Blog Introduction

For more on the purpose and origin of this blog, click here for the inaugural post.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The company you keep matters

I've decided to make my blog posts shorter. This might mean I write them more often. They'll definitely be quicker to read. Let's see how we go....

I recently quit  my running squad and left my coach. It was a difficult decision because I loved the sense of camaraderie and belonging that came with being in the group and my coach was generous with his time and advice. 

Sport's a funny thing. It throws together people from all walks of life who can have very little in common other than love of the sport. This group was no exception. It was a mixed bag of personalities, values, skills and aspirations in life. Mostly I accepted them the way they were and enjoyed their peculiarities. I noticed that blatant egotism was more prevalent in this group than in my usual circles, but the group was about achievement in sport, not spiritual growth and I observed it with interest.

So why did I leave? 

Besides athletics, my other passion in life is Secular Buddhism. A few months ago I began to notice the difference between how I felt on my way home from the track and how I felt on my way home from meditation. You see, there were two people in the squad who disliked me and who frequently tried to convince the coach to throw me out. (Long story, but think: year 9 school yard.) I wanted to stay in the group and so I put up with it and treated it as grist to the mill for my dharma practice. I hoped that my coach's efforts to deal with it would one day see it subside. It didn't. The more I improved at athletics, the worse it seemed to get.

That two years was a fantastic exposé of our human need to belong. Every time their hate campaign would flare up, fear arose around that need. I learnt some good things from the experience. However one of them that came late in the piece was: the company you keep matters.

In Buddhism there's a saying that your enemies are your teachers. It's true. They stimulate a whole bunch of experiences in the body/mind - often unpleasant ones - and there is a lot to learn from those experiences. For instance I saw clearly how rejection hurts, even when it's from people whose affections aren't important to you. That's motivated me to be careful when I feel like rejecting others. 

I also learnt how much time and energy can be consumed when the body/mind feels fearful. Fear gets first priority when it comes to mental and emotional resources. This is especially true when you feel powerless. Very little of the nastiness that occurred was directed openly at me - it was bitching about me to my coach or other people. Rather than send them to talk directly to me, which I would have preferred, he'd listen, try to smooth things over and keep everyone happy. I doubted his approach would be effective but he wasn't open to input. I did actually invite the main perpetrator to come and speak with me once, which she did. I listened and addressed her concerns and it seemed to go well. I hoped that might change things. It usually does but this time it didn't.

Over time I started to see that the pattern wasn't going to change and I reflected on the impact it was having. When I came home from my meditation group I always felt grounded, joyful and energised - like my re-set button had been pressed. I felt nourished.  As I drove home from the track I felt at sea because I never knew what I'd said or done that day that would be recycled as ammunition to assassinate my character. I would hear about 'problems' second hand and would be told by my coach to just keep my head down in response. It was suffocating.

The joy that I initially felt at being part of this group gradually wore down. Even though I had good relationships with the other 15 people, the sustained unkindness from the two hate-club members undermined the joy. As Rick Hanson says, our body/minds are velcro for the negative and teflon for the positive.

As the words 'the company you keep matters' returned to me again and again, a phrase I've heard in Buddhist circles also arose: 'guard your senses'. When I first heard this I thought it was odd because the dharma requires us to build the courage to be with whatever is present. I thought that 'guarding my senses' might be a form of aversion to experience - avoiding unpleasant things. 

However what I've learned from this is to have respect and compassion for the fact that we are sensitive beings. Literally. Our 6 senses (taste, touch, smell, sound, sight and mind activity) are constantly connecting with our environment and that sense-contact shapes us. Our minds take the shape of what we rest them on. Mine was resting far too often on these troubled people and their ill will. I was pleased at how little ill-will arose in me in return - a sign of some progress maybe. However it was stressful and my body/mind often felt alert to invisible land mines always nearby. Out of compassion for myself (and my husband who has to put up with my upset) and a desire to grow kindness and joy in my life, it was time to walk away.

Siddattha Gotama (The Buddha) spoke of the importance of choosing our friends wisely*. He recommended avoiding fools and associating with the wise. He said that there's no external factor that leads to so much harm as bad friendship and no external factor that leads to so much benefit as good friendship. The company you keep matters.

I still love athletics. And I miss being part of the group. But removing myself from the company of people who practice ill will and flagrant egotism has been fabulous. I feel calmer and at liberty to deal with life's difficulties my way again. It also feels great to have time and energy back for my other love - the dharma.

*The Mahamangala sutta in the Sutta Nipata

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