If you find an intelligent companion,
A fellow traveler
A sage of good conduct,
You should travel together,
Delighted and mindful,
Overcoming all dangers.
If you do not find an intelligent companion,
A fellow traveler
Of good conduct and wise,
Like a king renouncing a conquered kingdom,
Like the elephant Matanga in the forest.
Dhammapada v. 328-329, translated by Gil Fronsdal
One of the commentaries explains that Matanga was an elephant who had had enough of the difficulties of living with a herd and so went off to enjoy a solitary life in the forest [footnote from Gil F.]. Elephants are normally herd animals, and so are humans. Usually we prefer to share our time and experience with others with whom we have something in common.
These verses give an oft-repeated lesson: Better to be alone than with the wrong person/people.
It’s a challenge we’re all familiar with, starting (probably) in middle school when cliques are forming. Do we want to affiliate with the jocks, the rebels, the nerds, the theatre people, some other group, or no one? Which groups would we be welcome in? Where might we feel comfortable?
In the early stages, this affiliation/non-affiliation process can help us figure out who we are and what direction we want to take. Fortunately, no decision is permanent and we can try on different ways of being until our “best” pathway (for the present) becomes clear. Later, the situations and opportunities for affiliation are more fluid. People appear and disappear in the workplace or our social circles or families, a new interest brings us into contact with new people, we move locations – the picture keeps changing.
An ancient truth is that the most important decision we can make in our life is who we choose as a life companion. This one decision sets a long and powerful trajectory, every time.
The key question is: NOW, who are our traveling companions? Who are the ones we want to listen to and think things through with? We can cultivate these relationships over a lifetime, and all the electronic options available now make staying in touch with precious friends much easier than it once was. But we are easily distracted. Who are the important companions in our life? And do we keep integrating them into our days and weeks, and do we appreciate them?