Shambhavi dives deep into friendship as refuge, how misogyny blocks intimacy, and self recognition as a beacon in spiritual practice. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi
Can you talk about friendship?
Like everything that we experience in our lives, there is more contracted versions of it and more expanded versions of it. So in the most absolute sense, friendship or friendliness is an attitude, a feeling, a bhava, that all of reality has toward the whole creation.
And like anything, like love, or friendship, or compassion, the ultimate expression of that is friendliness toward everyone and everything. One of my favorite definitions of friendship, which I don't think is all encompassing, but which always tickles my fancy, is the definition by a French philosopher from the 20th century named Jacques Derrida.
He wrote a lot about friendship, as have many philosophers. It's a great theme of human life. He defined friendship as the willingness to be inconvenienced. I always thought that was very sweet.
A lot of spiritual poetry and spiritual writings and also writings from the Western philosophical tradition where there is some sort of sense or figure of what's called The Friend. And usually that is capitalized, that there is a Friend beyond all ordinary instances of friendship.
And this is always something I was very keenly aware of, actually, from a very young age, that there was some kind of friendship beyond ordinary friendship that I was longing for.
And I think in my adolescent fervor, what The Friend meant to me at the time was a call and response relationship where anything could be poured into it, where everything and anything that you are would be hosted.
And of course, that Friend, in one sense, you could say is the Guru.
In whatever form it shows up that it's that Friend who only wants you to discover your real nature and who will use any tools to help you to do that. That is the one who will host everything and anything that you are and the one who has the intelligence and imagination to do that. Also, to be able to respond to you fully in this sort of sparkling, intelligent, magical way.
So that's what I was always longing for. I think a lot of people— it's a kind of a refuge that has no safety, right? It's a refuge whose premise is adventure, not safety.
Because if you are in a condition of friendship with, for instance, as Rumi was with Shams Tabrizi, he always wrote about Shams in the same way that I envisioned The Friend when I was a teenager, his relationship with Shams was not comfortable all the time. It was not safe, it was risky, it was dazzling, it was challenging.
It created all sorts of circumstances and emotions in Rumi. But it was the place where he could be everything. He could be everything that he was. There was no aspect of himself that couldn't be played with in that friendship.
And for that reason, it was the great refuge, even though it wasn't safe.
I think many of us in our stepped-down versions of friendship are looking for something that's way more comfortable but I would still define a real friend as someone who always wants the best for you, no matter what.
So no matter whether it's what they want and no matter whether they are mad at you, no matter what anyone is feeling, even in the midst of difficult emotions, there is never the lost the sight of, or the feeling of wanting the best for another person in all circumstances.
That to me is, you could say, the uttama, the highest form of ordinary friendship. Many people who are not operating that way have normalized because of how they grew up in the culture they're living in and the tenets of the culture that's— cultures that they're living in.
We live in cultures of the Abrahamic traditions where punishment and reward is the axis on which most of us are structuring our lives.
And so when you're in a friendship and someone does something you don't like, being angry at them or punishing them or making them feel badly or abandoning them, temporarily at least, or losing sight of wanting the best for them because you think they deserve to feel badly or guilty or shamed or something, these are all very lowly forms of friendship, very lowly.
But yet they're the norm for a lot of people. People will say stuff like, you should feel really guilty about this. That is not wanting the best for someone. It's not— wanting someone else to feel badly or to be ashamed of themselves is not wanting the best for them.
And yet so many friendships in this world partake of those kinds of assumptions and conditions and ways of relating.
So I would say to anyone who wants healthier relationships, friendships, look for people who always want the best for you, no matter what, in what circumstance, and whose anger can happen even at the same time that they still want the best for you, even whose anger has an underlying aspect of kindness.
And those are the best friends you can possibly have.
Or you can just say be that friend, but don't cheat yourself, if you possibly can, by spending a lot of time with people who are trying to hurt you, undermine you, destabilize you, make you feel badly about yourself, even if they only do that at times.
Hardly anyone does that all the time to other people. But there's many, many relationships that are just ordinary relationships where, at times, someone actually is deliberately trying to hurt you or undermine you or destabilize you or make you feel badly or punish you. These are all extremely normal.
And if you want to have more dharmic relationships, just stay away from spending a lot of time with people like that. You are precious and you should be treated that way, if you can tolerate it.
Of course, only people who have bad feelings about themselves would ever be in a friendship like that. It doesn't make any sense from the outside. It only makes sense from the logic and emotional economy of the inside of those relationships. And of course, for better or worse, however you feel about yourself is going to be reflected in the people around you.
Or we could also say— not or but, and you are going to see in other people things that you feel about yourself.
So that's part of Karmic Realm vision, that we project onto other people things we feel about ourselves. And then we also find people who confirm our feelings about ourselves.
So you can look for that too as to what is the mechanism by which you get into relationships with people who are not your friends, or only intermittently your friends, or who are conditionally your friends and who do deliberately make you feel badly at times, or whose anger runs away from them.
And then when they're angry at you, they are actually only angry at you, not kind. They forget about your well being when they get angry. This is very common. Very, very common. But just because it's common doesn't make it what you should gravitate toward or settle for.
We only settle for these things, we only put up with this kind of everyday minor battery because we don't feel good about ourselves either. On some level, we think we deserve this treatment, but you don't. None of you deserve the treatment. No matter what you've done, no matter who you are, you do not deserve to be treated badly, and even for an instant.
I saw the movie Promising Young Woman. In the movie, they show a lot of the male friendship, which is like seeing behavior in another guy, but being okay with it or enabling it at times. And what's that friendship?
Well, I think one thing that's really useful for men to realize is that the reason why you cannot, in general, relate in a straightforward, kind way with each other, and why men very often bond around disparaging other people is because of sexism, because of misogyny.
So you are actually experiencing the wages of misogyny when you're experiencing that kind of behavior. The critique that men have of themselves and of each other, when they show too much kindness, too much sensitivity, too much emotion, too much caring, is because it codes you as female.
And that is not acceptable. And it's so deeply ingrained, so homophobia—it's like, goes from misogyny to homophobia to that kind of male behavior where you cannot really have nourishing intimacies.
Understand that you're missing out on that because of misogyny.
There's a direct line from misogyny to homophobia to that kind of relating.
I think a lot of times, at least in myself, I might accept a guy's bad behavior because I feel like I'm accepting his bad behavior, or...
No, you're accepting his bad behavior because you would look weak if you challenged him.
That's why I was bringing up this line from misogyny to homophobia to being an enabler. Enabler because you're enabling yourself to appear more male in this very, very narrow way that only defines itself against femaleness or womanness, I would say more.
So, you miss out on a whole bunch of human experience because of this. One time when I was in my first year of high school, I was in this very rough public school, and I was sitting at a table. There were some other girls there that I didn't know in the lunchroom, and they made some homophobic remark.
And there was someone I didn't know sitting next to me, a woman, and I just kind of leaned over and made this loving gesture toward her. It was sort of like announcing that it's not okay to make these homophobic remarks. You don't know who's here.
Well, it turned out that the woman that I leaned into was the head of some girl gang, and I got beat up every day for like, a week for doing that.
It's kind of the same thing. If you show sympathy, if you try to stop enabling, it's the same process.
So if you were in junior high, you told a male junior high friend, stop making those remarks about women, they might say, what are you, gay? Right?
That would be like a standard response. And what's bad about being gay is you're more like women according to homophobia. And that comes directly from misogyny. That's the origin.
It kind of is branching off of what you said about not putting up with people who don't want the best for you. I don't really want to be vulnerable to someone who's making homophobic speech. If you have any advice.
Well, there's different ways of withdrawing from being hurt by that kind of thing. One of them is announcing that you're withdrawing or that you're setting a boundary, but the other way is to just withdraw and not announce it.
So there's a lot of subtlety and a lot of different strategies that can be employed invisibly that will protect you but will not engage with someone who isn't going to understand what you're saying or change.
There's sort of a general precept around the spiritual water cooler that we should only make critiques or read someone else's behavior or speech if there's some use to it.
So the first line of response is to evaluate, do I think there's going to be any usefulness to doing something overt or saying something overt or engaging with this?
Because if a person cannot understand what you're saying, for whatever reason, isn't going to change their behavior and is only going to be upset, then you are basically burdening them with something that they can't change.
We can say they don't want to change and be very angry about that. But more often than not, I think it's really that they don't have the capacity to change for whatever reason, complexes of reasons.
Just like as a teacher, I don't like to burden people with things that they can't succeed at or that they can't accomplish. Many times I have asked people to do things or given them sadhana to do or ask them to assist in some way and they couldn't do it. And I feel very badly about those times.
I feel like I've burdened somebody with a feeling of incapacity that might have been avoided. So in those particular kinds of situations withdrawing invisibly is more often than not a good strategy.
You have your own boundary that you've set, but you don't need to announce it to anybody and you just get yourself out of the line of fire. Somebody I know calls this ducking. You just duck.
But there are many ways of ducking and many different things that you can do for yourself that the person doesn't even have to know about. And then if you're trying to avoid contact, there's many ways to lessen the frequency of or the intensity of contact.
If you want to completely cut somebody out, of course you probably have to tell them. But if it's more of a temporary thing where you want a break or something like that, more often than not you can do that invisibly.
The other thing is when we don't have as much of a charge around someone else's behavior, then we can say things in a way that they will find easier to digest.
I'm saying that with some trepidation because we should never go into a situation like that thinking if I say it the right way, they will hear me.
There is no necessary connection between how you say anything and whether or not someone's going to hear you.
I mean, there were people who thought Anandamayi Ma was a jerk. So for the rest of us schlubs, we are not in control of how someone responds to us.
That being said, if we are more detached in particular ways, we are more skillful in communicating and we have more of a sense of the reality of the situation, which is that if a person is going to change their behavior or just even see their behavior, there has to be an infinite mandala of things lining up to make that possible for them.
And you are only just one factor in that mandala. So you want to be as skillful as you can, but you are by no means in charge.
We have a very, very strong and deep concept, it is only a concept, it is an embodied idea that when other people do X, we have the right to respond Y. Or when other people do X, we are going to feel Z.
Because that's what happens when someone is causing me, by doing Y, they are causing me to feel Z. This is not true. It is a huge fixation of this particular moment in human life and there's abundant examples of how it is actually not true.
And that our responses to things have to do with our condition, not to what other people are doing. And of course this is the whole crux of skillfulness in life that we are being in our real nature, no matter what anyone else is doing.
So we can always respond from that place of spontaneous wisdom no matter what anyone else is doing. There's never a point where Guru Padmasambhava said, enough with the enlightenment stuff. For the next half hour, I'm blaming you for everything [laughs]. Okay, back to enlightenment. But you know what you did, that really hurt me. It's your fault.
And of course, one of the examples that's most moving to me of this is Tibetans who were and are in Chinese labor camps, which are extremely difficult.
Torture happens, starvation, forced labor, all kinds of unpleasantness. And there are some lamas who came and monks who have come out of that situation saying, I'm so glad that that happened to me. It helped my practice so much. I developed so much compassion for my jailers.
This is a way of relating to even the most heinous events that I think has been a shining example to me in my life. It's not anything we can fake, but we should know that it's a possibility for us that we can have that clarity of how things actually are and understand that everyone's just doing what they're doing.
It's not at us. No one is aiming stuff at us, even if it seems that they are, even if they say that they are.
Even in ordinary life, if someone is being chronically bad to us and saying it's because of us and they're trying to hurt us, even if they're being very explicit about that, if we went away, they would find another person to do that to. We are totally dispensable.
People who hurt other people deliberately or have all kinds of other ways of treating other people that are not friendly, as we started this talking about friendship, they will just find people to do that to.
They are not tied to you. It isn't really about you. You just showed up and agreed to stand around for a while and be the receiver of that behavior.
This has to do with our embodied concepts of ourselves and reality. So there's no necessary relationship between how one person behaves and another person responds or reacts.
And if we can really grok this, then we have much more skill and much more access to compassion, much more feeling of tenderness toward other people, much more clarity about what's actually happening, and much more ability to get fruit from our practice and be self-responsible and be our own friend, be a friend to ourselves.
If we're always busy blaming and fighting and feeling triggered and traumatized by other people, then that is taking up an enormous amount of our energy which could be well-used for something else.
So understand that this equation that we've internalized is the major axis of our suffering.
I have a question specifically about pratyabhijña. In the journey of self-recognition, is it something that comes and goes?
So, Pratyabhijña is one of the major schools of what we call Trika now, or Kashmir Shaivism. It's one of the major streams that fed into the synthetic tradition that we have today.
And it's, at least it's founders who wrote things down— because I'm very cautious about saying that so and so was the founder of a tradition just because the first book we have about it was by somebody. These traditions have long prehistories and lots and lots and lots of writing that was lost. It's a little hard to find alternate language. But the two major proponents who are the great-great grand guru and great-great grand guru of Abhinavagupta, Somananda and Utpaladeva have written texts about Pratyabhijña, the Pratyabhijña School. It means self-recognition.
And that self that one is recognizing is the absolute self. So it isn't small self. Or you could say we're recognizing the real nature of small self is that absolute self.
It is one of the two or three most important streams that are feeding into Trika Shaivism. And the idea of self-recognition is also a major, major teaching and source of practices in Dzogchen. So this is a place of really great confluence between these two traditions.
So self-recognition is the game that this entire reality is playing with us, this game of playful self-forgetting and playful self-recognition or re-recognition.
And all of the lineages that we practice in, all of the practices are aimed at re-recognizing. Now, in both Trika and Dzogchen, recognition is the earliest or the precondition or the prerequisite for going forward in sadhana in a specific direct realization way.
And it happens over and over and over again— only in extremely rare instances would that recognition happen only once and then never ever go out of view again.
This is the main reason we are working with teachers and why the relationship with the teacher is the central sadhana in both Trika and Dzogchen, is that we need many, many, many opportunities to recognize the nature of the self, to recognize our own real nature, living presence, rigpa.
There's just so many different names for it. That the ancient and also still carrying through to this day, in some instances, method is to spend a lot of time with the teacher so that you can have more and more instances.
And what does the teacher provide in this regard? The teacher provides not just specific sadhanas, but opportunities to experience what is called transmission.
And that means that somehow there's an alchemy in being around the teacher that can be invoked formally or just happen informally when you're like hanging out at a café or something, where the confluence of just being with the teacher causes you to recognize the state of the teacher in yourself.
So transmission does not mean that you are receiving something from the teacher that only the teacher has and that you are missing, and somehow the teacher is supplying this missing mysterious ingredient.
This is not what it means.
What it means is that the alchemy of you working with the teacher, if you have that alchemy with a particular teacher, is that you can experience your own enlightened essence nature that is already there perfected from the beginning.
The teacher is just helping you through this alchemy to recognize that. And this is what self-recognition is. Now in the Tantrik tradition and also in Dzogchen, practice begins with pratyabhijña, it begins with self-recognition.
So at the beginning of every sadhana, there's some way that you are trying to remember that you are already God. And there's that famous Sanskrit saying, in order to worship God, you must become God. You must already know God. You must already know the self in order to worship the self.
For instance, if you wanted to worship chocolate, but you didn't have any sense of what chocolate was, you'd never smelled it or tasted it, how could you really worship it? You wouldn't even know what it was.
So if you want to worship God, reality or the self, you must already in some sense have recognized it.
And this is why we put so much emphasis on transmission and orchestrate moments of transmission before every practice. And it happens over and over and over and over again. In most cases, in 99.99999% of cases, even though in some circles where Trika Shaivism and Dzogchen are being taught and discussed, there's this emphasis on sudden enlightenment.
And I feel that this is really egoic, egotistical, and spiritual bypassing. It has to do with different capacities of students that are outlined in Trika and in Dzogchen, which I won't go into right now, but I do give teachings on those.
A person can be in a condition where all they need is the slightest little subtle hint and then they have recognized their own real nature in a more permanent sense.
But this is a rare person and it says so in the teachings of Trika and Dzogchen.
And yet, of course, people in the West have latched onto this as if everybody's birthright that they're going to have sudden enlightenment. There's also another teaching, particularly in Trika, not particularly in Dzogchen, where we have this concept of svatantrya.
Svatantrya is a word that means the freedom of the self to express itself without limitation. It's kind of a clever formulation where people say that the supreme self has unlimited freedom even to the degree that it can create experiences of limitation. It's freedom is expressed in its ability to create limitation also.
So in that svatantrya of course is the ability to cause anyone to permanently self-recognize, even if they've never done any sadhana, even if they hate religion, because this alive, aware reality is only creating circumstances and forms out of its own self so it can do whatever it wants.
And again people have latched onto this like why should I do any sadhana? And I'll just sit around waiting for somebody to come bop me on the head and enlighten me. I mean, this is all ridiculous.
And it's missing the fun too, because there's a lot of fun in doing sadhana and working with teachers and being in communities, I think, anyway.
That's why I'm doing it, because it's fun. I don't really want to be doing anything else. And sudden enlightenment almost sounds like a little boring.
[laughs] I'm just kidding. But I'm trying to counteract the other discourse. But there are basically three aspects of sadhana that are laid out very explicitly in Dzogchen and a little bit less explicitly in Trika, but it's still there, where we have to recognize first.
We have to have some kind of recognition, like a beacon, so we know where we're headed, so we know what chocolate tastes like. Otherwise we have no idea what we're doing, and that's what transmission is for. Then we try to stabilize in that recognition. And of course, the fact that there is even the idea that we have to stabilize, in Trika it says become used to.
That's the phrase that's used most often in Trika, we have to become used to living presence, we have to become used to this recognition of the self. And in Dzogchen, it's in these three famous statements of an ancient practitioner from India, Garab Dorje, who practiced for 40 years in a cemetery outside of Bodhgaya.
And he came up with these three very terse, very short statements, these three statements of Garab Dorje, which lay out the whole path of Dzogchen: recognize, stabilize, integrate.
So the actual path includes all three of those all at once. And this is one of the hallmarks of direct realization traditions. In other kinds of traditions, including other Buddhism and other Hindu traditions, there is more of a sense of what's called krama, going step by step, very gradually in a specific order.
But in Trika and in Dzogchen, you can do that, that's one of the tools in the toolbox that, nobody's saying don't do it gradually if you want to. But the people who are sort of more fully suited for this kind of tradition are going to be working with recognition, stabilization, or getting used to— customization, and integration all at the same time.
So even in the tradition, the answer to your question is there because if we only had to recognize once, there would be no other stages, right?
So it's already recognized that we have to do these other things in order to get used to and to integrate what we have become used to into our everyday lives.
And of course, you'll see all of this in the morning practice. All three stages are happening in that morning practice, right? And maybe I'll point that out one morning to make that more explicit, but I'm sure that you understand that on an experiential level.
So I want to say something about becoming used to or becoming accustomed to the base state of reality, or the natural state, or the self— those are all ways to say the same thing— is so alive when you first experience it full on, of course we can experience it in sort of partial ways too, which is more common, but when you first experience it full-on, it's like being plugged into an electric socket of cosmic size and it's like holding that much clarity, in particular.
Your sensorium has to get used to it, and so this is— being accustomed to on a more everyday level, we may start to feel more of our energy body, but of course it comes and goes. Some days we just feel like a lump of clay. Other days we feel more spacious and feel more of a sense of liveliness in our energy body and we have to become accustomed to that liveliness.
That also depends on our dosha. For instance, people with more kapha dosha are going to take longer to experience that, but once they do, they're going to have an easier time acclimatizing.
People with a more vata constitution may experience that increased liveliness is unpleasant at first, and they may have to take more time getting used to that. In a more of a pitta constitution, you're already kind of seething with over-liveliness, so it takes a little shorter.
But that getting used to is an absolute hallmark of most of our lives as practitioners, that we kind of open to a more sensory perception and then we back off sometimes and we have to re-approach it and then deliberately try to assimilate that and be comfortable with it, get more comfortable with it.
So the answer to your question is really very deeply baked into the tradition.
Is it a reasonable thing to feel sad about the scope of what one is not going to be able to experience in one's life?
The flavor of which you are going to respond to that inevitable circumstance is going to depend on your constitution. Anandamayi Ma said God makes the impossible possible, but the possible impossible. So, that this alive, aware reality can do anything it wants.
I have no idea what your trajectory is going to be, but I don't expect to become fully enlightened in this lifetime and I expect to remain pissed off about not being able to participate fully for the rest of my life [laughs].
So it's been a constant feature of my life since I was about four. But see, that flavor has to do because I have more of a pitta constitution, if I had more of a vata constitution, or perhaps kapha, I might respond more with sadness about that.
The thing is, try to look forward more with more of a sense of openness and don't have so many expectations. You don't really know what's going to happen to you. Really you don't. My own experience in this tradition and practicing now for more than 35 years is that so many surprises happen.
Things I never would have expected and wasn't even looking for, that were marvelous.
You're very young. You're just starting and I think you have everything ahead of you. So try to just look ahead with that sense of openness and don't project into the future what you think you're not going to get.
Projecting sadness into the future has to do with hungry ghost Karmic Realm vision is one way of looking at it. Nostalgia or sadness about the things you're going to miss out on in the future. So just think of it as an aspect of Karmic Realm vision and don't be too earnest about it.
The reason why I talk about myself this way is I have FOMO for not being able to play fully in the field of duality because it's self-irony, right? I'm making fun of myself and making light of it.
And that's a very good strategy, I think, to have some sense of self-irony and recognize your own foibles and take them a little bit more lightly. You're just a person like everybody else. You're in this mad rowboat rowing with all of us [laughs].
Today I was thinking, how do I define friendship? Like, what is friendship? I mean, kind of a base feeling of being understood and there is a sense of safety and belonging. And then if I feel like that I have to fight to be understood, that's when it starts to like, it doesn't feel friendly anymore. But I just wonder what you have to say about that.
Well, interestingly, the throughline between ordinary friendship and The Friend is refuge, as I mentioned at the beginning of what I was saying to your first question about friendship, that you're looking for refuge. But how do you define refuge? What does refuge actually mean to you?
And this project of being understood is very dicey. Very, very dicey because many, many people, when they say, I want to be understood, really mean, I want you to buy my line about myself. I want you to understand me in the way that I understand myself.
And the degree to which you can entertain or host alternate views of yourself when friends are seeing things you haven't seen about yourself or see things in a different way is, I think, very healthy.
If we are always insisting on being understood in a particular way that we want to be seen, then we're going to be constantly disappointed by other people or we're just going to have a bunch of sycophants around us. So one or the other. So I think that's fine for now, but be cautious about this project of being understood.
And I would just say ruminate on what that actually means to you. I think one of the number one, if not the number one joy of friendship for me is just playing with someone, someone who can play with me in the way that I like to play.
It's not about having my explanations of things be understood. It's more about being able to engage in a more improvisational kind of play. Different things are important to different people.
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