What do you do when you find you’ve changed — but your friends haven’t? Bodhipaksa recounts how he found himself growing apart from one set of friends, and closer to a new set who were more supportive of his spiritual quest.
I was at university when I started practicing Buddhism. I was surrounded by fellow students who were like me. We thought the height of happiness was to party, to drink, to trade insults, and to find someone to have sex with. I was at vet school, and most of us thought that meat-eating was natural and right, and that animals existed in order to be devoured. When I took up meditation I found myself changing. Over time I started to find myself more at home with the people who hung out at my local Buddhist center — people who were vegetarian, interested in philosophy and meaningful conversations, and people who valued tranquility as an opportunity to deepen self-awareness.
I started to find many (although not all) of the people that I used to hang out with at college to be rather negative and shallow. Their conversations often didn’t interest me. Since I hadn’t gone very deep in my practice, I was rather judgmental, and socially inept to boot. I experienced a lot of ill will towards people because they weren’t spiritual enough, which is rather richly ironic. This caused me a lot of pain, and probably didn’t make others happy either.
Thinking that we’re ‘spiritual’ while others aren’t is an ego trip.
But I was relatively lucky in that I made new friends in the Buddhist community, and had a gradual switch over from one set of friends to another. I experienced tensions between the two communities I was involved in, but at least I wasn’t isolated. A lot of people find themselves in a similar situation as they begin to practice. They start to find their work colleagues gossipy and trivial. They can find that family members resent the fact that they’re changing. How do we deal with this?
I think you have some valuable spiritual opportunities when we’re in this kind of situation. One opportunity is to practice patience with your old friends. It’s good to remember that at one time you did fit in with them, and at that time presumably you had much the same conversational style and interests as they still have. Thinking that we’re “spiritual” while others aren’t is an ego trip.
Another opportunity we have is to learn to be more skilled in communication. This can have a big effect on people. I had a friend in Scotland of whom I can honestly say that I never heard him criticizing anyone at any time. In fact if he heard me being critical then he would almost always present another point of view about the person or thing I was criticizing, which shifted the perspective and really brought me up short. And he did this in a very friendly way that gave me no cause for reactivity. He never pointed out, for example, that I was being critical — he just quietly came in with a more considered point of view. I’d suddenly realize that I had been unkind and one-sided in my speech.
We frequently overlook the positive, especially when we develop a habit of judging others.
And there’s an art as well in steering people into deeper levels of conversation. You can bring the topic back into focus when people are wandering off into other areas. You can ask questions to go deeper (basically being a good, active listener). You can challenge in a friendly way. If you’re challenging how the group as a whole communicates, then it’s far better to talk in terms of how “we” communicate rather than how “you” communicate. You can share something deeper from your own experience (although you have to be careful about this since it’s not helpful to offer up your soul to be trampled on). You have the opportunity to be, in short, a leader — the proverbial one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.
We can also practice “rejoicing in merits,” or “giving positive feedback”, as it’s more commonly known. We frequently overlook the positive, especially when we develop a habit of judging others. When we’ve decided that other people are “unspiritual” we can find ourselves focusing on what we consider to be their faults, and filtering out anything positive that they do. Our perceptions of others can be very selective. People are “stubborn” when they stick with a point of view we don’t agree with; they’re “committed” when they stick with a point of view we find favor with. People are “fickle” if they change their minds and disagree with us; they’re flexible when they change their minds and support our opinions. We need to learn to see the positive in others, and also to support its development. Tell someone she’s just done something that’s friendly, and she’s more likely to act in a friendly way in the future.
Tell someone she’s just done something that’s friendly, and she’s more likely to act in a friendly way in the future.
If, as sometimes happens, we find ourselves stuck with “old” friends but haven’t found a new community to practice with, we have an opportunity to seek out people who are more like-minded. We may have to take the initiative and to be more out-going, rather than hoping people will magically find us. If we make the first move, the magic may well happen. I had a lovely experience some years ago when I was speaking at a conference in Missoula. At lunch time someone sat beside me (because I looked friendly, he said). It turned out that he, like me, had recently moved to Missoula, he had lived in Scotland (my homeland), had an interest in the relationship between Buddhism and business (my master’s degree topic), and had like me run a retreat center. It was rather eerie, and of course we’ve been friends ever since. But I had to make the decision to go to the conference, and be open to meeting new people.
But there may be some of the people that you currently hang out with that you don’t want to maintain contacts with. That would be a very sensible thing to do. The Buddha was forever warning people to hang out with friends who would actually support and encourage what is best in you rather than undermine it. If people have a very negative effect on you, despite your best efforts, those are relationships you may want to put behind you. At the same time there’s no point in isolating yourself. You need to find a balance.
I have been having some worries about these feelings recently, so it was lovely and reassuring to read this and realise it’s a stage that many people go through when they have found a different path to follow – thanks for the positive suggestions!
Thank you. I needed this today.
Thanks just something I struggle with. And for that reason I have ended a relationship. I hope for a small part we stay little friends, but for the bigger thing it’s better that we go either our own way.
I find the “making new friends” part the hardest by far, as I’m primarily homebound due to disability and it’s really hard to meet new people when you can’t … well … go out and meet new people! I have some new friends I’ve met via the internet and subsequently also become flesh-and-blood friends with but that depends on proximity and some high degree of luck. Hosting gatherings at my house and encouraging friends to bring other friends (ones I haven’t met yet) works but is a huge amount of effort on my part (relative to my ability) so I can’t do it often.
I wish there was a wave-a-magic-wand way to find the people closest to me who are looking for new friends – I’d be willing to bet there’s a lot of lonely people in a 2km radius of my house, but finding them is tricky at best!
I admire your proactivity in reaching out for friends, and for hosting gatherings at your house when you’re able.
I have some Buddhist contacts in your area. Want me to ask them to look you up? With your permission I could pass on your email address to them.
All the best,
I’d be thrilled to get in touch with local people, Bodhipaksa! If you email me I’ll give you my phone number to pass on also.
Thank you so very much!
Well, I passed on your email address to two people in the Buddhist community, Ricky. If you hear from them you can give them your phone number yourself. I hope it works out.
I have received an email already from one of them. Thank you so much! :)
I have a question for you… I’m always trying to be nice socially even when I don’t really feel like it. I’ll try to react positively to things I don’t like, act interested when I’m not… and as a result I probably attract a lot of unhealthy friendships. I’m always getting into a dynamic where it feels like someone else is dominating, controlling or being around me/clinging to me without even liking me because they want to use me or talk about their problems constantly and receive sympathy. People try to very actively cling to me and I find it hard to tell them to stay away because they’re so persistent and I’ll just end up getting them angry. Is there really any virtue in being honest and responding honestly when you might offend other people or make them feel rejected? If other people think you’re wrong for how you behave and don’t like it, is it still okay? I just end up resenting the people I’m around because I feel like I have to be nice to them and agree with them. I don’t want to get into unhealthy friendships any more… I don’t want to get over involved with people’s problems so quickly any more… Would you have any insight into this?
I didn’t want you to think I’m ignoring you! I’ve been rather snowed under with work, and either Sunada or I will reply at some point, hopefully before too long.
All the best,
Thanks for your time, I’m grateful for your patience. I wrote that question in a bit of a confused daze and I’m still trying to make sense of what I’ve discovered about my relationships so it may not be well worth answering since I’m not sure what it is I’m asking for yet… Sorry and thankyou.
No, that’s OK! Your question actually sounded very clear to me. Sunada’s going to reply, since I’m getting ready to go on a book tour. She’s an excellent teacher and also a professional Life Coach, so she’s well placed to help you clarify things and to help you evolve strategies for bringing more of a sense of well-being into your relationships.
Let me step in for Bodhipaksa since he’s been so busy lately.
You asked if there’s virtue in being honest if it might offend others. Let me ask you this. When you try to be “nice,” as you put it, and speak in a way that’s not honest to yourself, how does it make you feel? When the Buddha taught about being kind, he meant that to include everyone — including yourself. When we are dishonest with ourselves, we are hurting a living being. That being happens to be yourself, but you are hurting someone nonetheless. And that’s not a helpful thing to do.
There are ways to honestly deliver a message that might not be received well by others. You could gently change the subject if you’re feeling dominated or clung to. And as Bodhipaksa says in this post, you could decide to end friendships that no longer fit for you. Speaking honestly and taking care of yourself is very much a healthy thing to do. We just try to do it in a way that on balance, causes the least amount of harm possible for everyone involved (including YOU!).
I know it’s not always an easy line to draw, between caring for yourself and caring for others. But I encourage you to think things through more, so that you’re looking out for yourself in the mix as well. If you’d like to talk more about this, perhaps I can help. You can find out about my coaching work at my website below.
Thanks for that reply, Sunada… I’ll think about what you said a while longer.
You should always try to harmonize with your surroundings. Whether it’s old buddies, or new ones. Ditching old friends for friends you have met through religion sounds a little “culty.” In places like India, it’s fairly normal to have friends that are more religiously inclined, or of a completely different faith. People go through different phases at different times. I for one, would highly suggest not burning bridges solely based on a recent religious awakening.
Interesting. That is so not what I was saying.