Wholesome friendship

Continuing on our path of considering commonalities between the Buddha’s teachings and Stoic philosophy, friendship quality is a central theme in both.

The Stoics point out that the friendships we have are only partially under our control. There can be challenges of geography, temperament, religious differences, etc. But if we are determined to build relationships with those who share our values, we will see results. Bear in mind that an “on-line only” friendship may not be what it appears to be.

With in-person contact, we can make the effort to be a good friend to those we seek to strengthen our relationships with, but there’s no guarantee that they will reciprocate. So it would make sense to cultivate more than a very small number of “noble” friendships and to be open to new ones rather than relying on the one or two that we might already have.

One reason given by the Stoics for choosing wholesome friendships is that “vices are contagious.” Epictetus said, “Spend time with an unclean person and we will become unclean as well. ”  This refers particularly to associating with people who have unwholesome desires. Those desires can easily influence us and stimulate our own unwholesome desires. The Buddha pointed out that as the mind inclines, whatever we spend our time thinking and pondering on, our words and actions will follow, for better or worse.

As the Buddha has pointed out, noble (worthy) friends are a primary support for developing wisdom, and unworthy friendships are detrimental to the development of wisdom. This is intuitively obvious and also important to be aware of when we consider who we spend time with. Which relationships do we seek out? Which friends do we express appreciation for; to whom do we offer time and support?  Which people do we avoid? Do our own inclinations tend towards cultivating virtuous behavior or do they go in another direction? This points back to keeping an awareness of what we value at the center of our consciousness. If we are easily seduced by new and delightful sensory experiences, do we forget what’s important? 

One other feature of a wholesome, reciprocal friendship is whether constructive criticism is welcome. With those we trust most and look to as guides or teachers, we can set aside our ego and ask for suggestions as to how to improve our behavior. If the trust is mutual, we can offer our own observations about how things might be done differently. Seneca included as part of his daily reflections the question of whether someone was open to criticism or not, and to keep his thoughts to himself if they were not. In the Theravada  Buddhist tradition the quality of seeking to improve one’s behavior with the help of good friends is called being “easy to admonish”. It is a significant marker of noble friendship.

Finally, it is primarily up to us to be a wholesome friend to ourselves, to encourage and support our aspirations with our attention and efforts. If we are not good friends to ourselves, how can we expect others to be?

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Misunderstood & misrepresented: Buddhism and Stoicism

People with a limited understanding of Buddhism think it is depressing and negative because it begins with an acknowledgement that dukkha is ever-present in human life. Dukkha is characterized by the sense most of us live with that something is not quite right. It’s the (usually) low level dissatisfaction caused by our constant wanting and grasping after various experiences and states. In one sense, it’s the opposite of inner peace. The Buddha’s premise is that if we don’t acknowledge this reality, we have no hope of dealing with it skillfully. The Buddha’s path promises that there is an end to dukkha and that we can experience it through practice; so it’s not really a negative path, just a stronger dose of reality than some folks are comfortable with.

The popular understanding of Stoicism is that to be a Stoic we would have to suppress all of our emotions and live a purely rational, unfeeling life. As with Buddhism, there is a grain of truth here, but it misses the larger point. Stoicism, like Buddhism, keeps re-directing our attention to the fact that there is plenty that’s out of our control and not to our liking.

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. (Marcus Aurelius)

If we start each day expecting things to go awry, then we won’t feel singled out and persecuted when that happens. Instead we can be pleased when a day contains less than the average amount of aggravation.

First impressions are often incomplete, and so it is with both Buddhism and Stoicism. Both encourage us to resist the delusion that by getting and consuming more, we can be satisfied. It is in the nature of wanting that it can never be fully satisfied, and so we turn the mirror back and look at the nature of wanting itself. It has momentum when it’s in process, but it is not absolutely necessary all the time. We can take breaks from it and experience the deep peace that comes from a temporary cessation of craving. In both Stoicism and Buddhism this state is called joy – not happiness, which is by nature ephemeral, but joy – a deep peace that is flavored with confidence and delight. Any dedicated practitioner of Stoicism or Buddhism has access to this physical and mental state.

There are reasons both Stoicism and Buddhism are not practiced by a majority of any society. First, they don’t stimulate our desires in an immediate way; they don’t promise instant results.

A second reason for their unpopularity is that to reap the rewards of Stoicism or Buddhism takes dedicated practice. Like any challenging undertaking, there is a period at the beginning when we fumble around and can hardly imagine being successful. However, with diligent attention, curiosity, and a willingness to experiment with unfamiliar practices, both approaches provide benefits before long.

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The Limits of Control

Both the Buddha and the Stoic philosophers recognized that all of us have wasted untold time and energy imagining we can control things that we cannot. We think our wishes have power; we think that “how it should be” has some sort of authority. Both wisdom traditions make the point that how we behave in the world is really our only area of control, everything else is partially or entirely beyond our jurisdiction. Our words, thoughts, and actions will determine our riches and our legacy.

In the case of the Buddha, he transformed the dominant culture of his time and place by putting ethical behavior at the center, whereas before that everyone’s fates were thought to be determined by the class or caste they were born into. While he was alive, the Buddha’s followers included people of every class, and eventually women, also from all of the castes. He emphasized that it was the skill level of our actions (now) which determined whether we were “noble” or not.

So what does this mean for us? We can only choose from the available choices. The Stoics advise us to be “indifferent” to things beyond our control, i.e., to not expect them to be different from how they are, and to not take them personally. Life gives us plenty of surprises both pleasant and unpleasant, but we can always take the time to respond in a deliberate way. 

According to the Stoics, we can only control:

  1. our character (more on what that encompasses later)
  2. our actions and reactions
  3. how we treat others

One definition of dukkha the Buddha provided was not getting what we want and getting what we don’t want. The Buddha and the Stoics both answered the question of how to fulfill our desires by saying, essentially, change your desires. Instead of setting goals which are only very marginally under our control, we can choose to make the central goal of our lives to have tranquility and contentment and (possibly) to be of service. Pursuing these goals would necessarily mean reducing our anxiety about, and negative reactions to, things we cannot change.

In reflecting on this apparently anti-intuitive challenge, we could bring into consciousness the many ways in which our desires drive us to do unskillful, even harmful, things. At some level we think we are masters of the universe when in actuality we are a tiny (but important) part of a vast cosmos in motion. Causes and conditions are constantly changing all around us. If we can be humble and relax into this reality, our real power will be revealed. 

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Stoicism and the Buddha’s teachings

Stoic philosophy has come to my attention recently through a number of channels, so I’ve been taking a deeper look into it. The ancient philosophy from Greece and Rome (not the superficial popular versions of it) have a lot in common with the teachings of the Buddha.

Probably the most significant principle the two share is the importance of accepting our own mortality, learning to live with the knowledge that we don’t have forever and that the most important thing to consider is what we will do now.

One of the Stoic practices that can help us live a better life is the Stoic principle of Memento Mori. In Latin, Memento Mori translates to ‘remember that you will die’. (https://www.orionphilosophy.com/stoic-blog/how-do-stoics-view-death)

“I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” —Epictetus

“It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.” —Marcus Aurelius

I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond death; this is to be reflected on often.  -the Buddha

There are two direct results that come from remembering that we will die and that we don’t know when. The first is that our relationship with time changes.

While we often measure value in terms of dollars or whatever our local currency is, a more meaningful measure would probably be time. If we’re realistic we know that a human lifespan is not infinite, and that our physical abilities diminish once we pass a certain age. As one wise friend recently remarked on turning 80, “I see more of my life behind me than ahead of me”. Whether we are young or old, we can live each day as if it could be our last, as if everything we choose to do matters.

The second result of Memento Mori is understanding that everyone else will also have to die, and that we don’t know beforehand when that will be. Therefore, each interaction, whether with someone we are close to or someone we meet in passing, could be the last time (or the only time) we experience that connection. With people we care about, remembering that each interaction could be our last will likely prevent us from behaving unkindly. Instead, we might remember how much we value and appreciate this person as a whole, and part ways with a blessing, in words or silently. Even with people we hardly know, remembering our mutual mortality could encourage us to compassion.

Remembering that we are mortal doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Everything in our culture sweeps us towards more stimulation, more consumption, more “sugar hits” of entertainment. By taking breaks from social media we can re-orient ourselves to what matters in the precious time we have. For Buddhists, reflecting on and practicing the eightfold path is a way forward. The Stoics have a set of principles that are worth exploring for its commonalities with wisdom ancient and modern.

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Everything is hard before it’s easy

The above quote is usually attributed to German philosopher J.W. Goethe, but revised versions of the same sentiment can be found attributed to different people.


It seems particularly apt when we think about not only establishing a regular meditation practice, but also with respect to pursuing the ethical trainings contained in the Buddha’s eightfold path. For laypeople like (most of) us, giving considered attention to our words and actions is hard work, but this is an essential form of mind training. Instead of letting our awareness wander over whatever catches our attention, we consciously direct at least part of our mental energy to our intentions. We listen to our words and consider what effect they are having on the people who hear us (or see us – body language is a form of speech, too).

Instead of reacting without thinking, we can take the time to reflect before responding to what others are doing or saying, and doing or saying nothing is always worth considering. If we take the time to try to understand a situation fully before deciding on a plan of action, we may bring the perfect ingredient to an interaction. As the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle points out, we affect processes simply by observing them.

Reflecting on how our words and actions affect others and ourselves doesn’t come naturally for most people; however, the second part of the phrase is also true. We can cultivate the habit of behaving mindfully; we can learn to pause before speaking and before taking action. When the habit starts to feel natural, we may notice that life gets that little bit easier because we are non-participants in creating or amplifying friction. When others are creating trouble, we can be a calming presence, even the voice (or image?) of reason and kindness. If we learn to lead with compassion, there can be joy even in difficult situations. We can become our own little zone of safety and well-being.

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Why Bother?

The laziness gene is buried so deep in our psyches that we are usually unaware of it, and yet overcoming our inherent laziness is part of just about every decision we make. Our inertia discourages us from considering our intentions, and from actively pursuing acts of body, speech, and mind that move us towards freedom. Sometimes we forget that we even have good intentions until something nudges our awareness.

When we have a “to do” list, do we pursue the easily accomplished items first? Or do we choose the item we least want to do? It is well within human nature to put off a difficult task, sometimes indefinitely. If we name and become familiar with our own personal resistance and its characteristics, we can change our relationship to it. We could invite our laziness along at the start of a run or an attempt to clean out the shed or garage. Usually, if we become engaged in a project and can envision a positive outcome, or at least an end, our resistance disappears.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu has posited a “committee of voices running your mind”. Mindfulness is the chairperson of our committee (we hope) and essential to managing our priorities and our energy.

From a Dhamma talk called “Impossible Things” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/meditations.html#impossible)

The Buddha said that there are four types of action in the world: things we like to do that give good results, things we don’t like to do that give bad results, things we like to do that give bad results, and things we don’t like to do that give good results. The first two are no-brainers. Without even thinking, you do the things that you like to do and give good results. There’s no conflict in the mind. The same holds true for things you don’t like to do that give bad results. You don’t want to do them. There’s no discussion. The committee is unanimous.

The difficult actions are the ones you like to do but give bad results and the ones you don’t like to do but give good results. The Buddha had an interesting comment on these two. He said they’re a measure of a person’s wisdom and discernment. He didn’t say they’re a measure of your willpower. You need to use discernment to do the things you don’t like to do but give good results and to not do the things you like to do but give bad results. The discernment lies not only in seeing the connection between cause and effect in each case, but also in outmaneuvering the committee members [in your mind] who just want to do what they want to do regardless. It learns to see through the blockades that the mind puts up for itself, the difficulties it creates for itself, and figures out how to get past them.

Sometimes not doing anything is doing something.

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We create the path

It is as if a person, traveling in the forest, were to see an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by people of former times. Following it, the person would see an ancient city, an ancient capital inhabited by people of former times, complete with parks, groves, and ponds, walled, delightful. Then going to the ruler of the country, the person would say, “your majesty, while traveling in the forest I saw an ancient path; I followed it and found an ancient city, an ancient, abandoned capital. Your majesty, restore that city!”

“In the same way I saw an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by the Awakened Ones of former times. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road, traveled by the Awakened Ones of former times? It is the noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the ancient path, the ancient road leading to direct knowledge.” (from Samyutta Nikaya 12.65, translated by Gil Fronsdal)

The above story, which some of us consider gripping, is quoted from an excellent small book by Gil Fronsdal called Steps to Liberation: The Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Gil further says: “The Buddha’s teachings describe an accessible path to liberation. The ancient Buddhist metaphor of a path draws on the idea of a cleared passageway that allows one to move through an otherwise impassable forest. Just as we bring our entire body along when walking on a path in the forest, so a practitioner enters the Buddhist path by engaging all aspects of who he or she is. Yet there’s an important difference between a physical path and the one described in the Buddhist literature. A physical path exists whether we walk on it or not. But the Buddhist path exists only in our engagement with it. We create the path with the activities of our minds, hearts, and bodies. All teachings about the Eightfold path are simply instructions indicating how we create the path as we go.”

So, to extend the metaphor, it’s up to us to clear the path and re-create the ancient city; it doesn’t exist without our efforts and vision (faith). Maybe we’re not personally expecting or even hoping for total liberation from suffering, but we can pitch in and help clear the path for others. There are people who are giving their best efforts to this project, and we can be inspired by them and follow their lead. Some of the leaders who inspire me most are Ayya Tathaloka, Ajahn Sumedho, and Bhikkhu Bodhi. Among those who are no longer with us, the writings of Ayya Khema and Ajahn Chah never fail to uplift.

We are all finding our way. We do what we can, with each others’ help.

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How to be a good friend

We’ve talked about how to choose good friends, but reciprocity is an essential element of strong friendships, so how can we know whether or not we are good for those we consider friends?

It’s often easier to recognize good or bad character in others than it is in ourselves. Mindfulness is required to be able to judge whether our thoughts, words, and actions reflect the characteristics of a good friend.

In Pali, kalyāṇa is an adjective meaning beautiful, helpful, morally good, and mitta is a noun meaning a friend who possesses the qualities of kindness and love. A kalyāṇa-mitta is a friends who has notable virtues of heart and mind and can act as a mentor.

If we cultivate continuous awareness of whether our words are kind or unkind, truthful or false (e.g., exaggerated or purely speculative), it will be a good start. Do we make promises we can’t keep? Should people listen to and believe what we say? Can we keep our silence when speech is unnecessary or unhelpful? How much of our conversation is simply people reporting their likes and dislikes to each other? Trustworthiness is built over time by consistently embodying right speech and action.

An important baseline we can look for is whether we are giving appropriate attention to the important relationships in our lives. Some friends (and some of us) will benefit from frequent contact, via any medium. Others prefer meaningful activities or conversations on a more spread-out schedule. Are there people we contact regularly? Is there a good reason for the communications? Almost everyone likes to be remembered, and one way to deepen a friendship is simply to check in at reasonable intervals so you don’t fall out of touch with those you value. If you use social media then group chats can be very helpful in sharing and asking for news, with the caveat that they are best if they’re closed groups of people who know each other (in person). However, our highest quality and most informative communication is living person to living person. It takes more effort, but the rewards make it worthwhile.

We can’t be a good friend to some and treat others with disdain. With strangers, acquaintances, and close friends, our behavior reflects our level of awakening. Mindfulness will help us align our aspirations with our conduct.

When our friends have good fortune, are we happy to celebrate with them? Who are the people whom we help without being asked?  Noble friendship requires, attention, action, love, and respect.

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What makes a good friend?

… Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One [the Buddha], “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path. (from SN 45.2, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.002.than.html)

This well-known passage from the Pali canon is often cited to emphasize that who we choose as friends can determine whether we become more or less awakened. In this sutta, the Buddha is addressing his attendant, another monk. What about for those of us who are not in robes? How do we know which friends will support our aspirations and which ones won’t?

First of all, if you’re lucky enough to live in the vicinity of trustworthy, ordained Buddhist nuns or monks, you might pay them a visit. Even if we might not see them often, they are there to help guide us in a wholesome direction, at least in theory, and often in practice.

But what of the people we see regularly in lay life? What should we look for? There’s a sutta that lists the qualities of a false friend and the contrasting qualities of a compassionate friend. While they don’t mention social media behavior, the list is still applicable today.

From https://suttacentral.net/dn31/en/kelly-sawyer-yareham?reference=none&highlight=false

“Young man, be aware of these four enemies disguised as friends: the taker, the talker, the flatterer, and the reckless companion.

“The taker can be identified by four things: by only taking, asking for a lot while giving little, performing duty out of fear, and offering service in order to gain something.

“The talker can be identified by four things: by reminding of past generosity, promising future generosity, mouthing empty words of kindness, and protesting personal misfortune when called on to help.

“The flatterer can be identified by four things: by supporting both bad and good behavior indiscriminately, praising you to your face, and putting you down behind your back.

“The reckless companion can be identified by four things: by accompanying you in drinking, roaming around at night, partying, and gambling.”

“The friend who is all take,
The friend of empty words,
The friend full of flattery,
And the reckless friend;

“These four are not friends, but enemies;
The wise understand this
And keep them at a distance
As they would a dangerous path.”

“The compassionate friend can be identified by four things: by not rejoicing in your misfortune, delighting in your good fortune, preventing others from speaking ill of you, and encouraging others who praise your good qualities.”

“The friend who is a helper,
The friend through thick and thin,
The friend who gives good counsel,
And the compassionate friend;

“These four are friends indeed,
The wise understand this
And attend on them carefully,
Like a mother her own child.

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As we try to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice in our lives, a good starting point would be to give attention to our relationships. Our inner circle can’t contain more than a few people. Who are they? Every relationship is unique and contains both positive and negative characteristics; where is the balance in each of our closest relationships?

This from Bhikkhu Bodhi:

Particularly critical to our spiritual progress is our selection of friends and companions, who can have the most decisive impact upon our personal destiny. It is because he perceived how susceptible our minds can be to the influence of our companions that the Buddha repeatedly stressed the value of good friendship (kalyanamittata) in the spiritual life. The Buddha states that he sees no other thing that is so much responsible for the arising of unwholesome qualities in a person as bad friendship, nothing so helpful for the arising of wholesome qualities as good friendship (AN 1.vii,10; I.viii,1). Again, he says that he sees no other external factor that leads to so much harm as bad friendship, and no other external factor that leads to so much benefit as good friendship (AN 1.x,13,14). It is through the influence of a good friend that a disciple is led along the Noble Eightfold Path to release from all suffering (from SN 45:2). (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_26.html)

It’s often said that the most important choice we make is the choice of a life partner, spouse, or living companion, because this will be the person who most influences all of our other choices. If we live alone, it may be our closest friends who supply the context for our thinking and decison-making. Some have family members as their closest people, others have chosen families; all are valid and all are important.

So if we are aiming at spiritual development, also called “becoming a better person”, we can’t do better than to find a companion with whom to pursue our chosen path. It might be a meditation buddy, or a religious practice group, or someone with whom we share a key goal. We try to find friends who bring out the best in us, who care for our wellbeing and development, and for whom we have the same level of care. This cannot be rushed or mail-ordered; it takes awareness and focus.

Each of us is unique; we are our own mix of virtues and flaws, so we are looking for an “on balance” evaluation of whether someone is a good or not-so-good friend. And absolutely essential is that we nurture our own ability to be a good friend to others, whether we are close to them or not. None of this works without reciprocal respect.

More on friendship next time…

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