Sunday, April 24, 2016

Noble Friendship

[This piece was originally published in my my column "A to Zen" in the May/June 2016 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]         

          A friend is a window through which we see more deeply into ourselves. A friend is a silent affirmation of that which is best in us. A friend is a salve to our wounds, a shaft of light to our darkness, and a key to unlock our shuttered hearts. Like air, food, and water, without friends we perish.
          Ever since we crawled down out of the trees on the African savannah a million years ago we’ve needed each other. We band together for safety, for comradery, for warmth, and for laughter. We think we choose our friends, but we don’t. As Emerson wrote, “My friends have come to me unsought…I find them, or rather not I, but the Deity in me and in them derides and cancels the thick walls of individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance, at which he usually connives, and now makes many one.” We recognize our friends in the crowd because the divinity in us recognizes the divinity in them – the very meaning of the word Namaste. We feel at once at home in their company, safe in their regard, and cherished in their acceptance. Friends shatter the illusion of our isolation.
          In the development of early Buddhism, three ideas gained prominence. They are known as the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is the teacher who embodies wisdom and guides us in the process. The Dharma is the path, the teachings that lead us toward our own budding wisdom. But neither of those matter without the Sangha, the community of friends within which the Buddha and the Dharma take root. When we meditate together, grow together, and serve together, we know, feel, and become more than we ever could alone.
          During the European Renaissance the ancient philosophy of Plato loomed large. Under the patronage of the Medicis in Florence, a priest named Ficino coined the phrase “Platonic love” to convey that particularly deep and lasting bond that arises between friends who share an affinity for beauty and truth. Some of us are drawn into league with one another not by physical attraction or shared hobbies but by our mutual love of higher wisdom, timeless beauty, and the ineffable mystery of the transcendent. This kind of spiritual friendship knows no material or temporal bounds for its eyes rest sublimely on the eternal realm. 
          In the Vedanta tradition of India the ancient practice of satsang embodies these same principles. Sat means being, truth, or ultimate reality. Sang, as in sangha, means a gathering or community. So satsang means a gathering around truth or noble friendship. And it never fails – in satsang as we meditate together, share spiritual inquiry together, and dialogue together in vulnerable, truthful, and meaningful ways, wisdom wells up through the cracks of our own lives. Truth is not something we know – it is something we are. And through noble friendship that embodied truth slips its vessel and rises into view in the space we share. 
          If all energy, matter, and consciousness are one, as the perennial wisdom traditions teach, then true friends are those whose protective shells are diaphanous. Because of their openness and vulnerability we see past the surface and into the depths of our communal oneness. And when they see us in the same light the illusory walls of our isolation dissolve. 
          So how do we give and earn the gift of friendship? Start with yourself. “We must be our own before we can be another’s,” wrote Emerson. And when it comes to attracting and maintaining friendships, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” Until you love yourself, you cannot truly love others. As Wayne Dyer used to say, "You must be what it is that you are seeking." 
          Friends don’t fix us. They don’t solve all our problems. They don’t have to. Their mere presence is enough. Keep it simple. As Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.” So my friend, you do not have to say the perfect words, or fight my battles. Just walk with me.

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