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I am writing this post because a recent “squall-line of interactions” has gotten me thinking about what I want in the ideal friend.
So what do I mean by “Dharma family?” When we study Buddhism, it is said that our fellow audience members become our Dharma Sisters and Brothers. So this is what Dharma family means.
Sometimes spiritual teachers are referred to as spiritual friends. This is not what I am referring to here. Just to be clear – when I say spiritual friend, I mean someone who is a peer (but more than a friend, read on!).
To me, a “Spiritual Friend” is someone who is more than just a friend – but not for any romantic reasons. To be considered a Spiritual Friend, one must have the capacity and the desire to be coached. And one must have the compassion and skillful means to be able to carefully point out faults in other spiritual friends (to offer coaching). So basically, if we are humble enough and if we are hungry to grow and transform for the better, that means we will be able to accept constructive criticism. And I don’t mean all the time – when you are around a spiritual friend, things flow easily because there are very few limitations on the conversation and you are more real, transparent and authentic with each other. Think about it – less inhibition leads to greater authenticity. While there is mutual respect and caring, you care enough about the other person to mention something if it seems appropriate. And you are not afraid to mention it because a spiritual friend does not react or get easily defensive – they have worked through their stuff enough to be able to rest in neutrality and equanimity as their spiritual friend mentions a foible.
Being a spiritual friend is not easy. It is not what most people want in a friendship – it requires discipline, compassion and a desire to coach and be coached. It is not for everyone. Most people want a friend who is accepting of who they are (including faults and vices), who shares some common interests and who is relatively easy to hang out or do outings with. Well this can be a spiritual friend too, but not often, see below. Because you also have to add the above components of compassion and skillful means.
And the most important trait about a spiritual friend is someone who is walking an authentic spiritual path who yearns to open their heart (work to become more kind and compassionate, while resting easily in equanimity) and to become a better human being. This means that spiritual friends do not want to waste time gossiping or talking just for the sake of talking – idle chatter is lessened when both people yearn to “sit on meditation cushions” which can take many forms. So clearly, being a spiritual friend is not easy and it is not for everyone.
Having attended one or two Dharma teachings in my life, I have a number of Dharma brothers and sisters. And I am very happy and grateful to have them. Not all of them however are able to be spiritual friends (in my opinion). We come to the Dharma when a certain karma manifests. But that does not mean that we have gotten over a strong defensiveness or reactiveness (egos come in many sizes and shapes). And I have one friend who I consider to be a spiritual friend who I have never attended teachings with – he is however a practitioner of a different school of mindfulness.
To be a spiritual friend, one needs to have spent some time either analyzing oneself or working through one’s issues with support. That way we can have a clear picture of where we are on our path. Then if we have a spiritual friend, we can compare their words and their perception with where we are on our path. That is how we rest in neutrality when someone points out their observation of our faults.
So to summarize and wrap this up…
Being a Dharma sister or brother means that we have attended teachings or blessing ceremonies (empowerments) with someone. This is someone whom we should be extremely kind and patient with as there are greater responsibilities when people are in the same Sangha (spiritual group) together. We should take deep breaths and do our best to be supportive of each other – no matter what they are manifesting. And of course, when appropriate, perhaps we can skillfully point out glaring flaws in their character (if we know they have a good chance of hearing us). Whereas, a Spiritual Friend is a bit different.
A Spiritual Friend is someone who might be in the same Sangha, but they are further along on the path, meaning they do not take offense when someone carefully points out their faults (because they are often more than willing to skillfully point out other’s faults as well). And they are definitely making strides along their path – spiritual friends care about each other enough to support the vows that fellow spiritual friends have taken.
There is a saying from a Native American tribe regarding this new age that is dawning: we are on the edge of a great river and we should not grab tightly to the shore. Instead we need to let go, we need to drift out into the middle of the river and allow its strong current to bring us to new, undiscovered places. Like this saying, we can slowly (or rapidly) let go of the shore and allow ourselves to be guided and coached by wise spiritual friends. Or we can hold on to past patterns and conditioning and remain resistant and defensive. The choice is ours and we must be gentle with ourselves – it takes time, intention and practice to get (t)here.
In conclusion, may all beings eventually move to the point of being and becoming and receiving spiritual friendship!