One of my teachers, Dr. Claudia Welch, often quotes her guru who once advised her (when she was 7 years old, no less), “Keep good company. Good company makes a man great.” When I hear Dr. Welch repeat these words, I am always taken by the image of a wise old man (whose actual likeness I’ve never seen, so I invent) imparting these words to such a little girl – a girl who has held firmly to them and passed them along to other ready ears over her lifetime.
Recently I’ve been contemplating what exactly is good company? What qualifies someone (or something) as good company? To my mind, there are two categories: First are those with intrinsic goodness, those who embody integrity, kindness, honesty, respect. I think of this as empirical goodness, the definition of “good” that no one will dispute.
The second category I think of as situational or functional goodness, company who is “good FOR you” or good for a particular reason. These are the people who remind us of something valued or who inspire us to reach towards a worthy goal. They are good company because they serve a purpose for us. They help keep us on our chosen path in spite of distraction or temptation.
Living in the quiet and peace of New Mexico for the past month, I have been reflecting on how much easier it is to maintain new routines when surrounded by a conducive environment. It’s easy to lose sight of your very good intentions or your rationale for doing certain practices when there is no mechanism to remind you of what you value. This fact is acknowledged in many spiritual traditions. Buddhists are guided to “take refuge” in the three gems: the Buddha, the dharma (the Buddha’s teaching), and the sangha (the community of fellow seekers). I love this idea, that we can actually find shelter and protection not only in the teacher and the teaching, exalted and lofty ideals at times, but also in the earthbound people like us who have chosen the same path – this is good company.
Having some unscheduled time has allowed me to delve into some books that have been on my list for a looooooong time. One such volume is the hefty tome Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an ancient text on the practice of yoga. I was excited to come upon a verse titled, “Causes of Success in Sadhana.” Sadhana means spiritual practice and here refers not only to the postures of yoga but the meditative practices designed to move us towards a deeper sense of connection or self-realization. As anyone who has tried to meditate will attest, it can be hard work, so I was (and remain) open for pointers.
The verse gives six qualities or actions that make a practice strong: “Enthusiasm, perseverance, discrimination, unshakeable faith, courage, and avoiding the company of common people are the (six causes) which bring success in yoga” (chapter 1, verse 16i). Now, the first five are certainly worthy pointers, but that sixth one caught my attention. Claudia’s guru echoed in my head – not only are we advised to seek good company but to avoid certain other company, here identified as “common” (a fascinating term to attempt to define), a related but different aim.
I have watched my tendency to be polite, or my desire not to rock the boat, lead me to withstand company that is not “good” – not wretched or malicious perhaps, but not like-minded or inspirational. Spending time with people who do not share our goals, be they spiritual goals, health-oriented, professional, or behavioral goals, can dissipate our focus. A “common” person encountered at the corner store is no doubt harmless, but what about those people who hold consistent places in our lives who, in our heart of hearts, we know are not helping us live the life we want to live? Avoiding their company may be easier said than done. While I like to think my dedication is enough to move me forward, after some encounters with bad company, I do flail around a bit before finding my sense of excitement and direction again. Company matters.
Last weekend, I attended a yoga therapy workshop taught by my aunt Patti at High Desert Yoga in Albuquerque. A gifted yoga therapist and physical therapist, she described the yoga therapist’s role as walking into the unknown, accompanying your clients in the exploration of their injuries or shadows. As an exercise, she led us to explore one of our own problem areas with a partner.
I’ve had an ankle injury of unknown origin for over a year. It makes itself heard whenever I point my left foot to its furthest limit, so I’ve been avoiding that movement for quite awhile now. In this exercise, we were asked to move gently towards that injured part – and suddenly for me, all kinds of fear arose. I feared pain, I feared making the problem worse, I feared facing my body’s “failure” to heal. To avoid these fears, I had effectively cut off from that dark spot altogether. Frankly, I had no idea what was going on in there.
My partner Jill was undaunted. She asked questions of me, encouraging me to examine the flavor of the sensations in my ankle, the different sensations just before the pain kicked in, as well as the emotions I was feeling. She suggested minor changes in my movements, my breath, my thoughts, not because she knew what the result would be, just to explore, to learn with me.
By exploring together, we discovered that pressing down through my pinky toe pad while pointing the foot diminished the pain and increased my sense of support through the ankle. My fear had led me to cut off completely from the experience of my ankle, and thus from information that might help me heal. Jill simply brought a flashlight and pointed it in directions I was scared to see. Good company, I discovered, is willing NOT to know and patient enough to simply hold my attention to the present experience.
So often, those of us who step into the title of “teacher” feel we have to spread the light of knowledge. Here, I benefited from what I now think of as “the light of no knowledge.” It’s the light of companionship.
While keeping good company makes an individual great, being good company may very well make the world around us great.