In his essay titled Spiritual Friendship (http://www.bps.lk/olib/nl/nl057.pdf#nameddest=a), Bhikkhu Bodhi identifies two types of spiritual friendship: the “horizontal type” and the “vertical type.” Today we take up the horizontal type in which the friends are at roughly the same level in following the path.
In our worldly life, our friendships are very closely connected with personal attachments, which in turn are rooted in our own egocentric needs. Even when we think we love the other person, often we really love that person because this relationship in some way satisfies a deep need within ourselves. When the other person fails to satisfy this deep need within us, our feelings quickly become embittered and our love turns into resentment or even enmity.
But when we enter into a spiritual friendship based upon dedication to a common goal, this friendship helps us to transform our attachments and ego-centred drives. Even more, it helps us to transcend the very idea of the ego-self as a substantive reality. Spiritual friendship, we discover, is not about satisfying my personal needs, or even about my satisfying the other person’s personal needs. It’s about each of us contributing as best we can to uplift each other, and to bring each other closer to the ideals of the Dharma.
In spiritual friendship we are concerned with the other person not because of the ways that person satisfies us, but because we want to see the other person grow and develop in the direction of greater wisdom, greater virtue, greater understanding. We want the other person’s wholesome qualities to attain maturity and bring forth fruits for the benefit of others. This is the essence of “horizontal” spiritual friendship: a keen interest in helping our friends grow and develop in the practice of the Dharma, in maturing their potential for goodness, for understanding, for wholesomeness.
I’m reminded of a line from the movie, “As Good As it Gets”. The character played by Jack Nicholson is trying to explain to the Helen Hunt character why he wants to be with her. He says, “You make me want to be a better man.”
This is the characteristic that we look for in spiritual friends. Do they make us want to be better people? And conversely, do we help them become their best selves? Can we imagine ourselves and our friends moving away from energetic attempts to satisfy our ego-driven wants and needs and towards releasing clinging? Is there some evidence of the intention to head in this direction?
We can ask ourselves whether our life partnerships are based on ego-needs or a mutual desire to help each other grow; it’s often a mix of the two. Healthy, long-lasting relationships depend on a gradual shift in motivation from “getting what I need/want” to “how can we support the best in each other?” It is possible to discuss this question openly.
If we find ourselves trying to control others, it’s a sure sign that we are acting from our own ego-needs. We can interrupt this process and attempt to generate an open, loving, accepting, and nourishing field for ourselves and others to grow in.