Like someone pointing to treasure
Is the wise person
Who sees your faults and points them out.
Associate with such a sage.
Good will come of it, not bad,
If you associate with one such as this.
Let one such as this advise you, instruct you,
And restrain you from rude behavior.
Such a person is pleasing to good people,
But displeasing to the bad. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
Joseph Goldstein used to pose the question: Would you rather find a wrapped gift waiting for you when you come to breakfast, or someone who reveals your flaws to you? It’s a great question because it highlights our reluctance to investigate our obstructions and also how easily we’re distracted by pretty wrapping paper.
Of course, in practice, only someone who knows us well has standing to help us in this way. Only a trusted friend can give constructive criticism, and probably only if invited, specifically or generally. Ideally, if we have a kalyāṇa mitta, a good friend, there is a mutual understanding that we can speak openly and will listen humbly.
There have been a few memorable moments when someone gave me a wake-up call. Once, I was told “Listen to yourself!”, which was exactly what I needed to shake me out of my self-involvement at that moment. The phrase has often been useful as a mindfulness tool.
Another standout moment occurred many years ago, while I was in a practice interview with Bhante Gunaratana. I was worrying about a family member and saying that I felt responsible. He sat up straight, held his index finger in the air, and said sternly, “You only have one responsibility and that is to work out your liberation!” It struck me as truth, and still does.
I’ve also been reminded by Dharma friends that even though we’re on the same path, our approaches will vary; our karmic needs are not all the same; our choices and timing will differ. This is useful to remember with everyone we encounter.
An important question is whether we seek out friendships which might result in mutual improvement or only those which confirm our biases and preferences. Who are our trusted friends? Do we cultivate those relationships and value them appropriately? Is our radar sensitive enough to pick up the signals from potential friends who see with clarity and listen with heart?