Association Matters



Association Matters

Our relationships are stronger when they contain a spiritual component. There are three different ways to become good friends with someone.

‘Truth is, I’ll never know all there is to know about you, just as you will never know all there is to know about me. Humans are by nature too complicated to be understood fully. So, we can choose either to approach our fellow human beings with suspicion or to approach them with an open mind, a dash of optimism and a great deal of candour.’

—Tom Hanks

It is hard to imagine a life without relationships. The principle of relationships is an inherent universal one that guides our lives. What would life be if we did not have others to share it with? Therefore, we must learn how to do it correctly. Although this skill is seldom taught in schools, it has been documented in ancient spiritual texts for thousands of years. Your association, called sanga in Sanskrit, is crucial to your success, in this world and beyond.

  ‘A man or a woman is known by the company they keep,’ a famous English proverb states. There is a funny story about the effect of association. Before the industrial age, a man in a village went out to perform his morning ablutions because in India, in those days, they would not have restrooms in the house. After he was done, he got up and put on his dhoti, turned around and looked at the stuff, and said, ‘Disgusting! I am so good-looking and handsome. I cannot believe that something so obnoxious and nasty could come from me.’ To his surprise, the stuff spoke back to him and said, ‘You’re calling me obnoxious? Last night, I was a delicious samosa. Look what a few hours of association with you has done to me!’

  Our association can uplift or depress us to the lowest levels. When I talk about association in this context, I do not mean general interactions. In our day-to-day life, all of us will have to interact with people who may not necessarily be the best influence on us. Yet, we will have to do the needful and such interactions are simply neutral dealings hardly causing us any harm. Association is beyond our neutral ‘hi-hello dealings’—it has to do with the level of intimacy we share with others.

  One ancient text on relationships describes six exchanges that can create intimacy in personal dealings:

dadāti pratigṛhṇāti

guhyam ākhyati pṛcchati

bhuṇkte bhojayate caiva

ṣaḍ-vidhaṁ prīti-lakṣaṇam

Offering gifts and accepting gifts, opening one’s mind and inquiring inconfidence, sharing food and receiving food are the six exchanges that develop loving relationships.

We can broadly divide these into three different principles: 

The first principle— dadati pratigṛhṇati—means giving and receiving. Intimacy in our association begins with giving and receiving. For example, we may allow someone to use our car for the day or invite them to stay at our house, or in the modern day, share something even more valuable, like our Wi-Fi password! And the person may in turn reciprocate and return the favour in the future. We do not exchange our things and facilities with just anyone we meet. Such an exchange occurs only with people whom we are intimate with or with those whom we want to be intimate with. It is the extra effort that we put into these general interactions that develops intimacy.

  The second principle— bhuṇkte bhojayate caiva— which means ‘exchange of food with each other’, takes our association to the next level. ‘Why don’t you come to my house for lunch this afternoon?’ we may say. In India, there is a very popular coffee outlet and their tag line is ‘A lot can happen over coffee’. This is true—a lot does happen over the sharing of food. There is a deep emotional bonding that happens when we break bread together. The intimacy of our connection grows deeper from just sharing things, to sharing meals. Over meals and those light moments, a lot of our heart is shared, which brings us to principle three.

  The third principle— guhyam ākhyāti pṛcchati— means we start revealing our heart in confidence and listening to the other person’s revelations in confidence. When someone pours out their heart to us, we are not only understanding their point of view but subconsciously also being influenced by their values and beliefs.

  Thus, intimate association is about interactions that go beyond doing the needful; beginning with sharing things, moving on to sharing food and, finally, sharing thoughts, values and beliefs.

  Let me give you an example of how one can get influenced to do something like smoking, even though one knows that it can kill. Let’s say there is a young student in a university who does not smoke but is friends with a person who does. Initially, they are just doing the needful: doing experiments in the laboratory, sharing notes with each other, etc. That is how the interaction begins. Slowly, they start moving up the association ladder. He allows his friend to use his bike to get to class on the other side of the town, and the friend reciprocates by letting him use his laptop to complete an assignment. It should be noted that this sharing of things is not a business deal; it is in the spirit of helping as a friend. At some point of time they start having lunch together, making their friendship grow even deeper. Guess what? They never ever talk about smoking. So then how does the guy who does not smoke get influenced by the guy who does? This occurs subconsciously. The non-smoking friend is not buying into the action of the smoking one but is giving into the confidence and self-esteem—the values that his smoker friend represents. And the action of smoking may simply follow as a consequence. Therefore, when we talk of intimate association, we mean subconscious sharing of value systems, which may eventually end up affecting our lifestyle choices.

  That’s why it is said, ‘Watch your thoughts, they turn into words. Watch your words, they turn into actions. Watch your actions, they turn into habits. Watch your habits, they turn into character. Watch your character, it turns into your destiny.’ It all begins with a thought.

  Traffic was moving slowly through Mumbai, but at least we were still moving. We were just approaching the Haji Ali Dargah, a beautiful place of worship built into the bay. You could see people in the distance scurrying across the bridge that leads to the white marble building. After the mosque came the Haji Ali Chowk or crossroads. We were there physically, but I also felt that we were there metaphorically. Harry was at a crossroads in his life, questioning the decisions he had made in his relationships. It is natural to feel that way because it is the nature of the world to make you feel unsettled.

  Our conversation was disturbed by Harry’s phone vibrating in the door-pocket of the car. Not wanting to distract himself, he declined the call without seeing who it was.

  ‘You can take the call, if you like,’ I said.

  ‘Are you sure?’ he replied.

I nodded. He checked his call register.

  ‘Oh, it was my wife calling . . . After all that we have discussed, maybe I should call her back,’ he said, embarrassed.

  ‘Definitely,’ I said and smiled.

  He pressed the number, lodged his phone between his ear and shoulder and placed both his hands on the steering wheel again.

  ‘Hello? Are you there?’ he repeated many times.

  ‘Hi . . . I’m going to . . . I’m okay . . . should be home soon . . . with your mother,’ a voice on the other side repeated loud enough for me to overhear without intending to do so.

  ‘The signal is bad,’ Harry said to me. ‘She’s off somewhere. I couldn’t make out where, but she’s with mum. Should be okay.’

  I thought nothing of it at the time, but as it turned out she was off to somewhere very important. But we were not to know that until much later.

  ‘Now, where were we?’ Harry quickly changed the subject. ‘We were talking about relationships and the interactions we have with people. With my wife, I know that I have a lot to do, but most of the stress that I bring home is from work. In a corporate environment, the dynamics are odd. I must cooperate with my colleagues, but at the same time I want to get ahead. How do I deal with my interactions at work?’

  I told him, ‘Fun fact: I know that you spend more than forty hours a week at work, but let’s say that on average a person spends forty hours working between the ages of twenty and sixty-five, and gets two weeks of holiday a year. In that time, they will have worked a total of 90,000 hours. That’s a lot of time, so we better learn how to best utilize it in the right way.’ It was also time to explain the third wheel of life.


  • Our association is powerful: it can uplift us or bring us down.
  • General interactions are dealings meant to do the needful and are simply neutral.
  • Intimate dealings are built through the exchange of things, food, thoughts, values and belief systems. Our lifestyle is affected more by another person’s value systems than their habits.




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