Saddled with backpacks, duffle bags, and pillows, the teens shuffle up to the table one by one to register for their weeklong meditation retreat. Their eyes flicker with hope and fear as they alternately scan their peers and stare at the floor, shifting their weight from side to side. It is hard to watch their discomfort, but even harder not to. There’s something beautiful about the sincerity of their wish to connect with each other and something heartbreaking about their transparent efforts to conceal that wish.
At some point in the next few hours of icebreakers and name games and sharing of favorite bands and books, I see the scales begin to tip. The desire to know one another and be known suddenly outweighs the desire to hide or disappear, and the moment that happens gestures of generosity arise. Eyes become steady with interest; questions are asked and answered with kind curiosity; tight, nervous smiles relax and grow broad; hands are extended to help or to high five. Someone makes the first move to connect, and the other reciprocates. By the time tacos are on the table for dinner, groups of friends are forming, with even the cool kids beginning to show signs of warmth.
I will be one of their dharma teachers this week for Inward Bound. They don’t know it, but they are already mine.
Making friends is a process fraught with vulnerability, somehow especially so in Buddhist communities. Maybe it’s because so many of us come to dharma centers a little bit broken open and raw from whatever life circumstance finally drove us their, admitting—yes, dammit—suffering exists and we want to be free. We arrive at the door with our little hearts in our hands, longing for care and companionship, only we’ve picked up the notion somewhere along the way that we must conceal this longing at all costs or risk rejection or humiliation.
I can’t tell you how many years I hung out in dharma communities desperately wanting to connect with kindred spirits and all the while pretending I couldn’t care less. I would usually show up just barely on time to classes and bolt out the door as soon as they finished so that I wouldn’t have to actually talk to anyone.
It was several years since I had begun practicing meditation and attending courses regularly when I came across the Buddha’s teaching on admirable friendship, which he identifies as “the whole of holy life.” I had managed to write off the possibility of relating with other members of my sangha as optional, an extra credit kind of activity. But these teachings were clear: relational practice inspires and supports our collective steps along the eightfold path to liberation. I knew that I needed that kind of support in order to continue to grow spiritually. When I dropped below my fears of becoming vulnerable to others, I also became aware that I not only needed these relationships, I also wanted them.
My solitary dharma path had become lonely enough that I was willing to take a risk. And so I started putting some energy into what I’ve come to think of as the spiritual friendship practice of making the first move, which is really just a variation on the practice of generosity.
“Making the first move” most commonly refers to an action meant to initiate a romantic connection. Motivated by attraction, and perhaps also fueled by the cultural belief that romantic relationships can provide all the love that we possibly need, we become willing to take the risk of asking for a date or moving in for a kiss.
When it comes to making new friends, however, platonic attraction and shared interests often don’t seem enough to move us to commit the gestures of kindness that might initiate a friendly bond, at least not among grown-ups.
I’m not sure why it’s more socially acceptable to admit a longing for a romantic partner who shares our spiritual practice than the wish for a best friend who does, or why we believe that the former will ultimately be more satisfying than the latter. But I do know this: it is through the day-to-day, moment-to-moment interactions in my spiritual friendships that I have learned to give and receive unconditional love in a way I could only dream of experiencing in a romantic or sexual relationship. These relationships are supportive—and they are annoying. We check in, we call out, we mess up, we make it right, and we come into vivid contact with the truths of suffering, change, and interconnectedness in our lived experiences of each other.
As a gesture that manifests our fundamental non-separateness, making the first move in friendship is a practice of generosity. When we ask someone in the sangha how they’re feeling on a particular day, or when we answer that question honestly, we demonstrate our understanding that all human beings sometimes feel good and sometimes bad, just like us, and we express our dedication to caring. When we smile and welcome the newbie or allow ourselves to be welcomed, we act out of our recognition that belonging is a common human need, one that is not an obstacle to, but in service of, waking up.
Observing the teens arriving on that first day of retreat, I was reminded of how I met the woman who is now my oldest friend. It was our first day of high school, and I was new in the school district and jumpy as a small bird, not knowing a soul. In the moments before our Spanish class started, Emily leaned over and asked if I would like her to draw a heart on my hand. I said yes, and she drew a tiny red heart near my right wrist with a marker, and we exchanged names. It was as simple as that.
There is far more love available to us in any given moment than we might be aware. And there is much, much more love in our hearts than we as adults have been conditioned to believe is appropriate to express. It would probably serve us all to get more deeply in touch with our inner teenager—hopeful, awkward, excited enough about the possibility of connecting with a kindred spirit that we’re willing to open up our hearts and make the first move.
For more spiritual friendship, tune in to Kate Johnson’s Tricycle Retreat, “Admirable Friendship,” available to watch at any time.