Reaching Friendship Nirvana

Two friends on the journey of a lifetime.

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We've been friends for 19 years, and for the past six we've been pursuing what we refer to as "friendship nirvana": a state of friendship liberated from the shackles of squabbling and resentment. Before you roll your eyes, it's important to point out that we spent years being assholes to each other — until we learned about a way out.

Sonia: Miranda and I met at Jew camp in New York's Finger Lakes region during the pimpliest stage of adolescence. She told me I looked like a tree because I was wearing brown pants and a green shirt, and I burst into tears. She was so weird, perceptive, unshaven — this irreverent city kid. Her jokes were queen. We both had a lot of rebellion in us and were always wreaking havoc together, but there was also a certain sensitivity pulsing beneath the surface.

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Miranda: I immediately felt a genuine softness for Sonia, even if we were just doing basic tween crap most of the time. She was such a fascinating collision of lightness and darkness: vibrant and brooding, ecstatic and melancholic, boisterous and introverted. I was inspired by how, even then, she saw herself as a work in progress. Certain experiences could have such a profound effect on her. Also, we both looked like we'd been raised by wolves with our long, untamed, pyramidal, frizz-infested hair. We were somehow of the same tribe: Sonia wore all camo, and everything I owned had the Champion logo on it.

But there was always an underlying competition: who's more creative, charismatic, attractive? We could never really acknowledge it, which was embarrassing. It would reveal itself as multiple shades of bitchiness. And it's heartbreaking because you love this person so much, but the fights just keep happening.

Sonia: We didn't have good tools for dealing with our conflicts, so we used weaponry instead. Miranda has a gift with language, which she was able to use destructively. She had the capacity to be at once very articulate and very vicious. Even when we were kids, she was always making our camp counselors cry. Once, this one counselor wouldn't let her use the bathroom because he thought she was lying to get out of some boring activity. She couldn't hold it in, so she peed on the floor in front of him — then let him have it, lecturing him about how disgraceful it was to shame her for her basic human needs. She really laid into him. Years later, the mere mention of the incident would reduce him to tears.

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Miranda: Sonia had great difficulty expressing her feelings. She would act evasive, which made it nearly impossible to resolve problems. You'd sense something was wrong and ask her what was up — and she'd say "Nothing," or shrug. It meant that little misunderstandings that could be cleared up in two hours instead took two weeks to deal with. This pattern continued when we were in college.

Sonia: We lived together for part of the first semester sophomore year. It was great at first — we had a jumbo trampoline in our room and spent most of our free time bouncing on it with people we were trying to hook up with. I was a transfer student, but Miranda had already been there a year and was getting sick of the social scene. She just wanted to keep to herself. Her negativity was holding me back, and I wanted to move into the weed-farming nudist co-op that I kept hearing about.

Miranda: It was clear that something was up, so I asked her about it, but instead of explaining her feelings to me, she just told everyone else about it. It sucked. We didn't really see each other for a few months afterward. I didn't even want to visit her when she moved because I'd get a contact high just from setting foot inside that stank-ass dorm.

Sonia: Miranda could be really impulsive and erratic, especially back then. I was into this dude who always wore denim-on-denim, the kind of kid who made a beeline for the pill bottles to check the contents whenever he visited someone's house. I logged many hours force-laughing at very unfunny Bart Simpson jokes. Then he graduated, and I went abroad.

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Miranda: He came back for a visit that semester, stayed at my apartment, and announced that we were going to "do it like wolves." We kind of did? It was a shitty thing to do. I felt awful. I wrote Sonia an email confessing everything, but it took us ages to work it out.

Sonia: I felt really betrayed, but I had a bad habit in all my relationships: a crippling fear that if I said things my friends didn't want to hear, they would punish me. I had a lot of early experiences with the silent treatment, and I thought that's how everyone behaved. I grew up believing that voicing my opinion was unproductive. Destructive, even.

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Miranda: I came at it from the opposite end: in my childhood home, everyone was always going around declaring how they felt. A bunch of kvetching New York Jews. I assumed people always said what they needed to, and Sonia's reticence was maddening.

Sonia: After graduating from that orgiastic petri dish of a school in 2006, there was nowhere to go but up. Our early years in Brooklyn were something of a golden era: bedrooms crammed with Couchsurfers, epic parties, endless nights on the deck overlooking the BQE. But we were still having bitter fights, and our individual struggles were making it hard to be good friends to each other.

Miranda: You keep wanting your friends to change their crappiest qualities and getting annoyed when they don't. And they're feeling the exact same way about you. Everyone is stuck.

Sonia: In 2010, I heard about Vipassana courses from a friend at work, so I tried it. I told Miranda about it right after.

Miranda: Vipassana courses are given at special centers where you meditate in silence for ten days, and it's supposed to help "end suffering." Whatever, I thought, probably costs a ton and then who even knows if it's going to fix anything. Besides, Sonia was into all of these spiritual circles and trusted just about anyone. Once, she got really excited when some geezer on the subway told her he was a master of palmistry and she had inspiring "artists' palms." He then tried to make out with her and drive her off to his house in Queens. Not my style. I didn't want to end up in some freak's basement, figuratively speaking.

Sonia: But then Miranda noticed profound changes in my behavior. And I told her about how the courses are free: people who've done it donate money, volunteer, and run the place. They had nothing to gain.

Miranda: So I went. They lock up your phone and bar you from emailing, reading books, even keeping a journal. You're not even allowed to look at other participants. You mope around in your Old Navy performance fleece with your hair in a topknot, sitting on a cushion for 11 hours a day observing your breath and body. They feed you tasty vegetarian food. That's it. There's only so many times you can read the back of your shampoo bottle or dutifully brush each individual tooth before the silence forces you inward.

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I could feel the changes taking place. I thought about Sonia a lot. I thought about what I was going to report back to her, including stupid things like how I'd had a sex dream about so-and-so's older sibling or how "Jingle Bell Rock" was looping through my head for the first two days. But I also thought about how much I loved her, and realized that my own shortcomings were keeping that love from fully expressing itself.

Sonia: The process highlighted those behaviors that were making things hard with Miranda — the snappiness, the communication blockages — which improved not only our friendship but our other relationships as well. Our experiences changed the nature of every interaction we've had since, and in the half-decade since we first tried meditation, our connection has continued to evolve.

Miranda: We can all have such bad social habits at times — shit-talking, envy. When you meditate, you really feel where these behaviors come from, the source, and the patterns themselves start to weaken. You start examining the larger purpose of each social interaction. Like, let's say you apologize to a friend: "I was wrong, I did such and such." And they go, "Thank you, I knew I was right the whole time." They never think about how they contributed to the problem; they're happy just to let you take the blame. It's just this ongoing game of arguing over who was "right" and who was "wrong." You both lose. After recognizing such patterns, you find yourself gravitating to friends who share your values about resolving conflicts, which makes life much more peaceful.

Sonia: After experimenting with it, you find that genuinely wanting good things for your friends is also good for you. Especially for friends in creative fields, it can be so competitive. It's taken me a while to get to the point that I'm at now as a singer and songwriter, but quite early on Miranda was able to work her way into a desirable position as a culture journalist: interviewing brilliant artists and actors, reviewing films, schmoozing at festivals and art openings. Meanwhile, I was stuck waitressing and pouring energy into a music project that wasn't going anywhere. My happiness for her was clouded by my own feelings of failure. Ultimately what I've learned is that cultivating a group of happy, successful friends benefits you as well. It's inspiring and offers so much support.

Miranda: So what else is really different, in concrete terms? Not long ago, I got pissed at Sonia. She'd been having a rough time career-wise, and I'd been helping a lot: scanning reels and portfolios, rewriting press releases and emails, helping choose collaborators, strategizing, and so on.

And then I started a job in a new field, in a foreign language and culture. All my closest friends wrote to me, interested in hearing how it went. Everyone except Sonia, my very best friend. After all I'd done for her. Like she didn't care about my life. I fumed! And the nine-hour time difference between us gave me plenty of time to stew before she woke up the next day and I could let her have it.

First, she got defensive. Then she said: "I'm sorry. I've had such a rotten past few months; I have so little to give right now. Forgive me." When she took ownership of her vulnerability, it removed any sense of being "opponents" in the conversation. No room for "Exactly, bitch. I'm right. Beg for forgiveness!" I went from thinking, How can I make her feel bad about what she did to How could I have been more sensitive? How can I help her right now?

Sonia: Vipassana meditation is a powerful tool — good for oneself and others. There are centers all over the world. You just have to find a ten-day block of time, set up your email away message, and go. Consider even using vacation time to do it — the benefits will keep revealing themselves long after the course is over.

Friendship nirvana is a really incredible thing because any two human beings have the capacity to experience it, if they are prepared to do the work. And it's more than worth it. Russians have a brilliant concept of friendship that really gets to the heart of it: as a Russian pal of mine once explained, Russians don't call every single person they know a "friend," like many Americans do. Someone is your "friend" when you can show up at their house naked and they don't ask what happened — they just clothe you.

For more on Vipassana meditation, including course locations and dates, visit dhamma.org.

Miranda Siegel is a Berlin-based writer, journalist, and translator.

Sonia Kreitzer is a singer and composer living in Los Angeles and performing under the name Doe Paoro. Her most recent album, After, was released through ANTI- on September 25.

Twitter:@mirandasiegel@doepaoro

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