One of the many paradoxes of the spiritual journey is that we must do the journey alone-- and yet in another sense, we cannot do it alone! Each of us must live the life we have been given; we must walk a path that is authentically our own. This journey is totally unique to each of one us; no one else can do it for us. In this sense, spiritual practice is a solitary journey.
And yet, as humans we are inherently relational beings; we are intrinsically related to others. Our brains are “hardwired” for relationship; our sense of self developed in relationship with another; we know ourselves as we do only in relationship to others.
Most spiritual traditions recognize this enigmatic quality of human life. Whether one is a monastic or a lay person spiritual practice must include both the dimension of solitude and relationship with others. In the Buddhist tradition this is expressed in certain teachings of the Buddha where he expresses the importance of both self-reliance and relationship with others.
Toward the end of his life he said to his chief disciple Ananda, “Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dharma as your island, the Dharma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.” And yet, earlier in his life when Ananda enthusiastically declared to him: “Venerable one, this is half of the holy life: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, and admirable camaraderie.” The Buddha replied, “Don't say that, Ananda. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.” (In another teaching the Buddha makes a similar statement in reference to lay persons.)
The Pali term Kalyāṇa-mittatā is the name often given to a spiritual friendship within Buddhist community life; it is applicable to both monastic and householder relationships. One involved in such a relationship is known as a "noble friend." Since early Buddhist history the term Kalyāṇa-mittatā has been used to reference spiritual teacher-student dyads as well as peer relationships.
For those who practice Buddhist meditation, the sangha is a common way of forming spiritual companionships. A sangha consists of a community of individuals committed to learning, practicing and supporting other sangha members in spiritual practice. Sanghas traditionally have formed around a particular teacher, but this is not absolutely required. What is required is having a group of individuals with a clear intention and a consistency of teachings and practices.
Christianity developed as a communal spiritual movement and remains so to this day. The early Christians (known as Followers of the Way) lived in small communities. Later, as Christianity became more widespread, the church became the primary community, with the priest as the designated leader. Christianity, as well as Judaism and Islam, is a relationship based spiritual practice. And yet, from early on, solitude was also an essential part of Christian practice, particularly for the monastic.
Spiritual friendship and mentoring were common within the early Christian communities. The practice of Spiritual Direction developed as a disciplined way of being present with a person who wanted to deepen his or her relationship with the divine and to grow in personal spirituality. Spiritual direction included elements of both solitude and relationship. This practice has become widespread in recent years and flourishes today in many lay communities.
Perhaps the most widespread form of spiritual friendship in the modern West is found in the Twelve Step Recovery movement whereby relationships develop to support mutual sobriety. Sobriety is considered to be more than just cessation of an active addiction; it includes a spiritual awakening of the former addict and a transformation of his or her way of life. Within each Twelve Step group individuals are encouraged to find a mentor (sponsor) who can guide them according to their specific issues and needs.
Spiritual companionship can generally be described as a relationship that is formed for the primary purpose of mutually developing and supporting each person’s spiritual growth. There may be a social component to the relationship, but the primary purpose is the nurturing of spiritual development. By whatever name, and in whatever form, spiritual companionship is an essential part of the journey of awakening!