I spent some quality time with my friend Peter last night, drinking a lovely bottle of Valpolicella and getting caught up on our respective lives and loves. I woke up this morning, not with a hangover (as I probably should have), but with a renewed sense of wonder about the blessings of friendship, in particular how friends can be some of the greatest teachers that life has to offer. The company we keep is so important! Good friends teach each other so much just by spending time together. For instance, I learned two interesting things from Peter last night, over the course of our rambling, 3-hour, wine-flavored conversation. Firstly, I learned that Serbia (where he recently spent 2 weeks working on his latest performance piece with a Serbian colleague) is known for its sweets – in the culturally mixed and mingled city of Belgrade, you will find a perfect trifecta of the world’s greatest desserts, thanks to the city’s Belgian, Viennese and, of course, Turkish influences. He even brought me a sampling as evidence of this fact (thanks, Peter!). Secondly, I learned to remember Laughing Buddha precisely in the moments when it seems like there is no such thing.
My friend Richard is another important friend, who has been a teacher to me in the literal and metaphorical sense. Not only was he my Ear Training and Sight Singing professor when I was in music school, but he has continued over the years to be a teacher of a great many life lessons, always leading by example in typical Sagittarian fashion (Happy Birthday, Richard!). Some years ago, when I visited him in the ashram in which he was living and working, he gave me a beautiful gift: Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. Now, this is a book full of stories about friendship and teachers! For your enjoyment, as well as my own, I’ll quote a passage from it, here below:
Months later, I met an old friend, Sanandan, who was one of Pranabananda’s close disciples.
“My adorable guru is gone,” he told me, amidst sobs. “He established a hermitage near Rishikesh, and he gave us his loving training. When we were pretty well settled, and making rapid spiritual progress in his company, he proposed one day to feed a huge crowd from Rishikesh. I inquired why he wanted such a large number.
“‘This is my last festival ceremony,’ he said. I did not understand the full implications of his words.
“Pranabanandaji helped with the cooking of great amounts of food. We fed about 2,000 guests. After the feast, he sat on a high platform and gave an inspired sermon on the Infinite. At the end, before the gaze of thousands, he turned to me, as I sat beside him on the dais, and spoke with unusual force.
“‘Sanandan, be prepared; I am going to kick the frame.’ (That is, give up the body).
“After a stunned silence, I cried loudly, ‘Master, don’t do it! Please, please don’t do it!’ The crowd remained silent, wondering at my words. Pranabanandaji smiled at me, but his eyes were already beholding Eternity.
“‘Be not selfish,’ he said, ‘nor grieve for me. I have been long cheerfully serving you all; now rejoice and wish me Godspeed. I go to meet my Cosmic Beloved.’ In a whisper Pranabanandaji added, ‘I shall be reborn shortly. After enjoying a brief period of the Infinite Bliss, I shall return to earth and join Babaji. You shall soon know when and where my soul has been encased in a new body.’
“He cried again, ‘Sanandan, here I kick the frame by the second Kriya Yoga.’
“He looked at the sea of faces before us, and gave a blessing. Directing his gaze inward to the spiritual eye, he became immobile. While the bewildered crowd thought he was meditating in an ecstatic state, he had already left the tabernacle of flesh and had plunged his soul into the cosmic vastness. The disciples touched his body, seated in the lotus posture, but it was no longer warm flesh. Only a stiffened frame remained; the tenant had fled to the immortal shore.”
(from Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda, 1946.)
Quite a few year ago, I wrote a song called ‘Mythology of You and Me’, which I recently dusted off and performed again with Likeness to Lily. It’s not the greatest song I ever wrote, but it contains a couple of lines that I’ve always been proud of:
We’ve got something
Maybe it’s a history
You’re there when it counts
Always been enough for me
So good we’re friends
It could have been anything
Love keeps crooked time
Always swings around again
My point is, our friends – our Laughing Buddha gurus – are always with us, even when they’re not. Life is so long and we’re always traveling somewhere – to Serbia, to Iraq and Afghanistan, to the immortal shores of Eternity, or sometimes just back and forth to DC on the Bolt Bus. Everybody’s path goes wherever it’s going, and we all lose touch, and then we get back in touch, again and again, over and over. Sometimes true friendship is about quality time spent drinking good wine, eating banh-mi and shooting the shit together in your tiny Brooklyn studio apartment on a low-key Thursday night. Sometimes it’s about freely letting a friend travel to the far side of his or her own personal orbit in order to enjoy a brief period of Infinite Bliss or long periods of being too busy to call you back. Always, I believe, it’s about learning to trust that, even though we may be separated by time and distance, and sometimes even death, it’s not possible to be apart from each other when we are so deeply a part of each other.