Hello at Last: preface

Getting to Know Us

Deepen your relationships, my Zen teacher said.

I had been complaining that my personality seemed always in my way, a sticky tangle of habitual reactions, a straitjacket of inauthenticity. How would deepening my relationships address a problem of personality, I asked.

I dont know, my teacher replied, It just came into my mind, and it felt right somehow, so I said it.

Deepen your relationships. I pondered that idea briefly, occasionally. But because my teacher discourages socializing among her students, it was easy to forget about it. Only as I began writing about spiritual friendship did it occur to me that that is precisely what I have been doing in the practices described in this book: deepening my relationships.

The Buddha actively promoted spiritual friendship, calling it, according to an ancient Pali source, the whole of the spiritual life. But my teacher asks that her students not socialize with one another, and her monastery and retreats are conducted in strict silence. This apparent contradiction has been like a koan for me, that is, an intellectually insoluble riddle, based in paradox, that is used in Zen training to jolt the mind to a new level of understanding.

Friendship that flowers in silence, in the absence of social habit, is a cherished treasure: ineffable, mysterious, profound. Some of the early Buddhist monks are described in the Pali scriptures as living together in harmony, blending like milk and water, and are said to have done so largely in silence, speaking only every fifth day. In my experience, the awareness of deep relatedness that develops in silence is precious beyond description, but fragile, rarely surviving the shift to ordinary social interaction. The inward focus tends to dissolve the normal sense of boundary between the self and all else. To the expansive, softened, unbound being, our usual degree and manner of self-assertion can be harsh. I refer to the multitude of ways in which we convey social identity: the fixed smile, the failure to truly listen, the flitting attention, the need to do, say, be something special. Those conditioned responses have the opposite of the intended effect; they sabotage our wish to be accepted by others, for it is precisely such behaviour that sustains our sense of separation. Perhaps that is why my teacher encourages us not to socialize within each other.

I love silence and the fruits of silence, yet I have long sensed that an edge of my practice  where growth seems possible and even pressing  is in relating to other people. During silent retreat, a sweet, pure love unlike anything I have known wells up for the others who are there meditating with me; then, at the end of the retreat, our personalities take us over again  a sad spectacle. Without being fully aware of it, I adopted a koan drawn from my curiosity and my need, and based in the question implicit in my teachers advice: how could I deepen my relationships  bring them into mindfulness  while not socializing with other students on the path?

As Buddhism has taken root in the individualistic of societies of the west, practice has focused mainly on the personal quest for enlightenment via meditation. Now that many students are well grounded in sitting and walking meditation, there is a growing interest in sangha, or community. Sangha is known as the Third Jewel of Buddhism. The word may be used narrowly to mean those who are ordained as monastics or members of a particular Buddhist group, but more generally it refers to the connectedness among all who follow the teachings of the Buddha, often called the Dharma (meaning way or law, in the sense of how things really are).

One way to foster sangha is through specific practices in spiritual friendship. Increasingly, spiritual friendship is an explicit component of Dharma groups, most notably Friends of the Western Buddhist Order and Insight Meditation communities. In a thought-provoking essay, philosophical counsellor Greg Goode even makes a case for spiritual teaching to move away from the traditional guru model towards learning that takes place primarily among friends.

Like sangha, spiritual friendship is defined and manifest in a variety of ways, from the most general  closeness between people with a shared sense of some spiritual dimension  to the vipassana model in which highly advanced teachers are called spiritual friends. Except for the first and last chapters of this book, which deal with two very different expressions of spiritual community in my life, what I describe here are my experiences with specific practices in spiritual friendship. (My versions of those experiences, it should go without saying.) These are mostly with individuals rather than a group, and with people who are my peers.

Spiritual friendships differ from ordinary friendships in that they are entered into consciously and conducted with a particular intention and within a particular context. Normally we choose friends who reinforce our identities, whereas friendship based on the shared aim of spiritual liberation works to soften the walls of self, to dispel the illusion of separateness. The familiar human terrain of disappointment, embarrassment, longing, trepidation, resentment, misunderstanding  in a word, suffering  is most fruitfully traversed with companions who are intimately familiar with those places in themselves. Sharing the light of mindfulness strengthens our ability to recognize our conditioned reactions as phantoms, to question them, to remember that in any moment we can turn our attention to what is real.

Spiritual friendship works in many ways. When my mindfulness fails, theres a good chance the other persons will be intact, a resource I may draw on. When I am tangled in ego reactions, I can go to a spiritual friend for help in loosening the knots. When both of us are trapped in suffering, at least we can remind each other of the larger perspective we share: freedom is possible, we can keep bringing our attention back to the present, and inevitably things will change. In the absence of suffering, we can enjoy the sweet practice of rejoicing in the merit of others: taking pleasure in their abilities, in their sheer goodness; reinforcing that goodness by expressing our appreciation; and accepting appreciation when it is offered to us. At times, spiritual friendship can take on the exhilaration of a game as we observe each other and ourselves fencing with ego  a game hilarious in its absurdity, and liberating, as humour invariably is.

The spiritual friendship practices I know of are based mainly in what I think of as meditative dialogue or mindful communication. The practices described here, representing a variety of traditions, are elegantly simple, yet powerful enough to open our hearts to all of life. The elements of these practices are not exclusive to Buddhism; they often reflect trends in our culture, from the empowerment of women, with their natural propensity for tending and befriending, to the development in many areas, including psychology and the arts, of methods emphasizing self-reflection. A simple example is the guideline an actor friend of mine uses in a workshop on autobiographical storytelling: responses to each persons story are given in the form I felt/noticed/learned/wondered. . . . The approach is to listen attentively to someone else, then respond by describing our own experience  a formula implying simultaneous acceptance of ourselves and another. Very simple and very powerful.

Mutual acceptance lies at the heart of the practice of spiritual friendship, and it is what I mean by getting to know us. What we learn about ourselves through meditation and mindful communication is not exclusive to us; it is how all human beings operate. Participating with others in honest, compassionate dialogue, we see ourselves reflected in ways we are unlikely to notice on our own. To know myself is to know you; to know you is to know myself. This is not to imply that the Buddhist concept of no-self is easily attained, but that in practice with others, the rough sense of separation, of difference, by which we know ourselves as distinct, is gently polished away, allowing ever more frequent glimpses of our ultimate oneness. Offering ourselves as mirrors for each other becomes a breathtaking act of love.