In Western Culture's expanding spiritual horizons, there are more ways to connect with people of all spiritual faiths and disciplines than ever before. This is the gift of technology and the Internet. With all these new opportunities, it is very easy to assume that if someone is spiritual, then they're spiritual like you. But "spiritual" and "spirituality" tend to be two words that have vastly different meanings from person to person, and if you don't look beneath the surface in yourself, you won't really see beneath the surface meanings, ideas, and clothing that others have wrapped around themselves. From that blind or at least limited perspective, it's easy to end up deluding yourself and getting into very toxic relationships. This, of course, may seem ironic. How can you end up in a toxic relationship (friendship, romantic, teacher-student, etc) if someone is spiritual?
So let's explore this topic together and talk about what it means to choose your spiritual friends wisely.
spiritual paths think that they understand what spirituality means to them. Please be advised that what I consider "early on their spiritual paths" also includes people who potentially have been studying spiritual texts their whole lives. Until someone really knows how to go within and work through issues to drop into deeper love and clarity, then they're early on their spiritual path. As such, an 80 year-old monk can still be early on his path while a 22 year-old woman could be much further along. Age has nothing to do with advancement on this path.
With that said, learning to go within is extremely important to knowing yourself and to knowing your projections. Typically, most people project their ideas about themselves, their pain, and how life should go onto every situation and person. They are not trying to see what is. They are trying to make life conform to an idea of how life should be. This is an incredibly widespread problem, and most of you have probably already experienced this too. Think of any time your mother tried to make you act a certain way that didn't feel true to you. She was projecting her ideas about how you should live onto you and then tried to get you to do it. It's a cruddy feeling, isn't it? And it certainly hasn't just happened with mom. It also happens within spiritual communities and numerous other social situations. That's why understanding yourself first is really important to connecting wisely with others.
Seeing Life Without Projections
Allowing Mistakes and Learning One Breath at a TimeHowever, I don't want you to get the idea that you should cloister yourself away for years before connecting with spiritual friends. There is plenty of room for mistakes and wrong choices so long as you stay engaged with what is coming up within you and in the situation. We are human beings, and life is not a black and white thing. It's difficult to always be clear on what works for us and what doesn't, so embracing the school of trial and error is to be expected. Just do it one breath at a time. And let go of any ideas of a perfect spiritual friend, spiritual community, spiritual teacher, healer, soulmate, twin flame, or whomever. There are no perfect people--not in the ego sense. And typically that ego idea interprets perfection to mean that you always feel good with this person/community and there are never any problems. There are always problems coming up even if it is a disagreement over where to eat tonight. Embrace them, and keep breathing into the moment.
Learning to See Beneath the SurfacesAs you explore spiritual communities and meet new people, it's always important to look beneath the surface and to see what people do when the "spiritual teacher isn't looking" or to see what the spiritual teacher is doing when the spotlight is off her/him. A lot of times people put on their "good" face (despite what the teacher may be saying or what they're saying) to appear a certain way. They'll say all the seemingly right words and do what appears to be right while the teacher is around or the spotlight is on the person. But when the situation changes, you see the real person.
The real person--or rather the person they normally act out, which is ultimately not real, but is the way they generally live life--might be very small-minded, selfish, and otherwise only interested in good, blissful feelings and not in doing any inner work. This person may complain about things not going the way they'd like and get caught up in a host of fantasies rather than focusing on the here and now. This person could be described in a hundred of different ways, but mainly, there's a mismatch. The person they pretend to be as a spiritual person isn't the person they actually are. They have simply put on a mask over their "undesirable" parts, and it's important for you to learn how to see this.
Identifying False Spiritual FriendsObviously, learning to see beneath the surfaces is a skillset that will help you in numerable ways. The
number of people trying to be someone that they're not reaches far beyond spiritual communities. In this point, I'm simply illuminating that spiritual friends, teachers, and communities are not excluded from this issue. Seeing these distinctions--these mismatches--will help you a lot in learning where to place your trust and what relationships to cultivate. In the context of spiritual friends, it will help you to not stymie your growth. People who are not really interested in doing their inner work will often resist your growth, especially if it doesn't look the way they think it should look. As always, this is why it is important to cultivate your intuition. Only you know if the growth arising from within is right for you.
These types of "spiritual" people show up in a variety of ways, but some of the common traits and actions of these "spiritual" people include things like:
- Spending more time pointing out others' flaws or "unconsciousness" instead of working on their own issues
- Avoiding upsetting situations that could trigger their issues
- Trying to fix everyone else's problems to make themselves feel good (i.e. the wounded healer)
- Attempting to only feel good and not showing up when their is something difficult to do
- Focusing more on correctly doing techniques and rituals than understanding the intent and deeper meaning (Teachers who have this issue are typically overly focused on things like meditating "right.")
- Telling others what the right way to think is
To be sure, there are some things where right and wrong kind of matter in terms of doing something like meditating or having a helpful mindset, but that kind of right and wrong is freeing. It isn't rigid, and the friends and teachers who understand this give you lots of space to grow, which is a key element in true spiritual friendship.
Letting Go of Spiritual Friends
Another key aspect of a spiritual friendship is that we accept that we're all growing, and since we're all growing and changing, we may not be in each other's lives for very long. We learn to accept that we have to let go of our spiritual friends. Just as we learn to embrace deeply and fully a friendship when it comes along, it is really important to let it go when it is time. Certainly, that timing can be different for the two people, but there is no need to hold onto anyone who no longer wants to be in your life. As such, you may find it useful to create some kind of ritual for yourself or with your departing friend to let them go in love and peace or to transition into a different kind of relationship.
With that said, spiritual friendship is also a place that encourages deep commitment. Having someone who understands how to work through their inner issues is a powerful ally. They know how to lovingly support you as you work through your own. Unlike more unconscious relationships, this isn't about commiserating with one another when something is difficult. Whenever I am moving through something, my friends don't say, "Oh that's too bad." It's more like, "What's coming up for you?" and "What do you think the issue is?" These types of spiritual friends know that any pain is temporary and that there is a great gift in releasing the issue. Additionally, since spiritual friends have been working through their own issues, they don't run from your pain or try to fix it. They simply accept and love you as you are in this moment--messy, clear, confused, overwhelmed, sad, joyful, elated, and everything else. That is the nature of true love.
Getting Used to True Love in Friendships
If there isn't love in the relationship--if there isn't a deep acceptance of each other--it's not a spiritual relationship. I don't care if you call each other soulmates or are in a spiritual teacher-spiritual student relationship. What makes this "spiritual" is love, is profound acceptance. As I always like to point out, this love is not permissive. It is not complacent. It can be incredibly intense and powerful. It can be soft and forgiving. It can be whatever is needed in this moment, and it is not about one person being better or lesser than the other. It simply is there, and it's this type of love that makes even the relationships where the other person isn't a "spiritual" person a true spiritual relationship.
Which is the best news of all I think. Because you don't have to have a spiritual community around to have spiritual friends. Lots of people do inner work but don't call it spiritual work. Some call it self improvement. Some call it learning from their mistakes. Some call it living life. But if you've learned to look beneath the surfaces, you'll hear what is really being said. And when you hear truth and love in another, you'll know you've found a spiritual friend.
Today's pictures are from one of my wonderful spiritual friends, Tingting. Thanks so much for these photos!