I invited a friend of a friend to join me for a panel at the Washington Post on innovations shaping our food system. She’s a food blogger, I’d remembered, and we follow each other on Instagram. 

“This looks really interesting!” she responded quickly. “Thanks for thinking of me!”

We met up a few blocks from the Post‘s headquarters so we’d have time to walk together. We chatted easily and continued the conversation as we rode the Metro home after the event.

From the moment we decided to attend the event together until we headed our separate ways along the Red Line, I found myself filled with a little joy. There was something about this quick interaction, this fast connection around shared interests, that made me feel comfortable, understood, valued.

What made me think about this small, yet surprisingly meaningful interaction was Stephen Cope’s book Soul Friends. I had read about a new study that reported on the importance of having BFFs in enhancing your resilience as an adult, and you don’t have to convince me in general of the importance of social relationships to our health. But what I especially like about Soul Friends is how Cope breaks down the different kinds of friendships we’re likely to experience as he makes a case for why we need them all, including the ones we don’t think much about and the ones we try to avoid.

Cope, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher, is senior scholar in residence at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I had the opportunity to speak with Stephen; here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

Carolee Belkin Walker: Let’s talk about Soul Friends, but first, how did you come to think about this topic and why is it important?

Stephen Cope: When Buddhism came to the West there was a tendency to describe practices that happen alone on the mat or during meditation. But in fact according to Buddhist teachings the self is a co-created social phenomenon. Our relationships create who we are and who we’re becoming. So in this way, I was interested in thinking about how friendships transform us. 

CBW: In the book, you break down human connections into six mechanisms, or six types of friendships, specifically containment, twinship, adversity, mirroring, identification, and conscious partnership. Let’s talk about what you mean and why these connections are important.

SC: Everyone will recognize the first one. “Containment” is simply the need to feel safely and securely held and soothed. People can get that kind of connection through a minister or in my own life that person was my grandmother. The experience of being contained in the mind and heart of another person is absolutely essential.

CBW: How often do you need to experience that or feel that or is the sense of containment you get from another person in the background?

SC: There are other types of friendships where we are extremely aware of the importance of the connection and its presence in our lives. But containers tend to be something like the water we’re swimming in and it’s not until we get pulled out of the water that we realize, “Oh my god I needed that person.”

CBW: Can you take a proactive approach to seeking container friends?

SC: Absolutely. I am a proponent of taking a proactive approach in all of the different types of friendship. There are some people who are particularly good at being containers. We feel safe in their presence. They have a certain soothing quality. You can identify these people in your life. I’ve identified my friend Susie. And once I did, I notice that she plays a containing role for many people. 

In your own circle of friends you’ll notice there are  people who are good at containment. First you name it, “Oh, I’m being contained there.” Then you actively encourage it. 

CBW: What about twinship? What do you mean by that?

SC: This is usually the next kind of relationship we have, which is a highly charged experience of reciprocity. What happens here is you’re interested in somebody else and they’re interested in you. That creates a profound sense of not being alone in the world, of there being an “other” in the world who has insides that are similar to yours. In these friendships, you’ll find yourself saying, “That’s amazing that you’re saying that, I feel the same way!” Or “I was thinking the same thing!”

Twinships tend to be dramatic and risky. The risk is they’ll drop out. They won’t like you as much as you like them. The friendship can end dramatically, even painfully. Or they can mature into something else, either good or bad.

CBW: Is that where you start to think about adversaries?

SC: Adversity is another connection we’re not often aware of, yet we need people in our lives who are adversaries. This could be a coach or a teacher who pushes against us. My first editor pushed me hard. I didn’t necessarily like it, but in retrospect I see that her pushing me forced me to draw myself together to bring everything I had to the task. If I make a list of the people who are most important to me she’s definitely on it. 

But I would have told you then our relationship was adversarial.

These adversaries can even become enemies, but they’re critical connections in our lives.

CBW: So you don’t want to spend your life avoiding those relationships?

SC: Exactly. In the contemplative traditions, gurus often intentionally take on an adversarial role, putting up obstacles in your way. You realize later those obstacles helped you to grow, to pull yourself together. Maybe they even pissed you off. But that kind of anger can be useful. It forces you to draw yourself up to your biggest height. Be your biggest self. 

CBW: What about mirroring? From the sound of it, I would think mirroring might be similar to twinship.

SC: Not really. Mirroring brings in the fact that there are parts of your body you will never see without the use of a mirror. You’ll never see your own face or the small of your back. There are likewise parts of your personality you will never see unless someone else sees it in you.

I have a young niece who just graduated from college. The truth is she doesn’t see herself yet. She doesn’t know what splendid qualities she has. I am very intentional about reflecting those back to her. I’ve worked with music students and often they only saw what was wrong with their performance, never what was right. They weren’t seeing themselves clearly.

CBW: A mirror is also the friend who’ll tell you your butt looks big in those jeans.

SC: Yes. Those friends are gold. 

CBW: What about identification? 

SC: Identification is a mature form of twinship. Once you have the experience of reciprocity where you see something in yourself that you also see in another person you become capable of doing that symbolically. 

Who is it in the world who most draws your fascination and your interest right now?

These are people who inspire you, and they might be people you never meet or they might not even be alive. For me it’s the author Annie Dillard. When I first read her prose, I thought, I want to write like her. I spent a year reading everything she’d written. 

Susan B. Anthony and Charlotte Bronte never met, they lived in different worlds although at the same time. For the rest of of her life, though, Susan B. Anthony kept Charlotte Bronte’s picture with her wherever she went. It was over her casket when she died. 

CBW: It’s interesting to think about how having a relationship with a person you’ve never met can be as important as the ones you’re having in your daily lives.

SC: Yes – and that leads us to talk about the sixth type of friendship – I call it the conscious partner, or the noble ally. This can be a partner or a spouse or in my case it’s a friend who you decide we’re going to be partners in bringing our whole hearts to our own idiosyncratic aspirations. My friend Brian is a real estate guy and a carpenter. I’m a writer and a scholar. But we ally in the sense that we’ve agreed that we’re going to support one another in achieving our highest aspirations. Sometimes that means pushing, sometimes that means mirroring, very often that means affirmation. A lot of times it means accountability, like, “Hey, did you hire that trainer you said you were going to hire?”

These are the friends you have where you’ve dedicated yourselves to the happiness of each other and the duty of one another. You’ve become one another’s noble ally in life. 

CBW: Thank you, Stephen, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I love the personal stories you’ve included in the book, and I appreciate the time you’ve taken to walk me through these concepts.

SC: You’re welcome! It was fun talking to you.