“If, while befriending someone, the three poisons increase,
The activities of study, reflection, and meditation degenerate,
And love and compassion disappear,
Then it is the practice of the bodhisattvas to give up this company.”
–The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, verse 4. *
The motivational speaker Jim Rohn said, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
I don’t think this is literally true. It doesn’t sound like it’s the product of some sort of scientific study. BUT I do think he’s getting at something important and in line with what we’re studying here. Who you spend time with has an impact on you in various ways.
My son told me about an incident in school where some he was hanging out with some friends and one of them got in trouble. So what happened? Everyone got in trouble. He expressed exasperation about getting in trouble when he’s not the one that did anything. That can happen to any of us. The message is pay attention to who you spend time with. Don’t spend time with the people who are getting in trouble all the time, because that will spill over onto you.
Atisha says, “One should give up friends who arouse negative emotions and rely on friends who increase virtue.”
We can choose to devote more of our time to being around people that inspire growth. It’s our job to grow and who we spend time with plays a role. This is not to say that you should cut off many of your friends, but I know I’ve seen a common situation in my own life. There was a period where I spent a lot of time with someone who was always making fun of other people and saw the world in a very negative way. And I started to emulate some of that. This was not intentional on my part, it just started to happen. Being around that person was changing me. I don’t see that person anymore. Being around people who don’t want to grow inhibits our growth.
Shantideva says, “Being in the company of childish beings will cause me to praise myself and belittle others.”
So, being around certain people causes the three poisons to increase. What are the three poisons? They’re three things that often get in our way and causes us to suffer. Attachment, Aversion, and Ignorance. I like to describe them as obsessions. We are obsessed with the things we want, that’s attachment. We are obsessed with the things we want to get away from, that’s aversion. And we don’t see things clearly, that’s ignorance. Sometimes these are called greed, hatred, and delusion. It’s different words for the same concept. If you know someone who’s invested in nurturing these three things in themselves, you’re probably already aware of it. We can try to help someone in that situation, it may even be you. What we don’t want is for someone we spend time with to inspire us to nurture the three poisons.
Instead, we want to nurture our practices of study, reflection, and meditation. These things are safeguards against the three poisons and they help us to generate love and compassion. And the truth is a bad influence can get in the way of these practices. Because, again, if we’re spending a whole lot of time with people that don’t want to grow, it can sap our motivation.
The Nirvana Sutra says, “The bodhisattva’s fear of bad company is not like the fear of a mad elephant. The latter will only trample the body, but the former will destroy the purity of both one’s mind and one’s virtue.”
We are training in Virtue and Wisdom. Good conduct as well as clarity and awareness. That’s what this is all about.
So, this is why the Buddha said that community is very important. Of course it’s important to have a sacred space to go to and a teacher (or teachers) to learn from. But it’s also important to have a community. This is a place you can go to spend time with people who have some of the same personal growth goals that you do. If we spend more time with people like that, then we they can inspire and motivate us.
So we can just think about this when we’re doing anything really. “Is what I’m doing helping me accomplish my growth goals?”
That’s not to say we have to be focused on that all the time. But it is to say that we should be mindful of how much energy we’re putting into transforming ourselves.
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- all italicized quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa