One of the things I love about Guru Arjan’s Sukhmani Sahib is how sophisticated his spiritual vision is. A few words can cause me to rethink and reframe basic assumptions that I have held for years.
Recently, I have been meditating on a couple of lines from the 12th Ashtapdai, 4th verse of Sukhmani. Here is a poetic interpretation of them:
“When a person sees anyone as an enemy, or a friend,
Then his mental understanding lacks steadiness.”
This statement fascinates me. The Guru seems to offer that seeing people as friends or enemies is a symptom of an unsteady mind. What does this mean?
Does this mean never having deep conversations with anyone? Never going to lunch or the movies? Never getting upset when someone creates mischief or speaks badly? How is this instruction for every-day life? Practically speaking how is it possible to stop seeing people as friends or enemies?
Looking back over the course of my own life, I believe the Guru is asking us to train the mind to understand the complexity of human dynamics; to create a vast space within ourselves, where we can handle the inevitable changes that happen throughout the course of our lives. There are players who come and go; who have one role and then another. If we can look at people through that wider lens, then the mind will not “freak out” so much when something unexpected happens in our relationships with each other.
Here are some frameworks that I use for myself when it comes to understanding relationships with people.
First – people do not treat me a certain way because of who I am. People treat me a certain way because of who they are. It is important to step back and observe the totality of another person – her habits, her character and her language – rather than getting caught in my own emotional needs. People who gossip to me about others will inevitably gossip to others about me. People who have made a commitment to themselves to be kind will treat me with kindness, even in difficult situations. Someone who values money and “getting ahead” more than relationships will sacrifice any relationship for money. A man or woman who is a “player” or a “flirt” will not change because they have found “the right one.” They will change when they decide to become “the right one.”
The mind has a tendency to look at everything from the vantage point of “me,” to interpret everything in a very personal way. But any relationship – positive or negative – needs a little perspective. Guru Arjan talks a lot about pride in the 12th Ashtapadi ofSukhmani Sahib. There is an aspect of pride in seeing someone as “my” friend or “my” enemy. When we look at people solely using our egos as the reference point, it can be difficult to keep a vaster view.
But the truth is that people in our lives – friends, family members, community members, enemies – act in a lot of ways that have nothing to do with the “me” at all. They are acting as they are, for their purposes, in accordance with their understanding. It’s not personal. When we train the mind to drop the filter of “me,” it gives the mind more breadth and dimension to deal with the complexity of human relationships.
Another factor in the friend/enemy dynamic is territory. No matter how great your best friend may be, no matter how marvelous your mate may be – treading on their territory is likely to provoke an attack. It is part of the human’s animal nature. Until someone understands how to flow with the totality of the Divine, that person has a sense of his or her territory. Territory provides boundaries, a sense of security and identity. The plants in my garden teach me a lot about territory. Each plant needs its own piece of earth to spread its roots and to grow. Each plant has its own methods to establish itself and defend itself. Territory is a very real part of living on the earth.
No friend, no family member, no lover – unless that person has a very refined spiritual consciousness – can tolerate their territory being invaded. Whether you deliberately or innocently cross the boundaries does not matter. The attack will come and it will be a shock. It is important in these moments to not take the attack personally. To step back and take the time to understand what territory has been violated, without making a drama out of the issue. Sometimes you can have a conversation about it. Sometimes you just have to observe until it becomes clear from the other person’s behavior what those lines are. But navigating relationships requires a subtle attention to these details.
This is one reason great friendships can become strained when friends do business together. Business is the ultimate expression of our territorial nature. When friends start doing business with each other, the dynamics shift. Making peace with this territorial nature and learning how to diplomatically maneuver through it is another tool for the mind in dealing with the friend/enemy dynamic.
Last, but not least, all relationships change. Every soul is on a sovereign journey through time and space – learning, growing and evolving. The process of growth and maturity, or stagnation and immaturity, happens through our interactions with each other. It is a collective process. We go through life connected to, and interdependent upon, one another. Events happen. Trajectories change. Both positive and negative relationships require a continual investment of attention, time and energy. Life will create a pressure where relationships either positively transform or break down completely.
In this sense, friends can drift away, and perhaps reappear in a different form down the road. Enemies may denounce a person fiercely in one moment, but years later, may ask the same person for help. No one is a permanent friend or a permanent enemy. If a person can take the broader view and see the Light of the Divine within everyone, then it is easier to honor the journey of each soul.
Often times in Gurbani, we read the words that the Guru is our True Friend. The Guru is the one force in our lives that will not leave us, and will not change. If we can allow the words of the Guru to penetrate our minds, those words have the power to uplift and heal us, always. Other relationships will have their ups and downs; their good days and bad days; their coming and going. But a conscious loving relationship with the Guru’s teachings can provide a constant, steady, friendly beacon to guide our souls back home.
With Divine Light,