Mindful Friendships

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Dear Still Water Friends,

One of my most vivid memories of my friend, Dotz Darrah, is of her calling my name at the Farmer’s Market on a hot summer day in Takoma Park. Dotz and I had met a few times before that day, once at the local yoga center, and again, unexpectedly, in Connecticut at a weekend poetry workshop where we took a couple of long walks together and discussed the workshop.

But that bright day at the farmer’s market stays with me. I didn’t recognize the voice calling my name at first and then I saw Dotz, loaded down with bags, smiling at me and waving.

“I’ve been thinking about you,” she said in her cheerful way, putting a couple bags down to give me a hug, “I’m taking a personal growth class in the fall which I think you would like.”

When I expressed interest, she invited me to walk back to her house a few blocks away to show me the brochure. I remember feeling excited that she had thought of me even though we didn’t know each other that well. I had the sense of a door opening between us, that I was being invited to step forward into the new space of a possible friendship. Dotz puts it this way, “It was as if we began to create a mini-sangha between us, even with just the two of us.”

That was in 2003. Over the years our friendship has gone through a testing and deepening process as friendships must, as we’ve helped each other navigate through our lives.

We did take that personal growth class together, and then afterward, started doing a weekly phone check-in session with each other that continued for six years. In order to do this and be friends in daily life, we worked out rules of confidentiality and clear boundaries. So besides helping each other through tricky experiences of depression, insomnia, a relationship breakup and a big move, we also did things like watching a tv series together, going appliance shopping, and cooking dinner at each other’s houses.

For both of us, our friendship has taught us to trust and believe in ourselves and celebrate our places in the world. Dotz says, “Seeing and holding our friend’s strengths, with more clarity than she could see them, allowed each of us to believe that those strengths were real and then gradually we began to “have” them and claim them for our own. A deep sense of lovingkindness and caring became a natural outgrowth and grew into a sense of interbeing and interconnectedness that we could trust as one little piece of what we sense and appreciate exists with all beings.”

We found that being able to explore and now even celebrate our differences and be accepted completely by the other person has given us each a taste of unconditional love. There is a sense of balance and wholeness in recognizing that we are our own best friend first, and that the other person is not there to do our work for us or to complete us. This excerpt from Love’s Garden by Peggy Rowe Ward and Larry Ward, has helped me better understand this process of transformation.

True Love

Maitri is the first aspect of true love, the intention and the capacity to offer joy and happiness. Listening and looking deeply help us to develop this capacity so that we can be a good friend to ourselves and to others. Some Buddhist teachers define maitri as “loving-kindness” because they believe the word “love” has become tarnished in our popular language. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the phrase “true love,” encouraging us to restore love to its true meaning.

The second aspect of true love is karuna, the intention and capacity to lighten sorrow and relieve and transform suffering. Karuna is generally translated as “compassion.” To develop compassion in ourselves, we need to practice mindful breathing, deep listening, and deep looking. Looking deeply and listening carefully, you understand the suffering of the other person. You accept him or her, and naturally your love and compassion flow freely.’

So this Thursday night, after our regular sitting and walking time, we invite you to an evening of exploring what a mindful friendship means and brings up for you. We’ll do a short guided meditation and then have a dharma discussion and sharing on this topic.

An excerpt on Maitri and Karuna by Thich Nhat Hanh is below.

Many blessings,

Eliza King and Dotz Darrah

Maitri and Karuna,

From Teachings on Love by Thich Nhat Hanh

The first aspect of true love is maitri, the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness. To develop that capacity, we have to practise looking and listening deeply so that we know what to do and what not to do to make others happy. If you offer your beloved something she does not need, that is not maitri. You have to see her real situation or what you offer might bring her unhappiness.

In Southeast Asia, many people are extremely fond of a large, thorny fruit called durian. You could even say they are addicted to it. Its smell is extremely strong, and when some people finish eating the fruit, they put the skin under their bed so they can continue to smell it. To me, the smell of durian is horrible. One day when I was practising chanting in my temple in Vietnam, there was a durian on the altar that had been offered to the Buddha. I was trying to recite the Lotus Sutra, using a wooden drum and a large bowl-shaped bell for accompaniment, but I could not concentrate at all. I finally carried the bell to the altar and turned it upside down to imprison the durian, so I could chant the sutra. After I finished, I bowed to the Buddha and liberated the durian. If you were to say to me, ‘Thay, I love you so much I would like you to eat some of this durian,’ I would suffer. You love me, you want me to be happy, but you force me to eat durian. That is an example of love without understanding.

Without understanding, your love is not true love. You must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the one you love. We all need love. Love brings us joy and wellbeing. It is as natural as the air. We are loved by the air; we need fresh air to be happy and well. We are loved by trees. We need trees to be healthy. In order to be loved, we have to love, which means we have to understand. For our love to continue, we have to take the appropriate action or nonaction to protect the air, the trees, and our beloved.

Maitri can be translated as ‘love’ or ‘loving kindness’. Some Buddhist teachers prefer ‘loving kindness,’ as they find the word ‘love’ too dangerous. But I prefer the word ‘love’. Words sometimes get sick and we have to heal them. We have been using the word ‘love’ to mean appetite or desire, as in ‘I love hamburgers’. We have to use language more carefully. ‘Love’ is a beautiful word; we have to restore its meaning. The word maitri has roots in the word mitra which means friend. In Buddhism, the primary meaning of love is friendship.

We all have the seeds of love in us. We can develop this wonderful source of energy, nurturing the unconditional love that does not expect anything in return. When we understand someone deeply, even someone who has done us harm, we cannot resist loving him or her. Shakyamuni Buddha declared that the Buddha of the next aeon will be named ‘Maitreya, the Buddha of Love’.

The second aspect of true love is karuna, the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. Karuna is usually translated as ‘compassion’, but that is not exactly correct. ‘Compassion’ is composed of com (‘together with’) and passion (‘to suffer’). But we do not need to suffer to remove suffering from another person. Doctors, for instance, can relieve their patients’ suffering without experiencing the same disease in themselves. If we suffer too much, we may be crushed and unable to help. Still, until we find a better word, let us use ‘compassion’ to translate karuna.

To develop compassion in ourselves, we need to practise mindful breathing, deep listening, and deep looking. The Lotus Sutra describes Avalokiteshvara as the bodhisattva who practises ‘looking with the eyes of compassion and listening deeply to the cries of the world.’ Compassion contains deep concern. You know the other person is suffering, so you sit close to her. You look and listen deeply to her to be able to touch her pain. You are in deep communication, deep communion with her, and that alone brings some relief.

One compassionate word, action, or thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring him joy. One word can give comfort and confidence, destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, or open the door to liberation. One action can save a person’s life or help him take advantage of a rare opportunity. One thought can do the same, because thoughts always lead to words and actions. With compassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring about a miracle.

When I was a novice, I could not understand why, if the world is filled with suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn’t he disturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha has enough understanding, calm, and strength; that is why the suffering does not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because he knows how to take care of it and to help transform it. We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drown us if karuna is there. That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.