In 2018 I was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order, a spiritual community of people who have pledged themselves to following the Buddhist path to enlightenment. This was the culmination of ten years of effort and exploration, joyously completed. Something that had seemed impossible for me had finally happened. This is the story of how I was able to move from the statement ‘I don’t have friends’ to being able to say, ‘I have many friends.’ It’s the story of how Buddhism helped me to develop rich, close, emotional connections with people who are not family members.
For most of my life I have understood that I think differently from other people, without knowing why. I saw some things very clearly while other things were a complete mystery to me. I can recognize patterns and see how these patterns connect. If you act in a certain way then certain results will usually follow. But I find it very hard to read non-verbal communication. Mostly I just don’t see it, but when I do, I often misinterpret what I’m seeing. If you say something to me, I hear your words but I don’t pick up on the context behind the words.
As a child I was often ill and I was also very shy. As a result, I regularly missed school or was by myself at school. I got on perfectly well with people, but did not develop close friendships.
The same patterns were there when I left school. I worked well with people, I was intelligent and articulate, well organized and could explain things clearly, but I made no close friends. There were work relationships that I enjoyed, but they never developed into anything outside work. People asked me about problem-solving or process issues but never about emotional problems or other personal difficulties. We sometimes went out as a work group but never simply for a coffee. I did not miss having any close friendships but sometimes I wondered what it would be like. Other people seemed to enjoy them!
Then, when I was 50 years old, I found Buddhism. I wasn’t looking for Buddhism at that point, I simply wanted to learn how to meditate. There were three Buddhist groups within my local area and I wrote to them all asking if they had chairs to sit on to meditate, because I find getting up from the ground challenging. Only one group replied, so I decided to go with them and went into the local Triratna Buddhist center for the first time.
I’d never been anywhere like this center. I was welcomed at the door. The place was full of people chatting in small groups, with lots of laughter. People invited me into the groups and said hello. We all went together into the shrine room and then after the meditation came out and chatted more—with a large array of teas and biscuits! I knew that there was something different and wonderful about the place and I wanted to be part of it. I wondered if, here, I could find people who would continue to talk to me. So, I started attending the center regularly. The only real difficulty I had at this point was that people wanted to hug me and I didn’t want to be hugged by people I didn’t know well. It was very uncomfortable.
One of the distinctive focuses of Triratna Buddhism is the crucial importance of sangha, the spiritual community of people who follow the Buddha’s teachings. Sangharakshita built the movement with this exchange between the Buddha and Ananda at its core:
Ananda said to the Blessed One, ‘This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.’
‘Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.’ (SN 45.2 ‘The whole of the holy life’ – Access to Insight, 2013)
Triratna Buddhists work hard to develop spiritual friendships between people and try to bring this into every encounter. So, the warm welcome I received on first entering the center was part of the ethos of Triratna.
For a while I simply enjoyed the unusual feeling of being with people who accepted me and who were always happy to talk. It was enough just to feel part of something that wasn’t to do with my work. As I chatted, I started to be more interested in Buddhism and, after some reflection, asked to join a study group. This study group opened so many doors for me. The same people met together, with minor changes, for about six years. I was suddenly part of a small group with the shared interest of learning more about Buddhism. Study training in Triratna is well organized and comprehensive—and I loved it. But, even more importantly for me than the study aspect, it also exemplified aspirations about how to be with the same people over a long period of time and how to make connections with them.
To begin with it was hard. This was partly because I found the pressure of people difficult. The sensory input of several people having an animated discussion was challenging. I found myself tensing up and trying to block some of it out. However, as we learned how to listen to each other, there were fewer times when several people were talking at once. I learned by watching other people how long it was good to talk for. I also learned how to leave space for other people in the discussion. I discovered how to live with the feeling that I’d missed the time when it was appropriate to say something (so sometimes I would not be able to say what I wanted).
One of the other group members was really empathetic, a “heart” person, while I’m more analytical and a “mind” person. We discovered, to our mutual delight, that we could start a conversation coming from completely different places but eventually meet in the middle. This is such a rich experience, we both learned different ways of seeing and the world felt brighter because of this. I was beginning to build the foundations for closer relationships with other people.
After studying for a year, I decided that I was a Buddhist and that I wanted to make a deeper commitment to Buddhism, so I asked to become a mitra. The word mitra is usually translated as “friend.” I discussed this with Order members, and they agreed this would be a good step. I then took part in a ritual, where I was introduced to the whole sangha and made the three traditional offerings of a flower, a candle, and incense, so that my deeper commitment could be witnessed.
I’ve never found rituals easy. There are usually too many people in the room and the mantra chanting is overstimulating. Normally I don’t want to be in the room doing this but, in this case, it felt really important to be seen. I wanted to take part in this ceremony with other people. I did find the sounds and the pressure of people challenging but I knew why I was there, and I wanted to be there, so it was bearable.
Once I’d made this deeper commitment, I also realized that I would like to be ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order, so I entered the ordination training. To become an Order member, you have to build links with other people; it’s an integral part of being in the Triratna movement. That sounded like a lovely idea, but I’d never had a friend and I had absolutely no idea how to go about developing friendships. Eventually someone asked me if I would like to go for a coffee with them, and that was a huge relief. I made a note in my mind: you ask people to go for a coffee.
But the fact that I was going to meet someone for a coffee brought up a whole new area of difficulty. What do people do when they “go for a coffee”? I assumed that the idea was to talk, but talk about what? I was terrified. At that point I had no “small talk.” I could not imagine how I was going to get through this meeting that felt so important. But I went, and it was very clunky. I could talk about non-specifics and we could discuss Buddhism, but I could not find any way of getting closer to the other person. I met other people after the first “coffee experience” and it was clunky with everyone. The conversations just didn’t flow.
At this point, many people would have given up on the idea of building a relationship with me. I was incredibly fortunate that the people here did not give up. Instead, we kept meeting and people began to give me feedback about how talking with me felt for them.
At the start of this process the feedback was helpful. People said, “You talk too much and don’t let me get a word in.” So I made a mental note to talk for less time and then pause, and this seemed to help. They said, “You are too intense.” So I tried to be gentler in the way I spoke and to give less detail. I tried to approach topics less directly and put effort into softening my speech.
But as time went on and we still weren’t really connecting the feedback became more painful and confusing. I was given information such as “You are not listening to me,” which was confusing because I was listening, as hard as I could. I was told, “You are not interested in me.” This was very painful. I was more interested in people than I ever had been in my entire life, and yet this wasn’t coming across. I was told, “You don’t have empathy.” This was both painful and confusing because I know that I have lots of empathy and I was trying to express it. Why couldn’t the people I was talking to see that?
This phase lasted for several years, with both me and most of the people around me getting more frustrated. Why couldn’t I do what was being asked? Nothing seemed to work. At the same time, I was finding that with two people things seemed to be different. I now know that both these people had met autistic people before. They assumed that I was autistic but that I didn’t know it. They didn’t expect the sort of responses that most non-autistic people were looking for. Our friendships developed more quickly because of this and they remain two of my closest friends to this day.
Four years ago, when I was 60, my sister contacted me to say that she had just been diagnosed as autistic. I went looking for information to help her and found the best description of me that I’d ever seen. My first response was, “But that can’t be true!” When I thought of autism I thought of severely autistic people, and I knew that their experience was not mine. And yet, there was so much in the description of autism that did fit. I researched further and discovered the concept of the autistic spectrum and suddenly everything made more sense. It was possible for someone to be autistic but not be severely autistic. I did the self-tests and discovered that my scores were way above the threshold values for autism. So, I asked to be tested formally. I was diagnosed with what is now called “level 1” autism (in the UK) and might previously have been called Asperger syndrome.
That diagnosis was liberating. Suddenly I understood why I was having problems with communication. I told the people around me immediately and from just about everyone I got the response, “Oh, that’s what it is!” Swiftly followed by, “Then you are doing so well!” I sent them information about how autism affects communication and the ability to build relationships. I explained that I could not respond in the ways that they were expecting.
Immediately things opened up. We realized that I could not read their non-verbal communication accurately and so could not find the appropriate responses. We also realized that they often could not read my body language accurately as well. For example, when they thought that I was showing worry or anger, I was concentrating. Almost at once we began to develop genuinely deep friendships which have stood the test of time. I’ve also developed strategies for showing that I’m listening. One of the most useful is the phrase “What I’m hearing is…”. I often use this phrase to check that I have understood what is being said. Often, I haven’t, but that’s fine—we can clear up any misunderstanding immediately. As a result, people have started to say that I am a good listener, and that is precious to me.
Now I can truthfully say that I have many friends and some of these relationships are close, intimate friendships. We can talk about anything. It’s just wonderful! It’s taken so much time and effort from me and other people. This has happened because other people were prepared to put the time and effort in—because of their Buddhist beliefs and the ethos of the Triratna Order. I am now an Order member and sometimes I still can’t believe that this is possible. I have so much gratitude towards Buddhism and the Triratna approach to Buddhist teachings. They have changed my life for the better.
Adapted from Autism and Buddhist Practice: How Buddhism Can Help Autistic Adults Cultivate Wellbeing (Jessica Kingsley Pub, December 2022), edited by Chris Jarrell.