So you’ve been dating someone and you think they’re pretty great. You have a lot in common, you have strong physical chemistry, and all your friends think you’re a great couple. But there’s something nagging you, tugging at you right beneath the surface. You notice that you’re more distracted than before you were dating, and not necessarily as kind or giving with other people. How do you know if your partner is good for your spiritual path—or good for you in general?
There is a beautiful Buddhist text dating back to the 14th century known as the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Bodhi can be translated from Sanskrit as “open” or “awake” while sattva can be translated as “being,” so it is an open-hearted being. A meditation master known as Ngulchu Thogme composed these verses so that we could live a full life with open hearts in order to be helpful to those around us. Many of these practices revolve around applying virtue to even the toughest of our everyday situations. For example:
When in reliance on someone, your defects wane
And your positive qualities grow like the waxing moon,
To cherish such a spiritual friend even more than your own body
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.
At first, this verse might sound confusing. You might think, “Sure I’ve gained some relationship weight, but no need to call me a waxing moon!” What Ngulchu Thogme is saying here is that when you’re in a relationship with someone (romantic or otherwise) they would ideally take on the role of a true spiritual friend. That doesn’t always mean they sit around praising you and taking you to yoga classes. In fact, a spiritual friend might even cut your ego a bit here and there; it’s not all sunshine and unicorns. But the overall idea here is that when you spend time with them, your positive qualities—like your kindness, compassion, and patience—grow. Even if they are testing those things and the growth comes from you rising to the occasion, that’s considered a beautiful relationship.
On the flip side of the coin, Ngulchu Thogme is saying that your defects—those bad habits and tendencies we all have—would be less present when you’re supported by a spiritual friend. Again, he’s referring to any friendship, which might be a family member, a mentor, or even a work colleague. But in terms of our romantic relationships, we don’t want our anger, self-doubt, and slanderous tendencies to be on full display as a result of us being influenced by this other person.
The author Jim Rohn once famously said that we have an average of the five people we spend the most time with. That might include your family members and your friends, but if you’re in a long-term relationship, it’s definitely going to include your partner. There’s no denying it: This person is either going to bring about the best qualities you have inside you or bring out the most neurotic aspects of who you are. You have to choose this person wisely and, if you’re in a romantic relationship already, keep a watchful eye on the effect they are having on you.
Often we think that because we have so much in common with our partner that the relationship should just work. We’re compatible with this person, they seem to understand our weird eccentricities, so why do you sense that things feel “off?”
Years ago, I was giving a talk in Boston about romantic relationships, and how they often get railroaded by our fixed expectations of what they should look like (as opposed to embracing what’s happening in a given moment). A woman raised her hand. She was in her late twenties, she said, and had a pretty good idea at this point what she wanted in a boyfriend. So she sat down with an 8 1/2 x 11” legal pad and wrote it all out. It was an incredibly specific list that spanned two or three pages. It didn’t just say, “Must like dogs,” it said, “Must like big dogs.” It didn’t say, “Must like nature,” it said, “Must like hiking AND camping.”
This woman then did what so many of us do these days: She went online to find the perfect spouse. She would review men’s profiles and see that one guy, for example, had a golden retriever but didn’t mention anything about camping, so he was out. Finally she found a few suitable candidates that met her detailed demands. She went out with these guys and, despite being perfectly compatible on paper, she did not feel an ounce of magic in their presence.
Frustrated, she threw the list in a cabinet and shortly thereafter met a man who, in her words, flew in the face of everything written on that list and they began dating. He was, she said, a spiritual friend in that their relationship was encouraging more joy, relaxation, and ease in her life. I’m happy to say that years later they are married.
If you cling too tightly to the various things you need in a partner to be happy, you will ignore the very essence of the person you are spending time with. Instead of making a long list of hopes such as, “I wish this person was taller/shorter/thinner/more fit,” or shopping around to find someone who might be more compatible, you should ask yourself the simple question Ngulchu Thogme laid out: Is this person a true spiritual friend?
If you find that the person you are spending much of your time with is bringing out the best in you, then it’s a cause for celebration. Your partner is a spiritual friend. If you fear that you are only getting more frustrated, depressed, and agitated as a result of continuing to see this person you might need to check in with your gut. This may be someone you need to cut out of your life and look around to see if there are other beings in your life who are true spiritual friends.
Feel like you might need to cut someone out of your life? Here’s another verse from Ngulchu Thogme that discusses just that.