Question: Hello Derek! I began studying the Tao last year when I received your translation for my birthday. It's like a whole new world opening up, so I want to thank you for that. I have a question for you, and it's about my friends. Recently, whenever I get together with them, I keep finding that my interests, outlook on life, and aspirations are becoming more and more different from theirs. I feel as if I am drifting away from them, or perhaps they are drifting away from me. I have known them for many years and value their friendship, but now I sense some discomfort on their part, as if a wall has gone up between us. What should I do? Is there anything I can do?
Answer: Over the years I have seen many people go through the same thing you are experiencing. At some point, they made a personal decision to uplift themselves, but their friends continue on the same trajectory as before. At first, nothing seems out of place, but as time goes on, these different paths diverge more and more. Former buddies end up with less and less in common, and become more and more distant from one another.
It's important to recognize that they haven't changed. You are the one who has changed. Because of your self-cultivation, you have started to develop spiritually. You are starting to experience soul growth. The friendship can go back to the way it used to be if you go back to the way you used to be, but if you are like the others I have observed, you won't be able to do that. Once a mind has been expanded, it is impossible for it to return to its previous, more limited dimensions.
What is the solution? Is there a solution? I would suggest that the discomfort you sense is something you can address. You will find openness and communication to be the best tools for you in this situation. They probably won't bring up the topic, so you'll have to take the initiative. Find an appropriate opportunity to have a heart-to-heart conversation. If you aren't sure what to say, here are my suggestions:
1) First, bring illumination. Shine a light on the issue. Let them know you are aware of the discomfort. Tell them you are not oblivious to the gap that has been widening. They will probably be relieved. They may say, "Wow, I thought it was me!" or "Thank God someone finally says what we've all been thinking!" or "I thought I was imaging things and, you know, didn't want to make a big deal out of it."
2) Explain your path. They may think you are a little crazy (especially if they know you well), so let them know you haven't actually lost your mind. Assure them it is something you've thought about carefully and deliberately. Explain that it isn't a phase you are going through, and it isn't something that will pass. Talk about the benefits you have experienced, but be careful - you don't want to make this a recruitment drive. Stick to the facts, clarify your position, and don't try to convert anyone.
3) Be clear about the implications of your decision. As a result of your evolving values, priorities and goals, you'll be allocating your time differently in the future. While you have no wish to give up your friends, you may need to make adjustments in your schedule, and not have as much time for them as before, or you may wish to participate in activities that hold little interest for them. Ask for their understanding. If they value you as much as you value them, then there is no question that they will extend their support. Even if they cannot follow you on your journey, even if they do not fully understand your reasons, they can still help you and encourage you.
Your clarity and insights into this matter may make them curious about the Tao. Some of them may want to learn more. If so, gladly share the information you have, but again, be careful not to become overly enthusiastic. Forcing your ideas on anyone would be contrary to the Tao. Your detachment in this case may even pique their interest. They may decide to tag along with you, just to see what it's all about. If so, then your divergent paths will begin to converge back together.
No matter what they decide, one thing is for certain: if you follow the Tao correctly, then as you continue your cultivation, you will encounter more and more kindred spirits. Their connection with you will inspire you to greater heights of personal development. Right now, you may be at a crossroads in your life, but it is not a bad thing at all. It is an opportunity where you have the possibility to bring your friends along, as well as the prospects of making new friends down the road. Both are exciting things to look forward to. Although you may feel a bit troubled at the moment, I can guarantee that years from now you'll look back and realize that this is actually the beginning of something great. Start thinking about how to approach your friends... and good luck!