Friday 30 September 2011

Spiritual Friendship: Include It All

Three of the monks went to a funeral recently. This in itself isn’t unusual, although we do limit the amount of funerals we attend – to those of people associated with the monastery – on the grounds that there are only so many that we can cover and still be able to keep the monastery (and the monastics) in reasonable working order. Still, having monks and nuns at funerals meets a need: that at the end of a life, there is a calm recognition of a person’s life and value – and from that, by extension, a chance to review our own lives in that light. So the formality of the occasion, and the presence of those Gone Forth, signals a shift from the normal aims and perspectives of social life. Those in attendance can consider: ‘What are we aiming for? What do we take with us; and what do we leave behind?’ The very fact of gathering becomes one sign of what it means to be human: that this person’s life touched many, he or she was known, respected, cared for by sons, daughters; that colleagues, friends and others drew benefit from their example.

The case of the recent funeral was exceptional however in that there were no sons, daughters, or colleagues – and very few friends. Just the three monks, the two lay associates of the monastery who had facilitated the hospice care in the last days of the deceased, and a funeral official. The deceased, I’ll call him ‘Harry,’ did have sons and a sister who knew of his dying and death, but they'd parted company years ago and obviously wanted it kept that way. It’s easy to understand their response – Harry, himself the subject of abuse as a child, had a potential for rage, a physique to back it up, and a history of violence. A split personality, one side of him was drawn to monasteries because of the acceptance they offered him, and by some genuine insights, aspirations and commitments. He’d spent time in prison, but in the last decade or so, association with Sangha had kept him on a course whereby the rage (which generally blew up at any sign of rejection) only manifested in occasional verbal storms. Still, whatever he’d done to his family had left such scars that even in his dying days, none of them would accommodate him. The monastery was his only fall-back. Although we couldn’t give him a place in the guest rooms – we have a responsibility to guests who seek some peace – the elderly monk who lives near the workshop, being a man of seasoned gentleness and ‘heard it all’ patience, would spend hours with Harry when he blew through. And in Harry's last days, the monk would find him a place to bed down by the fire in the workshop. Then, as Harry’s cancer progressed, some of the lay people around Cittaviveka managed to get him registered by a doctor and housed in a hospice. The message was becoming clear even before his funeral: even more than family and colleagues, spiritual friends are your most fundamental resort.

Friends? It wasn’t as if we particularly liked Harry – he generally created an edgy atmosphere around him, on account of his threatening manner. But the monastery is an open place for those who are genuinely trying to find Dhamma. And he kept coming, attending the meditations, listening to teachings and engaging in discussion groups as much as his relational difficulties and the tolerance of the other participants would allow. One of the monks in particular made a point of engaging with him in conversation; and the workshop monk, being about old enough to be his father, would listen. What they brought, more perhaps than any specific advice, was an accepting presence and the willingness to relate. And if we look again at the idea of friendship, even more than affection, it is that willingness to relate, the non-rejection of the other, which is the bottom line. In Harry’s history and with his character, this was a rare experience.

Perhaps this state of affairs, or something like it, isn’t uncommon. For most people, the empathy just gets switched off in the case of a disagreement or because they've parted company or hurt each other. A small wall is created in awareness, and the 'other' is on the other side of it. Over a lifetime, those walls can develop and place a big restriction on the mind – 'no go areas,' memories that have to be moved away from, tense pauses in the conversation when one of the others' names comes up. And a mind with shadows. But its not just an individual phenomenon, the empathic limitations of a society that rates individual performance and progress more highly than supporting and caring for others cast a shadow over much of daily life in the West. Let alone each society's acts of war, enslavement and abuse of others, there are the everyday signs of the loss of our potential to share and be free from fear. People connect via Facebook and texting, yet the three-dimensional living together, of knowing neighbours, or of even having a neighbourhood, is dwindling. A few years ago I read of a woman whose job it was to attend the funerals of people who died unknown. These were people who had been found dead in their homes by neighbours or police, but who had no connections to friends or relatives. This woman, working in London, attended a thousand funerals each year.

We might ask whether attending funerals is going to do such departed ones any good. However they're part of a value that we abandon at our peril: a society surely needs to acknowledge the empathic sense in order for there to be a society at all. Moreover, this sense is not a matter of affection, but of knowing how human beings are and what is the only sane way in which we can operate. Without empathy, we're left with shadows.

Of course the Buddha has his sights on this topic, and in several instances describes friendship in point-by-point detail. Here’s an example:

A good friend –
gives what’s hard to give;
does what’s hard to do;
endures what’s hard to endure;
shares their confidential matters with you;
keeps your confidential matters confidential;
stands by you in the hard times;
and doesn’t give up on you when you’re down and out.

Monastic life is based on spiritual friendship. This may not be immediately apparent, as monastics seem notably cool in terms of relationship. Community membership is more obviously based on each individual’s ability to keep precepts and standards, to be part of an ethos of offering service and to have the self-reliance to manage dwelling in solitude. It doesn't sound that chummy. The lack of socialising and group entertainment is a challenge, especially when combined with the pressure of sense-restraint. People are coming and going all the time, and individuals haven’t chosen to be in the community on account of complimentary personalities. In fact, interpersonal dissonance isn’t unusual and there can be numbness or unspoken pain in the relational field. And yet, there can also be a learning and an emotional readjustment in all that. The pragmatic leverage for that shift is that, unless you disrobe, these others are bound to be part of your life “‘til death us do part.” It's hard to build walls. So, as we haven’t come to be with specific individuals, nor have many socialising events, nor have the possibility of excluding people we don’t get on with, something has to change in terms of how we relate.

The readjustment is essentially an emotional and perceptual broadening. The relational field has to widen to include a range of felt senses, from ‘I associate with you because I like or respect you,’ to ‘because I can learn from you,’ to ‘because I want to offer support,’ to ‘because I respect what you’re doing despite not always being on the same wavelength,’ right down to ‘because being with you pushes the buttons in me that I need to be aware of and work with.’ Spiritual friendship has to go deep and accommodate many flavours. If we can do this, it definitely strengthens and matures the heart. In fact one notices over time that ‘because I like you’ doesn’t have the same deepening staying power as ‘because there’s benefit in terms of Dhamma.’ The meaningful questions are: ‘Does this relationship bring support, or provide an opportunity to be generous with compassion?’ ‘Does it at least cause me to become resiliently patient?’ Spiritual friendship can only occur if it is conducive to our mutual development.

Without a mutual benefit, there’s no relationship. If we’re just doing good as a duty, then the heart isn’t available and so it can't grow. If we can’t meet somehow from a place of authenticity, even if it’s in coming to terms with our dislike or mistrust, then the association has no Dhamma in it. But when there is dissonance, if there can be a mutual acknowledgement of that, friendship grows – amazingly enough. This is the opportunity in human life. It isn’t always taken – the skill of listening to and handling emotions and perceptions takes careful inner and external development – that’s why we need the company of the wise and our own wise attention. To learn from these sources is indeed ‘the whole of the holy life.’

But we're not always in the company of the wise. Then there's the grist that has to be milled with wise attention. It begins with reflecting that other people and how they affect us keep us in touch with where we're stuck or at peace. Many samanas find themselves irritated by their colleagues; and on the other hand there are occasions of falling in love. That's how it goes: you can't just learn by theory. You get wise through being touched by it all – salty, sweet and sour – and allowing that redefines what is meant by ‘learning.’ It's a non-verbal process in which you reveal and move through all kinds of emotional territory. Rather to my surprise, it has showed me that fondness has its drawbacks; it agitates and disappoints. Getting fond of people may be part of the story, but only inasmuch as it supports getting free of pettiness, self-obsession, fear and ill-will. Then there's an increasing capacity to witness and relate to whatever arises in my own mind and heart, and that's the heart-intelligence that bears fruit in release. So often the learning point is just where that intelligence can meet the mundane human ‘other.’ Without that ‘other’ who, like it or not, touches the heart, I doubt whether any of us can be sure that we have finished our work.