Hello at Last emphasises the importance of spiritual friendship to Buddhist practice. What inspired you to write a book about this subject?
Like many students, I came to a point in my own practice when I realised that being mindful on the cushion is one thing, but bringing this mindfulness out into ordinary life is quite another! So Hello at Last addresses the challenge of bringing mindfulness to social situations where we are largely driven by unconscious habits and conditioned behaviours— by the need to be somebody.
But I stumbled upon spiritual friendship quite by accident – I was interviewing members of the Triratna community in a centre in India, and I was really struck by the fact that every single person mentioned spiritual friendship. It was clearly central to their understanding of the Buddhist path, but I had never heard of it before.
One man, Chandrashil, told me the story about the Buddha’s close disciple Ananda, who noticed that ‘half the spiritual life is spiritual friendship’, to which the Buddha replied, ‘Say not so, Ananda, it is the whole of the spiritual life’. I knew from this moment that spiritual friendship was something important that was missing from my practice, and I wanted to pursue it.
So when I got back to the United States I explored, through a number of different dharma groups, various communication practices with the aim of fostering spiritual friendships and more authentic human relationships in general. Each chapter of Hello at Last focuses on my encounter with one of these communication practices.
The practices you describe in the book include reflective listening, rejoicing in the merits of another, insight dialogue and home retreats. Is there one practice in particular that you found most helpful and would recommend above all?
Very clearly, I feel that reflective listening is the foundation of them all. And it is deceptively simple. One person speaks, and the other person listens deeply and repeats what was said – this is all there is to it.
Being truly heard is very gratifying, but I have found that for me the real benefit is in the listening because I’m given the opportunity to let go of my natural self-absorption and my conditioned patterns of thought and behaviour. As I’m listening I can notice, for example, the urge to interject my own ideas and I can let them go, as I do in sitting meditation. This can be very liberating, and it brings us to the essence of Buddhist practice because when we simply serve as a mirror, there’s no space for the illusory self that keeps us separate from other people.
I was especially interested in your online explorations of the insight dialogue practice. My own experience of online chat has definitely been closer to the antithesis of meditative activity, yet you say that ‘the chat room format is surprisingly conducive to the observation of conditioned responses’. Can you explain a little about your experience of insight dialogue in this context?
I want to stress that the online component of it is just a means to an end. The idea of insight dialogue was developed by Gregory Kramer, and in his book Meditating Together, Speaking from Silence: The Practice of Insight Dialogue, he puts forward three guidelines to the process. The first one (which I really love) is simply to pause and relax before responding. Secondly, we should speak the truth and listen deeply. Thirdly, we should notice our own reactivity and our assumptions and judgments, just the way we do in meditation.
In the online version of insight dialogue, you’re free to type whatever you’re experiencing into the chat room window. I found this extremely effective, because your attention is focused on the window and it acts as a powerful point of concentration. At the same time, however, your awareness is enlarged to include the sensations of your body, your thoughts, and the presence of someone else who is also engaging in the same process of concentration.
So you definitely go into the online version of insight dialogue with very different aims from ordinary socializing – pausing and relaxing before responding probably doesn’t happen too much in ordinary chat rooms, right?! It’s a thoroughly meditative experience, and one that I have found to be hugely conducive to mindful relationships.
So what would you say are the most important building blocks for a healthy spiritual friendship?
I think the same qualities that are important in our friendship with ourselves – namely trust, openness, curiosity and acceptance.
Something I loved about the book was your extended metaphor of the ego as a house. It pops up on a number of different occasions in the book and it is always extremely illuminating in the context of relationships. Can you introduce this idea to those who haven’t read your book?
The ‘House of Sara’ is sankara (or ‘fabrication’), the conditioned beliefs that I conjure up about who I am, and who other people are. They’re unreal, there’s nothing to them, but in our minds they feel like the most real things in the world.
I was introduced to the idea by Gregory Kramer, but it originally comes from the Dhammapada where the Buddha talks about his search for the house builder who has created these fabrications from nothing. He explains that he has caught the house builder, who can never build again – in other words, the Buddha has reached unconditioned consciousness where these illusions no longer hold sway. It’s a very profound teaching, which can be applied very broadly in your everyday life.
But I have also found that ‘the House of Sara’ is a wonderful, light way for me to detach from my seriousness about myself. In the book I speak about my relationship with my friend Faith, and we would have so much fun talking about her ‘House of Faith’ and my ‘House of Sara’ and laughing about it.
Something else I really liked about the book is the way that you deal with a number of important paradoxes of human relationships (e.g. self and other, outside and inside, solitude and companionship, silence and speech). My impression is that you never actually dissolve the tension between the opposites; instead it seems that the tension itself gives birth to something liberating and creative. Was this your intention, and can you elaborate a bit on these paradoxes?
I feel a little out of my depth here because I don’t know much about philosophy, but I do have a sense that paradox turns up again and again in spiritual practice, and not just in Zen, or Buddhism in general, but also in other religions. And I can’t help but think that some paradox will always be there at the heart of our experience because of the fundamental paradox which is the simultaneous existence of self and no self. We all know the experience of self, and we may say that it’s an illusion, but in fact we live in that illusion most of the time. Yet we also have glimpses of no self, and both of those are true to our experience.
In Hello at Last I quote physicist David Bohm who has written a marvellous book called On Dialogue (in fact his book inspired Gregory Kramer’s Insight Dialogue). He argues that what we think of as problems are often in fact paradoxes, and the difference between problems and paradoxes is that a problem has a solution and a paradox doesn’t. The fact that we confuse problems and paradoxes reflects our conditioned belief that there’s something wrong with our life that needs to be fixed, and it is this belief that leads to suffering. But if we consider that our problems are paradoxes then there’s nothing to be done except to enlarge our compassion, understanding and acceptance to embrace those contradictions, and embrace all of them.
You mention another kind of tension: ‘the desire for and fear of emotional connection’ that often characterises human relationships. How would you advise us to deal with this desire and this fear?
Yes, I think that the desire for and fear of emotional connection is something that we’re all familiar with. And these feelings can be very powerful (and sometimes rooted in a great deal of pain) so they really deserve our careful and loving attention – they shouldn’t be rejected or suppressed. The part of us that needs other people and yet fears rejection is a very tender, soft and childlike part of us that must be treated with compassion and great sensitivity.
So before we embark on exploring these emotions with someone, we may want to investigate them within ourselves. However, once we’ve done that work, it can be really helpful to simply share those feelings. Once we move beyond the particulars of our individual story, again and again we encounter the very same longings and fears in others. And when these have been shared, we can begin to build a very authentic and compassionate relationship where we’re truly open to what is happening in the present moment with the other person.
You also talk about the importance of being thoroughly open to our friends. Yet in order to do this we must make ourselves vulnerable and open ourselves up to getting hurt. Are true friendships based on strength or on vulnerability?
I’d say both because I think that being open to ourselves and others requires a whole lot of both strength and vulnerability. The chapter called ‘Faith and Freedom’ deals with this issue – I talk about my relationship with my very dear dharma friend Faith where both of us went into some extremely vulnerable territory together. And I felt that during that process, each of us was very much dependent on the strength of the other (there were moments when I was desperately hanging on to Faith’s steadfast presence), but we were also dependent on the other’s vulnerability, because when one of us ventured into a difficult area, it gave the other courage to do the same.
But I’m afraid that this talk about strength and vulnerability may make the whole process sound more complicated and more daunting than it really is. To me one of the greatest gifts of spiritual friendship is so simple: It is how we can ease the way for ourselves and others by simply stating what is so.
Lastly, could you explain a bit about the title? What does ‘Hello at Last’ mean and how does it relate to the content of the book?
‘Hello at Last’ comes from a line in a novel by Alan Gurganus. It reads:
‘Hello at last.
You have only
Just begun to
Know each other’.
And I intended by that to suggest this way of being together with other people that we all long for – this true, deep, free way of being.