The Heart of Good Spiritual Friends

When we are with others in times of suffering, says contemplative care expert Koshin Paley Ellison, we can take the four noble truths as our guide.

Koshin Paley Ellison
1 September 2020
Photo by Vo Danh.

The Buddha said, “Friendship is not half of the spiritual life, but all of it.” But what’s a good spiritual friend in the time of Covid-19? How can we show up for one another in the midst of so much hurt?

The Buddha’s formula of the four noble truths has guided me through conversations with people who are struggling, and even in conversations with myself when I am struggling. At the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, we use the formula as part of our training for doctors, nurses, and other medical workers. I’ve found it works beautifully, even when our methods of comfort are limited to phone calls and Zoom.

How can we be present for someone who’s suffering and not feel like we’re there to fix them?

The first noble truth is that there’s suffering in life. In the context of being a good spiritual friend, this is a suggestion to be truly curious. When we ask people how they are, we can pause and be sincerely interested in the answer.

The other day, I was talking with a friend who’s been fighting with his partner during shelter-in-place. He told me he feels helpless, sorrowful, a little broken. As good spiritual friends, we can receive what others have to say, accepting it without reaching for the usual pat answer: “Things will get better.”

Once we’ve truly heard the suffering, perhaps we can move with our spiritual friends into the second noble truth: that suffering has a cause. It’s important to see which parts of our suffering we’re creating ourselves. But what often happens is that a loved one isn’t self-reflecting, meaning that while the causes of their suffering may be very clear to us, they aren’t to them.

Maybe we see a friend, for instance, repeating the same mistakes. Maybe we’ve had the same conversation with them many times before. Actually, that’s okay. We don’t need to teach or push anything. If we find ourselves pulling our hair out about why someone won’t reflect and change, it might be a good time to apply the second truth inward. We can ask ourselves, “What are the causes of my suffering in this situation?”

The third noble truth is that there’s an end to suffering. I like to think of that as a pivot into having confidence in impermanence. We might not know if things are going to get better, but they’re definitely going to change. Knowing this can shift people, even if it’s just slightly, out of the darkest of places. If the timing feels right, we can potentially aid this transition by asking our friend, “When you’ve gone through struggles like this in the past, what helped?” Be receptive to the answer.

The fourth noble truth is that the path to end suffering is the eightfold path. Can we identify our friend’s path of nourishment? What do they need to help them find freedom from suffering? Asking them the question instead of providing suggestions is often more useful.

When our friend answers, we can look to see if there’s anything in our power that we can provide. Sometimes what’s needed is simpler than expected. I asked a friend of mine this question, and she asked if we could set up a weekly date to chat. She’s living alone during lockdown and feeling isolated. What an easy request to honor!

These guidelines aren’t necessarily linear, and they might not all apply during a particular instance. What might be most important is reframing our mindset from being a “caregiver” to a “care partner.” How can we be present for someone who’s suffering and not feel like we’re there to fix them?

If we think we’re there to make our friend feel better, it can be a setup for failure. But if we’re simply there to be fully present, this may be the beginning, middle, and end of the way of compassion. This is how we meet each other on the receptive ground of the dharma, and learn to be good spiritual friends.

Koshin Paley Ellison

Koshin Paley Ellison

Koshin Paley Ellison co-founded the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, the first Buddhist organization to offer fully accredited chaplaincy training in America. His newest book is Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up.