Friendship is a Spiritual Practice. This Holiday Season, Reach Out.
December 22, 2022
As someone who grew up in a Hindu household in Arkansas, the December holiday season doesn’t carry as much religious significance for me as it did for my classmates.
Throughout my childhood, I often found myself trying to connect with traditions such as buying Christmas presents and decorating a tree that were not part of my culture. As I’ve grown older, I’ve tried to use this time of year to grow deeper in my own reflective practices, focusing on celebrating community and the joys and hardships we experience together. In this yearly reflective practice, I often find myself thinking especially of my friends, those near and far, and feeling a sense of deep gratitude for the companionship and support I am lucky to receive throughout the year.
Poet and philosopher John O’Donohue describes the role of friendship as an act of recognition and belonging. In his book “Anam Cara,” Gaelic for “soul friend,” he describes the people who can act as a teacher/companion/spiritual guide throughout one’s life. The term describes a friendship that is not impacted by separation or distance. Within the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of the necessity of love and friendship — it was in fact a recognized and admired social construct. I deeply resonate with O’Donohue’s friendship blessing which reminds us how friends are treasured gifts in our lives. He encourages us to keep our hearts open, to find space to kindle the flames of love, forgiveness and belonging.
May you be blessed with good friends.
May you learn to be a good friend to yourself.
May you be able to journey to that place in your soul where
there is great love, warmth, feeling, and forgiveness.
May this change you.
May it transfigure that which is negative, distant, or cold in you.
May you be brought in to the real passion, kinship, and affinity of belonging.
May you treasure your friends.
May you be good to them and may you be there for them;
may they bring you all the blessing, challenges, truth,
and light that you need for your journey.
May you never be isolated.
May you always be in the gentle nest of belonging with your anam ċara.
— JOHN O’DONOHUE
I love the description of anam cara because it reminds of how friendship itself is a spiritual practice. Being a friend involves not only the beautiful act of loving another person but also the difficult and necessary spiritual act of loving ourselves. And it reminds me that friendship and connection can occur with people we see each day, our neighbors and co-workers, and can also be maintained with people we only see a few times a year.
Having moved many times, I have been lucky to maintain friendships with people I met at various stages of my life. My two oldest and closest friends Pooja and Lalita are from my childhood years in Michigan. These two dear friends were my first teachers in the lesson of anam cara. They taught me about the power of maintaining connection across distance (through letters, birthdays, phone calls) and how to be present for life’s most important milestones — even if we weren’t in the same place. Our friendship has been long distance for over 20 years and each time we are together, our reunions feel as if no time has separated.
Throughout college, medical school, residency and navigating my early jobs, I’ve been blessed to meet many wonderful anam caras, sometimes in surprising places. I met my friend Joan after she offered me comfort when my major medical exam was canceled the morning of my testing date (due to an air conditioning malfunction in San Francisco no less). Or my friend Nadia, who was a chance meeting in an overnight hospital shift, and has since become a spiritual companion and fellow explorer of Buddhist practices. Where and when we meet our spiritual friends is not often up to us. Yet, maintaining an openness and presence to this gift from the universe can be a form of spiritual practice.
In Buddhism, there is also a lovely concept of friendship — the Kalyana-mitra, or noble friend. This spiritual friend can see us for who we really are, even when we cannot fully see ourselves. This is deeply rooted in the construct of sangha or the spiritual community of Buddhist practitioners. Thay Phap Dung, a practitioner of Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition and senior abbott at Deer Park monastery in Escondido, California, compares a “sangha to a solar system, one in which the core friendships are the bright sun at the center.” Creating space in our lives for these friendships can be a centering act and can remind us of how to live out our values in big and small values.
The holidays are not always a time of joy and celebration for everyone — they can sometimes be filled with challenges, conflict, or loneliness. This holiday season, no matter how you plan to spend the time, it can be an opportunity to pick up the phone to text one friend, one colleague, one neighbor. You might just discover an unexpected anam cara.
Anu Gorukanti, MD, (she/hers) is a public health practitioner, pediatric hospitalist, and co-founder of Introspective Spaces, a social venture committed to building reflective space and community for women in healthcare. She is also a member of the Sacred Journeys and Witness fellowships. She cares deeply about the well-being of her colleagues in healthcare and is passionate about healthcare reform to create equitable and compassionate care for patients and communities. In her free time, she loves to photograph landscapes, learn to dance and spend time with her wonderful husband, friends and family.