37 practices: verse 5

5. To give up negative friends

When I’m with friends who strengthen the three poisons / Reflection, study, meditation fade,

Kindness and compassion are forgotten, / And I’m caught up again in worldly aims.

Not following the friends who harm my practice: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Audio verse 5

Audio verses 1-6 (hover over where the play button should be and click)

Verse 5, which advises us to refrain from following friends who impede our dharma practice, is the last of the preliminary verses about renunciation of samsara — or “disentanglement,” as Pema Chodron puts it. Verse 5 makes a pair with verse 6 (coming next week), which tells us who we should follow: authentic spiritual friends. whom we should cherish even more than our own life. This set of verses marks a turning point in our preparation for the path of awakening. With verse 5, we now have all the instructions we need for disentanglement from the ordinary worldly concerns that bind us to samsara, and with verse 6, we begin to look ahead to what will provide support for our journey.

Of course, we are not done yet with disentanglement, even though we are about to move on to the path itself. We will have to disentangle ourselves in various ways again and again as we travel the path — fortunately, we are not expected to accomplish each one before starting to work on the next. We are just gathering tools and getting practice using them. Aka, lather, rinse, repeat!

The commentaries: Dilgo Khyentse begins with the analogy of a crystal that takes on the color of whatever cloth is placed beneath it. He says we are like that, colored by all the influences to which we are exposed, among the most powerful of which are the friends we spend time with.

This reminds me of how it has felt at various times to get together with old pals from high school or college years, or with family members — how quickly and completely I would regress (in good and bad ways) to that stage of my life and fall into the same old patterns, even if I didn’t want to. It’s very noticeable when we don’t see people for years on end, but it can happen on a smaller, less visible scale with anyone we have a relationship with. Ken McLeod talks about “the power of peer pressure, the power of domination and the power of inclusion and exclusion. You experienced it in school, you experience it at work, and you encounter it in every social context.”

Dilgo Khyentse defines a “bad friend” (the literal translation of this practice is “to give up bad friends”) as “one who is fond of distractions, totally immersed in ordinary worldly activities, and who does not care in the least about achieving liberation.” The point is to limit our time with such friends and acquaintances, or if that’s not possible, to at least draw boundaries to limit their influence over us. To continue the metaphor from verse 1, according to Dilgo Khyentse, “An unsuitable friend is like a bad captain who steers his ship onto the rocks. Such people are your worst enemy. You owe it to yourself to stay away from them.”

Last week’s contemplation was to identify such friends in our lives, to notice how they lead us away from our practice and reinforce behaviors that keep us stuck, and then to ask ourselves how we might respond to their initiatives and, in each case, whether we need to end the relationship or whether it’s possible to maintain it without giving in to the negative influences. This is worth a lot of ongoing reflection if we are serious about using our precious human existence to wake up.

Ken makes the excellent point that we can limit relationships without judging or disparaging the friends themselves. The latter would be like going back to the homeland of habitual patterns and reactions that we have resolved to leave.

We need to exercise both wings of awakening in everything we do: at the same time we let ourselves see clearly how things are and take steps to bring our lives into alignment with what is true, our view and conduct also need to be rooted in compassion.

One of the questions that came up in class: as Buddhists, aren’t we taught to be responsible for our own minds rather than trying to manipulate outer circumstances (such as avoiding friends who don’t support our practice)? Pema Chodron has an answer for that, which points us back to practice 3. While acknowledging that “in Buddhist teachings, usually the inner dynamic is more important,” she says we nevertheless shouldn’t underestimate those outer circumstances. In practice 3, Togme Zangpo encourages us to rely on solitude by isolating ourselves as needed from what disturbs and distracts us. This increases our capacity for dealing effectively with situations in our daily life and for recognizing what kind of help is truly needed by others. Pema Chodron says, “We need to be able to self-reflect and go deeper so we can take advantage of situations to use them as the path of awakening.”

Other kinds of bad friends: Ken points out that we can be our own bad friend. “Which stories about you or your life do you repeat to yourself over and over again? Which behaviors do you nourish, indulge, or ignore?” Pema Chodron even suggests that our bad friends are “not always people.” They can also be “substances that increase your confusion and entangle you more.” And in our 21st-century lives, they may also include the technological devices that distract (and sometimes disturb) us for hours on end, leaving us to think, along with Pema Chodron, “Wow, I don’t have much time left and I just wasted three hours!”

Study: Continue reviewing verses 1-5 and their commentaries to keep them fresh, and for next week read verse 6 and its commentary at least once. If you can, read it three times (preferably on different days) and notice what you see differently the second (or third) time.

Contemplation: Continue noticing and contemplating how friends influence you and what you may need to do about it, per last week’s contemplation (above). Also begin to reflect on what is meant by an authentic spiritual friend. I expect we may have quite an illuminating conversation about this next week, in light of recent events at PTC and elsewhere.

Meditation: At least 5 minutes, every day, without fail! The first triumph of meditation is to actually sit down and stay seated for the period of time you have designated. If this is still an issue, keep working with it.

Meanwhile, you can meditate while walking or driving, just keeping your attention relaxed and alert while gently disengaging yourself from thoughts as needed, and/or follow Mingyur Rinpoche’s instruction to meditate many times throughout the day by bringing your mind into relaxed, alert focus on what you are experiencing or on open awareness for as little as a second at a time. But still try for at least a short daily session of sitting in your designated solitude.

The index of the study guide and recordings of the classes are here.

Next practice: Verse 6

The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)