True friendship is essential to our spiritual journey, yet there are times when we may need to discern who actually is a true friend and who, unfortunately, we may need to cut out of our lives.
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 friendship with someone
Causes the three poisons to increase,
Degrades the activities of listening, reflecting, and meditating,
And destroys loving kindness and compassion,
To give up such a friendship
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.
We’ve all had those friends: the ones who keep us out all night, with whom we think we’re having a great time, but then we wake up the next morning not even remembering what we talked about, feeling drained and yucky. It’s the friend that is never there when you actually need to have a heart-to-heart, but is there in a second when tequila is being served. In other words, it’s the flakey friend who promotes only your most negative tendencies and, thus, might need to get voted off the island.
This is in contrast to a true spiritual friend: someone who brings out the best in you and is willing to call you on your bullshit when it arises. The Zen master Seung Sahn once explained these sorts of relationships with an analogy from his childhood: in order to clean potatoes in Korea his family would dump a large number of them into a tub of water, put in a stick, and move it vigorously around so that the potatoes would crash against one another, thus knocking off the dirt. In the same vein, a spiritual friend is someone who will figuratively crash against our ego, knocking off some of our negative traits and obscurations so that we end up, well, spiritually cleaner.
In the opening two lines of this verse Ngulchu Thogme points to one thing that can often happen in a negative friendship: we end up feeling dragged down. The three poisons, from a Buddhist perspective, are when we get hopelessly stuck in passion, aggression, or ignorance. When we sit down with a friend and we begin to only gossip about our potential romantic partners, trash-talk everyone we know, or merely stare at our phones across the table from one another, these are indicators that the friendship we have may not be rooted in the best of qualities.
The next two lines showcase the effects of these types of interactions: we end up frivolously wasting our time not only with that friend, but with other people. Our minds are plastic – whatever habits we develop in relationship with our close friends are the same habits we will perpetuate in the rest of our life: with our family, at work, and in our romantic relationships. All of a sudden we start zoning out and being passive-aggressive with everyone else we encounter and we feel like we’re not living the life we want, period.
Because we are developing habits with that particular friend based on stuck versions of passion, aggression, and ignorance, in the rest of our day we wallow in those habits when relating to others. Ngulchu Thogme points out that we stop listening to other people, and instead space out when they talk and wait not-so-patiently for our turn to speak. We don’t contemplate or reflect on how to be a better person. Our meditation practice and other forms of self-care go in the toilet.
When we live a life devoid of these three ways of being a spiritual person—listening, contemplating, and meditating—our own ability to develop love and respect for ourselves and others decrease. We’re too lost in our own heads and not able to live a spiritual life. Thanks, supposed friend, for bringing out only the negative aspects of our life.
The conclusion of the traditional verse points to what we may already suspect: this friendship is bad news and ought to be given up. If you have a friend who brings about the qualities of love and compassion, you should cherish them. If you have a friend who constantly undermines those qualities, it might be time to friend-break-up with them.
The only thing Ngulchu Thogme doesn’t tell us is how a bodhisattva breaks up with their friend; that’s on us to figure out. If we do want to cultivate the qualities of kindness as a result of breaking up with this friend, we should start by applying that quality to the break-up itself. That means no disappearing on the person, or throwing their stuff in the driveway and texting them to come get it. It means taking the time to say a proper goodbye, or at least to say you may not be able to spend so much time with them in the future.
In fact, it might be worth sitting down and trying to engage them in a real conversation around what you really value in a friendship. Who knows? They might actually hear you, hate the same bad habits you two have developed, and also want to shift the relationship in a new direction. We never need to give up on anyone; even our seemingly negative friendships might still be salvaged through bringing more compassion into the mix. And if not, then as the 14th century meditation master warned us, it’s our job to compassionately cut them out.