Radical Friendship, by Kate Johnson

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I learned of this book from listening to this podcast episode where Layla Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy (which I found valuable and challenging), interviewed the author Kate Johnson about her new book. Johnson, a multiracial Buddhist practitioner and teacher, based the book around the Mitta Sutta, a passage of the Buddha’s teachings, which lists seven qualities that make a friend worth associating with:

They give what is hard to give.
They do what is hard to do.
They endure what is hard to endure.
They reveal their secrets to you.
They keep your secrets.
When misfortunes strike, they don’t abandon you.
When you’re down and out, they don’t look down on you.

Johnson’s wry recollection of her first time reading this passage was:
“I wanted to be that kind of friend. I wanted to have that kind of friend. Nothing in my experience or education had adequately prepared me for either of these things.”

I had a similar reaction. I realized I have very few friends who I would consider a “radical friend” (to use Johnson’s phrase), partially because I have not been that kind of friend myself. Being somebody who gives what is hard to give and does what is hard to do is what transforms a relationship from easy acquaintanceship to deeper friendship. We want friendship to be easy, where we feel perfectly safe and able to share without risking anything. But what these precepts point out is that that sort of friendship requires risk to develop – we have to open up before it feels safe, to give that trust when it’s hard to give, to become that friend.

Johnson’s writing of this book grew out of her looking for ways to apply her work as a Buddhist teacher to the structural racism of America after Michael Brown was killed by a police offer in Ferguson, Missouri: “To achieve freedom from structural violence in society, we would need to begin using our personal practices as the foundation for wise relationships within our communities.” She spoke out at the Buddhist Geeks conference (to a mostly white and male audience) about using “mindfulness practice as a tool for waking up to implicit bias”, and was surprised and delighted by the positive response she got, including an offer to write a book on the subject. In the process of writing the book, she “began to recognize what a profound impact living in societal structures marked by violence and domination had on my capacity to connect with other people, and also with myself.”

In studying Buddhist texts, she found a passage where the Buddha asserted that admirable friendship is the whole of the holy life, and realized that:

friendship is not a detour or roadside decoration on our journey to liberation. It is a direct pathway to embodying freedom, collectively, in this very moment. For me, radical friendship is the practice of developing the inner spiritual capacities that allow us to show up for our own liberation and the expression of these capacities in all of our relationships as we show up for each other. I see friendship as the base unit of relationship within families, communities and larger societal structures.”

The rest of the book is expanding on what it takes to be a good friend, or any human in collaborative relationship with others i.e. all humans. As she writes,

“To become a friend is to commit to a path of practice. Friendship is not an identity — it’s an activity. Friends feed each other, check in on each other, cheer each other up, and let each other be. We help when help is needed and wanted. We do our very best to protect each other from harm. We support each other in accountability when we fail to live up to our values and agreements. We begin again. Friendship is something we practice not because we should but because we want to. Because it restores our access to our full humanity. Because it makes life beautiful and meaningful and divine.”

Each chapter of the book expands on one of the seven qualities of a good friend from Mitta Sutta, and Johnson shares practical applications of Buddhist ideas like the Three Poisons and the Four Noble Truths. I particularly liked her writing in the chapter on the quality that “They reveal their secrets to you”:

With every coming-out, we take the risk that the truth of who we are will cost us the relationships we want. Or worse, that our truths will somehow be weaponized against us.

But, when we do feel safe enough to tell these secrets, to disclose our unseen identities, experiences, and beliefs, we make more space for ourselves in our relationships, more space for ourselves in the world. We get to see who will show up for us. We get to experience the satisfaction of being truly known. And, the people who love us receive the gift of truly knowing us too.

This passage inspired me to add vulnerability to my new mantra of “Connect with courage and vulnerability”.

The courage part of that mantra is also mentioned in a passage from the chapter on the quality of “they don’t abandon you”:

Belonging is rarely discovery. It’s a decision. If we experience the disappointment that people and communities will never be perfect, and we stay friends anyway, something sacred happens in that place. If there is enough good for us to stay, we teach each other that we are worth staying with. … The best thing about being good enough is that we don’t have to get ourselves 100 percent together to be available for radical friendship. Rather, it is through the practice of friendship that we get ourselves together. It takes courage to commit, and it takes wisdom to know what good enough is — and what it is not.

The chapter on the last quality of “they don’t look down on you” centers on the Buddhist idea of bodhicitta, the idea “that all human beings come into this world with the seed of enlightenment in their hearts. Our lifelong path of practicing being human is to nurture that seed into blossoming”. When we see everyone as fellow humans on that path, we can show compassion and admit and recognize mistakes without questioning our inherent worthiness (the seed). “True compassion can only arise in a relationship between equals. … True compassion never loses sight of our own or others’ inherent capacity to meet the circumstances of our lives when we have the appropriate support.” As she writes in an earlier chapter, “We’re on the same side of humanity, the only side, the side that wants to feel safe, be valued, and live full and meaningful lives.”

In the concluding chapter, Johnson ties this work of friendship back to her initial motivation of writing the book, to address structural racism and inequities: “Radical friendship alone might not save the world, but it can save our lives, and it can bolster our spirits long enough for us to do the world-saving, world-building, and world-making work we need to do to pass on something of value to future generations. …Because it is in the showing up for friendship, our hearts in our hands, that we find our people.” These words, and this entire book, inspired me to commit to connection, where I aspire to show up as a radical friend to the people I encounter throughout my life.

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