Digesting the Dharma 4: Spiritual Friend by Simone Moir
Notes on a talk given at the Centre of Gravity, October 22, 2013
There is a position open for you at anytime you choose it. It is not a teaching position at a new yoga studio down the street nor is it to become a mediation instructor for elderly, youth or people with addictions. It is the position of spiritual friend. Since the tie of the Buddha people have taken it upon themselves to practice this noble endeavor by behaving in such a manner that supports both their own and others walking the path of the dharma and waking up.
Many teachers have commented on the Western disposition that when we learn something we want to teach it. The approach we take to spirituality seems to involve becoming a “something” quickly so we can pass it off to others and make a buck at it at the same time. Why are we so keen to skip being a student? Spiritual materialism, co-dependency, idiot compassion, improper digestion. Mental metabolism.
I’d like to propose that there is an intermediary position between being a gob-smacked student in awe of a teacher whose brilliance seems clearly out of our own reach, and that of a know-it-all instructor who skips the slog work of actually sitting the retreat, doing the practice, and relating up close with that messy thing called sangha or community. This middle position isn’t really a position at all. It is the path of spiritual friendship.
There is an exchange recorded in the Pali canon (earliest recorded talks of the Buddha) between Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin, attendant and closest disciple, and the Buddha. On one occasion Ananda came to the Buddha and said that in his view, half the spiritual life revolves around spiritual friendship. The Buddha immediately corrected him and said, “Do not say this, Ananda! Do not say this! Spiritual friendship is not half the spiritual life. It’s the entire spiritual life!”
What was the Buddha saying?
For most of us it is easy to be fooled on our own, to follow our own desires and to be dishonest with ourselves.
The word the Buddha used is kalyanamitra. “Kalyana” means lovely or beautiful and “mitra” means friend. So it is often translated as association or affiliation with the lovely. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.
The Buddha mentions spiritual friendship a few times in his talks. Here’s an example. “With regard to external factors, I don’t envision any other single factor like admirable friendship as doing so much for a monk in training, who has not attained the heart’s goal but remains intent on the surpassed safety from bondage. A monk who is a friend with admirable people abandons what is unskillful and develops what is skillful.” (Itivuttaka 1.17)
In terms of householders, the Buddha provides the following elaboration in the Dighajanu Sutta (AN 8.54). “And what is meant by admirable friendship? There is the case where a lay person, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders’ sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called admirable friendship.
There are two kinds of kalayanamitra we might experience: spiritual friendship with those who are at the same level of experience on the path and the friendship between that of a teacher or senior practitioner and a student.
What is spiritual friendship and how is it practiced?
The Buddha said that friendship is based on a shared element that brings people together. It could be anything. In the case of Centre of Gravity, listening to and practicing the way of dharma is that shared element. The different between friendship and spiritual friendship is the way we engage.
Normally our friendships are wrapped up in our personal attachments. Our personal attachments are rooted in the me-plan. The me-plan includes our many egocentric needs. An egocentric need is anything that builds up the self and defends us from feeling the soft spots of impermanence and of our shared humanity. Often when we love someone, we love them because they fulfill some of our egocentric needs. When this person fails to satisfy these needs, our love can turn into resentment or even hatred.
Among spiritual friends the relationship helps us to transform our attachments to the me-plan. As we practice meditation and bring that practice into our relationship we begin to loosen the grip of the me-plan as a reality. Our cocoon is seen by ourselves first in meditation and then again in the context of our relationship with the spiritual friend. Because the friend is also engaged in this process, they are able to hold themselves and their reactions in the same way we offer holding the space and our reactions with them. The experience of being in one another’s presence rather than heightening our neediness is one of pleasantness and delight. We don’t need them to agree with us. We don’t need to fix their problems or change them to fit into our plans.
When we engage in a common path we gain encouragement, strength and inspiration in our practice from each other. Rather than being about mutual exchange of needs, spiritual friendship is based in our contribution to each other’s greater wisdom, virtue and understanding.
When the Buddha speaks of admirable companionship, camaraderie and friendship, what does that mean? If we are to seek out those consummate in conviction, virtue and generosity. What is he referring to here?
Do you remember when the Buddha met up with the community of Kalamas? They had been visited by so many truth tellers, ascetics, mystics, path finders, compass bearers. Who should they believe, who should they follow? This is the question they put to the Buddha. The Buddha was a very practical person, so his advice was very typically practical. He urged them to be their own authority, to decide for themselves. How would they do this? How can we assess for ourselves the virtue of our actions, or of someone else’s actions? He said that by examining the results of an action we can see whether there was an increase in loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. These are the four brahmaviharas or four limitless ones.
Maitri (or metta) is one of the brahmaviharas. It means love without clinging. Maitri is the basis of compassion. Maitri is unconditional friendship with oneself, acceptance of oneself. An ability to relax with oneself and feel at home in one’s own body. It is like a seed of happiness or well-being.
Our meditation practice is where we cultivate unconditional friendliness. It is the place where we practice befriending, minute after minute, breath after breath, all the unwelcome qualities and energies we experience as human beings. The dharma is not about a set of beliefs that a person subscribes to, but a way of living one’s life. Spiritual friendship is the practice of unconditional friendliness toward oneself and others in our daily lives.
So what are the tools of a spiritual friend? How do we know whether we are taking our practice into our communication within the friendship and not fortifying the me-plan?
Here are the seven qualities of a spiritual friend (AN 7.36). “Loveableness, esteemableness, venerableness, the ability to counsel well, patience (in listening), the ability to deliver deep discourses and not applying oneself to useless ends.”
4 Ways of Listening
The cocoon is the world we make to protect ourselves against suffering and impermanence. By processing all information in relationship to our preferred way and habits, we make and maintain a world for ourselves that is familiar and safe. Perhaps we could say there are four ways of listening:
1. Inside the cocoon. Downloading information. Checking what you hear against what you already know. What does this have to do with me?
2. At the edge of the cocoon. You become interested in others. You listen like a voyeur. Listening for what is different or against your own take on it. Object focused. Factual listening. Schools can encourage this kind of listening.
3. One foot in, one foot out of the cocoon. Empathetic listening. We focus on the place from which the other person is speaking. An intelligent heart-listening enables us. We forget our own agenda. Includes non-verbal communication.
4. Outside of the cocoon. We step out of the reference point of our self. Listening someone into his or her own wisdom. Listening to music. A grace. We listen for the highest future possibility that wants to emerge. We create a space where a different sense of presence can manifest. We know we have experienced this when we are changed by the listening. I am connected to something larger than myself.
Listening creates space. It is in space that presence and awareness arise. My mentor taught me about space by putting periods on the end of my sentences. She would drop her head dramatically down at the end of a complete idea that I shared and give out a loud exhale. PERIOD she would say. In the period, in the pause, we create a space for our listener to take us in. In the space we meet, and our minds mix. We impact one another. I hadn’t been aware of my impact, I made no space for it, no wonder I felt disempowered.
Maitri (metta) or unconditional friendliness is the basis of compassion. Compassion arises out of space.
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times
One of my favourite analogies for compassion is what I can only call hard core. Sometimes the Buddha dharma just throws your sentimentality in your face and shows you the small-minded tunnel vision that so often passes for caring.
A mother without arms watches her baby drowning in a river.
Ask group for their responses to this. First thought? What happens inside your body when you hear this? Is this familiar to you? Have you experienced this?
Compassion is a “we” experience. Compassion arises when we include ourselves, our body, our here and now experience that includes our emotions, perceptions and reactions in our relations with others. It is not so much about acting out of those responses but holding them in the space of whatever encounter we happen to be in. When we can hold our own emotions, perceptions, and reactions, then we are ready to and we can offer to do the same thing for another person. This way of holding our own experience and another’s experience with maitri (metta) creates space. Out of the space compassion arises. Learning how to be unconditionally friendly towards our self is an act of generosity. When we learn to do this we can offer that space of unconditional friendliness toward others. Compassion is a natural resource and result.
Idiot Compassion and Codependency
Let’s go back to that question I proposed earlier. Why are we Westerners so keen to lead others and skip over our own digesting?
“Idiot compassion is a great expression, which was actually coined by Trungpa Rinpoche. It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways it’s what’s called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering. Basically, you’re not giving them what they need. You’re trying to get away from your feeling of ‘I can’t bear to see them suffering.’ In other words, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re not really doing it for them.” Pema Chodron
1. What is your experience of unconditional friendliness toward yourself?
2. How would your relationships change is maitri became the basis for those relationships?
3. What would it mean to live a life of unconditional friendliness?
4. What did you notice about yourself as a listener?