Summary: Radical Friendship By Kate Johnson
Summary: Radical Friendship By Kate Johnson

Summary: Radical Friendship By Kate Johnson

Give What Is Hard to Give

WHEN THE BUDDHA took on new students, the very first practice he taught—before he taught meditation—was the practice of giving. Of the benefits of generosity, he said this:

If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of selfishness overcome their minds. Even if it were their last bite, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared, if there were someone to receive their gift.

I love that, in these passages, the Buddha doesn’t just suggest giving away our excess, the stuff that we don’t really want and were going to get rid of anyway. He asks us to give what is actually a little difficult for us to part with, because to hold back what we could otherwise share is to curb our enjoyment and tighten our hearts.

Radical friendship makes a practice of giving from the place where it stretches us just a bit beyond our comfort zone. That sensation of stretch we may feel in the practice of generosity happens because whenever we give, we are always also giving something up. In radical friendship, we are giving up something of lesser value to receive something of greater value—for example, giving up material goods or other resources to be of service to the people we care about. And through doing so, we get to liberate ourselves from the tendency of the mind to cling in ways that ultimately cause suffering for ourselves and everyone else.


Do What Is Hard to Do

The Buddha proposed that the spiritual friend is someone willing to “do what is hard to do.” And when it comes to friendship, perhaps one of the hardest things to do is to acknowledge that these relationships aren’t always easy. Sure, there’s plenty of joy and hilarity and fun to be had in friendship, but friends can also break your heart. Of course, from the Buddhist perspective, that’s not necessarily always a bad thing. It just means that there’s work to be done.

The nature of that work, the energy of it, matters just as much as the work itself. On this path of practice, how we effort is every bit as important as where and why we apply that effort. Have you ever used a power drill to do a job better suited for a good, old-fashioned screwdriver?

Friendships take some work, but they don’t require our maximum effort all the time. Using too much juice as we reflect on and engage in our radical friendship work can leave us, and our friends, feeling bulldozed. Too little effort though, and it’s not enough to make an impact. We kind of float through, bypassing all kinds of opportunities to grow in wisdom and understanding and love. Wise effort is finding the just-right amount of energy to attend to our hearts when they hurt and to assess the root cause of that hurt. It’s also the effort needed to imagine ourselves into a more liberated way of showing up and dedicating ourselves to practicing that way of being in all areas of our lives.

So yes, radical friendship can be hard work, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a burden. It’s work that results in a certain kind of happiness, one that the Buddha referred to as the “joy of blamelessness.” It’s the joy that comes from living in integrity with our values. It’s the happiness that arises when we break a sweat in the beautiful struggle, that feeling of having carried on with our purpose even when confronted with a huge obstacle. The hard work of radical friendship is like the daily effort to brush our teeth. We may not always feel like it, but we come to love the minty-fresh feeling in our spirits so much that the effort is worth the reward. It’s the kind of hard work that brings more ease, peace, and freedom in the end, and radical friendship is worth it.


Endure What Is Hard to Endure

ENDURANCE IS THE QUALITY of heart and mind that allows us not only to show up in loving relationship but also to stay in loving relationship. Even in harsh conditions. Even over long stretches of time. Authentic relationships take time to grow, and making friends is much more of a long-term practice than a one-time event.

According to the Buddhist teachings, we most often seek stability by solidifying our sense of self, what is sometimes called the “ego-mind.” We try to source stability and endurance by finding a solid and unchanging sense of “me” in our physical characteristics, in the experiences we’ve lived, in the jobs we’ve worked, in the titles we’ve held, and in the things we love and hate and believe. There is a way of relating to these details of our lives that can support our endurance over time as radical friends. And, there’s a way of relating to this being we call “me” that can make us temporarily feel more secure, but makes us more fragile in the long run.

Where fragility coincides with institutionalized power, that is the place where we must build our endurance if we wish to show up as radical friends. Because the question isn’t whether systems of oppression are playing out in our relationships. It’s how are systems of oppression playing out in our relationships. No matter who we are, if we have spent time in a culture where there is ageism, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, we are navigating these societal -isms and -obias in our relationships in some way, consciously or not.

To be reliable, trustworthy friends (mentors, counselors, teachers, neighbors, employers), we need to grow our capacity to be with the discomfort of owning up to our power and of occasionally realizing we’ve been wielding it in ways we didn’t mean to. Our confidence in that capacity to be with unpleasant realities and our clarity about our intentions to shift them are the best antidotes to fragility


Tell Secrets

SECRETS ARE THE TRUTHS of our inner lives, and speech is the bridge that brings these truths out and into the open. In the practice of radical friendship, “telling our secrets” is how we allow ourselves to be seen and known. In this line of the Mitta Sutta, I hear the Buddha encouraging each of us to give voice to our unique way of experiencing and understanding the world so that the people who love us can witness us and, when need be, support us, join us, or have our backs.

Telling secrets is not just about getting something off our chests. It’s also about exposing societal truths that need to change. When the secrets we keep conceal our honest, lived experiences, then remaining silent holds us back from the liberated friendships we seek. If we never let on when we’ve been harmed, then those harms have no chance of being amended. If we never admit when we’ve made a mistake, then our friends can’t rely on us to be accountable and learn from our experiences. And, if we never reveal what we believe, what we care about, and who we truly are, then we deprive the world of our unique loveliness and we deprive ourselves of seeing that loveliness reflected back to us in the eyes of our friends.

That said, it’s not hard to understand why some of us might hesitate to tell our secrets and speak our truths. Historically, it has been strictly taboo to share, even among friends, our thoughts and experiences with money, politics, sex, health, and so many other intimate and real facts of every human life. While the culture is changing and we’re generally becoming more open about subjects that used to be undiscussable, when we openly challenge existing power structures, our words are often dismissed as rude or inappropriate. Taboos and etiquette around speech—whether at home, at school, or at work—often serve to reinforce the status quo.


Keep Secrets

Keeping secrets is the act of receiving these intimate truths from one another, and how well we hold those truths when we receive them. It’s how we listen, and how we respond when those secrets or truths are shared with us. Building trust within friendships has everything to do with how we receive each other as we reveal how we experience our relationships and the world we share. Wise speech is only half of the equation when it comes to liberating communication—and some would say, the less important half.

In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s chapter on wise speech is almost entirely devoted to the practice of compassionate listening. He suggests that when we develop our capacity for deep listening, we are learning to relieve the other person of their suffering, and to listen to them into their own wisdom. When we listen with complete confidence that the person telling their story has everything they need to fully awaken, our listening becomes a force for their healing. It’s a profound shift to move our awareness from what we are going to say in response to the quality of receiving that we are offering our friend, who is taking the risk to open up and share the gift of their inner lives with us. From this perspective, the quality of our listening is more important than the content of any advice we have to offer in reply.

It takes a high level of steadiness and openness to listen to each other this powerfully. When we can hear what someone we love has lived through, and suspend the urge to judge or fix them in the process, their secret truths become invitations to be truly present, right in the middle of all the paradoxes, inconsistencies, traumas, and transformations that every human life contains. This is how deep listening relieves suffering, both for speaker and listener. In this act of giving and receiving, we remember we are not alone.


Don’t Abandon

We can think of the sixth quality of spiritual friendship that the Buddha describes, the quality of “not abandoning each other,” as loyalty: the capacity to stay. Loyalty helps us to build relationships by giving them the commitment they need to deepen, solidify, and grow. At the collective level, there’s no organization, community, or social movement that can survive without a critical mass of people who stay committed to them over the long haul. When we stay with a cause that we care about, we help it to build the mass and momentum it needs to make an impact. The same is true with our friendships. It’s a blessing to make new friends as we move and change. And, there’s just something about being with people who have known us since we had frizzy hair and wore our pants too high.

As individuals, we can experience misfortunes like shaky finances, sickness, injuries, or a mental/emotional challenge like anxiety or depression. Within relationships, misfortunes can take the shape of misunderstandings, misalignments, betrayals—the kinds of friction and breakdowns that happen in the spaces between us. And in communities and organizations, we can experience misfortunes like unexpected changes in leadership, scandals, abuse, as well as the impacts of outside forces beyond our control. Because our individual, relational well-being, and collective well-being aren’t actually separate, misfortunes typically span multiple domains at once.

The sutta states that when any of these kinds of misfortunes strike, the true friend will not abandon you. This is significant because usually when we witness misfortune, our default response as human beings is to back up and turn away, as if poverty, heartbreak, or other hard times might be contagious. It is such a subtle and habitual reaction that we may not even know we’re doing it until we pay attention. The fear of contagion exists even in our relationship with the suffering of our own hearts. We tend to compartmentalize the parts of ourselves that have experienced pain and misfortune. We don’t want to look for fear that looking will make it real, make it spread. But of course, we know in our heart of hearts that looking away takes its toll on our souls.


Don’t Look Down

THE IDEA BEHIND bodhicitta, often translated as “basic goodness,” is that all human beings come into this world with the seed of enlightenment in their hearts. Our lifelong path of practicing being human is to nurture that seed into blossoming. In the practice of radical friendship, our path is to water and nurture these seeds in each other.

We are all in various stages of waking up to our true nature and healing from whatever obscures it, and some of these stages are not especially cute. They can be a lot like school photos from third grade, when we were still figuring out our hair and clothes and made some regrettable choices on picture day. But the teachings on bodhicitta remind us that no matter how messy or ill-fitting our life choices are at any given moment, at our core, every one of us is fundamentally wise and loving, no matter what. That part of us can never be taken away, and our longtime friends will say we were always beautiful to them, unibrow and all.

Our role as radical friends can be to maintain the view that, underneath it all, there is always a fundamental goodness in each of us. We can prevent or interrupt harm whenever we can without losing sight of that goodness; we can enact boundaries to protect that goodness. We can try our best to connect with and speak to that place of awakening in each other, even if one of us has forgotten who we really are. When we speak to that place of innate goodness in ourselves and in each other, we help bring it forth.

This existence of bodhicitta doesn’t mean that we live in a perfect world. It means that this sometimes-messed-up world is perhaps the perfect place to perfect our love. It may be a leap of faith, but it’s one that can allow us to show up as the true spiritual friends that we wish to be in this world, only if we are willing to take the risk.