Among nature’s many lessons applicable to our lives is this old proverb:
Birds of a feather flock together.
My parents were concerned about the “birds” of my teen years, my friends. The use of recreational drugs like LSD was on the rise. As good parents, they hoped to protect me from certain types of friendships. They even sent me to a parochial high school to influence my choices. It worked. I turned out fine.
It’s, of course, true that a young person’s mind is susceptible to many influences. Wise parents guide their children’s associations, keeping an eye out for bad birds.
But then we grow up, and we’re in charge of our own guidance. As adults it’s just as important to choose friendships that encourage us, challenge us to greater ideals, and give us moral support. This is especially true for the spiritual aspirant. The Katha Upanishad warns that the spiritual path is like a “razor’s edge,” very difficult to tread.
There are so many possible diversions on the spiritual path. Many of them are like a wolf in sheep’s clothing—they look innocent at first. For example, we might be tempted to join a gathering of co-workers for a drink after work. But the effects of that company and a little alcohol reduce our ability to study or meditate when we get home. It would be better to decline the invitation.
I’m not saying that a spiritual aspirant can’t have fun or enjoy recreation. According to Eastern philosophy, pleasure is one of the four values of life. But we must always be vigilant about our time. One thing leads to another. We can ask ourselves: Does this activity really serve my purpose?
The great Master, Paramahansa Yogananda, warns us that company is even stronger than willpower. No matter how sincere our intentions, if we spend time with the wrong kinds of people or activities, we will lose focus. A tiny slip puts us at risk of falling off the path.
The Importance of Wise Choices
As we move through our lives, day by day, we’re presented with many choices. We choose our activities and recreations. We choose the people with whom we spend time. We choose our friends. We decide whether to read this book or that magazine, and we surf channels on television looking for something entertaining. We choose to enter the World Wide Web and keep company on social media or websites. In all these situations, we make a choice. Many of those choices are made automatically—without any real consideration for their effects.
The seeker’s best friend is a pure and calm mind—the mind that ultimately leads us to full spiritual enlightenment. The pure mind is strong and clear. It makes the best choices and sticks to them. To strengthen the mind, we must nurture and guard it, just like a wise and loving parent. When we make a choice about how we spend our time, we must think about how that activity is going to affect our inner peace. Every good choice purifies and strengthens the mind.
How to Recognize Bad Company
The best proof of whether you’re spending time wisely—with good or bad company—is your state of mind. Being able to see what’s happening in your mind takes a little practice. As meditators, we already practice watching the mind. We observe our thoughts before settling into mantra repetition or other practices. That mental witness is your guide. It shows you when your mind is restless.
A meditator easily sees fears or anger as these feelings arise. Yoga refers to such unsettling thoughts as impurities in the mind. The purpose of meditation is to dissolve these impurities.
For example, let’s say you have just seen an action-packed movie—car chases, bullets flying, characters in crises. When the movie is over, and you’ve returned to your other activities, what is the condition of your mind? Are you still thinking about the movie—perhaps with some emotion? Or are you still moving through your day peacefully, compassionately, and lovingly dealing with those around you?
When you feel unsettled, angry, or anxious, take a moment to stop and assess the company you’re keeping. Look for a personal relationship, media influence, or even just a pattern of negative thoughts. All these are “company.” Resolve to change your attitude and perspective. See the hint of goodness in every situation. And spend time with the people and activities that help you do this.
Keeping good company is an important element to living your spiritual path. As an adult, you must be your own parent, guiding and nurturing yourself to make good choices. We will frequently return to the subject of company on Quiet Karma. For example, the series “Master of the Month” is aimed toward introducing you to the influence of great masters. Take the hint—study those articles and apply their lessons to your own life.
If you have experienced the effects of company in your life, please share it with us here. In that way, we can keep good company together.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.