meddled, I am amazed. And if they don’t work out “better,” or the way I had been hoping, they often resolve in a way that helps me understand something new about the situation, or about myself, my own attitude toward the situation.

One of my favorite painters, Agnes Martin, wrote in her notes for a lecture,

“Going on without resistance or notions is called discipline. Going on when hope and desire have been left behind is discipline. Going on in an impersonal way without personal considerations is called discipline.

Not thinking, planning, scheming is a discipline. Not caring or striving is a discipline.”

Going on with your work when it seems impossible and hopeless takes patience and discipline — patience to see how things will turn out without trying to force them, and discipline to do the work again and again, despite not seeing the results you want right away, or even any results. Having a private sense of value about what you do that doesn’t depend on validation from other people takes a lot of discipline — you have to remember, again and again, to be your own validation, to see what’s of value to you in what you’re doing and to reinforce that.

Patience and discipline can seem so loathsome because, even though their effects can seem like magic, they can seem so mundane. For the last half of her life Agnes Martin lived alone in New Mexico. She painted and wrote and for many years was very poor. Transmuting the discomforts of solitude and poverty into her paintings must have taken a great deal of patience and discipline. It must have seemed mundane sometimes. But, over time, the cumulative work of her patience and discipline is a body of work many people like to look at and talk and think about. Patience and discipline helped Martin to grow beyond the confines of her life.

The patience and discipline I’m talking about, and that Martin was talking about, do not require that I give you a list of things you must do to be successfully patient and disciplined. It’s more about losing all hope of doing anything but your work, whatever “work” is for you — painting, writing, composing, walking around, observing, being with others. It’s more about giving up trying to control than about trying to take control of an essentially uncontrollable thing (your life). It’s more about relaxing, knowing what it feels like to feel relaxed, and working from that feeling as much as possible, and not worrying when the feeling changes, which it will.

In the (translated) words of Rilke, another solitary, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final.”