Are you an extrovert or an introvert? And if you happen to be the latter, how do you cope in a culture biased toward extroversion?
That is the central question posed by Susan Cain, a former corporate attorney, in her new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. According to studies cited by Cain, introverts make up thirty to fifty percent of the American population. Numbering herself among that cohort, Cain explores ways by which introverts can navigate a culture enthralled by what she calls the Extrovert Ideal. Those ways include adopting an extrovert’s persona, creating a “restorative niche” in one’s daily round, and negotiating respectfully with extroverted colleagues, friends, and spouses.
Beyond these practical stratagems, introverts can cultivate a quality Cain identifies as “soft power,” or more specifically, “quiet persistence.” Dramatically exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi, that quality is also a mark of traditional Asian culture, where habits of quiet study and attentive listening are encouraged and rewarded:
Soft power is not limited to moral exemplars like Mahatma Gandhi. Consider, for example, the much-ballyhooed excellence of Asians in fields like math and science. Professor [Preston] Ni defines soft power as “quiet persistence,” and this trait lies at the heart of academic excellence as surely as it does in Gandhi’s political triumphs. Quiet persistence requires sustained attention—in effect restraining one’s reactions to external stimuli.*
As a case in point, Cain recounts the story of Tiffany Liao, a daughter of Taiwanese parents, whose habits of quiet study earned her admission to Swarthmore and an appointment as editor-in-chief of her college newspaper. Liao attributes her success to her “quiet traits,” particularly her ability to listen attentively, take thorough notes, and do deep research prior to conducting interviews. In Cain’s phrase, Liao came “to embrace the power of quiet,”** and that power enabled her to realize her dream.
For Tiffany Liao, as for introverts generally, quiet persistence may be a key to worldly success, but that quality of mind also has a place in the world’s spiritual traditions, including Mahayana Buddhism, of which Zen is a late flowering. Mahayana teachings enjoin the practitioner to cultivate the six paramitas (“perfections of wisdom”). By so doing, the practitioner can eventually transform suffering and arrive at the “other shore” of wisdom and compassion. The six paramitas are generosity (dana), precepts (sila), patience (kshanti), diligence (virya), meditation (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna). “Quiet persistence” might be said to conflate two of the “perfections of wisdom,” namely patience and diligence. This is a natural pairing, for the two qualities are both compatible and complementary.
The Sanskrit word kshanti is often translated as “patience.” Other translations include “forbearance,” “endurance,” and “acceptance.” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh prefers the word “inclusiveness,” which in his view comes closest to the original meaning:
Inclusiveness is the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. . . . When we practice inclusiveness, we don’t have to suffer or forbear, even when we have to embrace suffering and injustice. The other person says or does something that makes us angry. He inflicts on us some kind of injustice. But if your heart is large enough, we don’t suffer. . . . To suppress our pain is not the teaching of inclusiveness. We have to receive it, embrace it, and transform it. The only way to do this is to make our heart big.***
In classical Zen teachings, practitioners of kshanti paramita are likened to the earth, which accepts all manner of impurities and toxins. Practicing kshanti, we include, without complaint, the pleasant with the unpleasant, the wholesome with the toxic, accepting and transforming it all in a spirit of compassion.
To some, that may sound like culpable passivity, especially if the adversity takes the form of an oppressive regime. But in Mahayana teachings, the paramitas do not exist in isolation, and kshanti is balanced by virya paramita, translated variously as “diligence,” “perseverance,” and “persistence.” To practice virya paramita is to make a sustained, energetic effort. More precisely, it is to cultivate, with energy and persistence, such wholesome qualities as loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. As a practical technique, Thich Nhat Hanh urges us to keep the “energy of mindfulness” present as long as we can, once that energy has arisen. By the same token, we can decline to nourish such mental states as greed, envy, fear, and anger.
“Quiet persistence” shares common ground with the Japanese word gaman, which is rooted in Zen Buddhism and means “to be patient and persevere in the face of suffering,” or, more simply, “to bear with it.” By all accounts, the spirit of gaman was much in evidence in the aftermath of last year’s earthquake and tsunami. Foreign correspondents described the long lines at gas stations and cash registers, where people waited patiently without complaint. Commentators noted the absence of looting and price-gouging and the willingness of people to help each other out. And since then, the world has watched the steady persistence of the Japanese in rebuilding their stricken country. As Nicholas Kristof has remarked, gaman is “steeped into the Japanese soul,” and it may be indigenous to Japanese culture. But quiet persistence is a quality anyone can cultivate at any time, whether he or she be introverted or extroverted, traditional Asian or contemporary American.
* Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking ( Crown, 2012), Kindle edition, 200.
** Cain, 202.
*** Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax, 1998), 185, 189.
See also Nicholas Kristof, “Sympathy for Japan, and Admiration,” New York Times (On the Ground), March 11, 2011, http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/11/sympathy-for-japan-and-admiration/.