Lofty Companions & the Energy of Aspiration
Inspired by Robert Bly, this piece celebrates the ideals we are drawn toward as children and the buoyancy we gain from the goodness of our friends…
“This being is like a friend.
It is a friend. It travels with us..."
Robert Bly introduces the term Lofty Companion in The Sibling Society. Bly’s Lofty Companion is a kind of inner imaginary comrade we first develop a connection with in childhood. We start to befriend this inner being – “a figure put together from disparate fragments of "who I want to be"…’ and, in a sense, fall under the influence and guidance of our dialogues together:
I made my Lofty Companion from a careful choice among my actual qualities, plus qualities I pulled out of the air, with much denial and wish fulfilment as glue.
There’s a few things I love about this concept of Bly’s: its’ attention to our inner goodness and unique visions as children; its’ highlighting of the warmth and particularity of our inner compasses and the dreamy part of our inner relation to ourselves. I also love it for the space it opens to notice and celebrate the loftiness in our friends, and the source of nourishment their particular ideals can be for us.
Bly evocatively describes our relationship with the Lofty Companion, and his words help us recall an ephemeral, often unacknowledged process which many of us will recognise. Though in some ways his concept is close to Freud’s ego-ideal: “the part of the mind which imposes on itself concepts of ideal behaviour developed from parental and social”, as Bly says, ‘that’s boring and the name misses the companionship it provides’. Bly’s description is more souful, poetic and honouring of quirky uniqueness.
For Bly the emergence of the Lofty Companion is part of an unfolding process of self-discovery and self-knowledge. It clarifies our purpose and calls us into life, asking us to be in service of it:
“Creating a Lofty Companion, which is your life's work for about ten years, tends to isolate you from others because you need to listen, to him or her or it...This agency of aspiration is more adept than we are, and will be our entry into success, authenticity and achievement."
Here Bly captures the vitality and strength generated by the Lofty Companion – how its aspirations can carry us like a calling, energising and giving shape to our lives. In a sense, it helps to ‘launch’ us into the complexity of adulthood, creating a beautiful if naïve image we attempt to represent. That we will inevitably fail at this in all sorts of humbling ways is something we do not yet know.
But as it forms in us, we do not know the challenges that lie ahead – we feel buoyed by our potential and believe in our greatness: “With its help, you begin to feel you're not like those others” writes Bly, "I'm made for better things…" These ‘better things’ are not about superiority so much as individuation. The Lofty Companion calls us us to grow away from the pack, inviting us inside toward an identity and ideals we intuit there. This also beckons us toward ‘great people’ beyond our circle. In this sense it expands our horizons and calls us to belong in the world at large:
the creation also brings you closer to great people alive now whom you hear of, an artist, an inventor, a musician, also the great people who are dead and whom only you understand.
In exploring our relationship with the Lofty Companion, Bly is also honouring an era in our lives that is rarely treasured. The Lofty Companion is a warm thread of interior continuity between childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, bearing testimony to a steady private goodness, a subtle process of eros within us. It is a truly rich element of the interior life of these years, (which we are inclined to think of in such cliched terms). Bly’s emphasis recalibrates our vision of youth, capturing the mood of our ideals and how they form an intention or longing inside us to contribute. Much of our beauty lies there.
Reading Bly on this threw up a further resonance with lofti-ness and how it can nourish us - Why and how do good friends nourish us, specifically? How does another’s loftiness reach us? Friends who are good and in touch with their own ‘energy of aspiration’ help us both practically (in advice and companionship) but also through how we imbibe their goodness and take it inside us over the course of our knowing of them.
It is no coincidence that the wisdom and spiritual traditions place an enormous emphasis on ‘good friendship’:
Friendship is perhaps the highest summit of the moral life. in which virtue and happiness are united. Friendship is a worthy outlet for the talents and energies of great-souled people...
--Lorraine S. Pangle, Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship
Across religions, proximity and affinity with good others is seen as one of the most potent forces of virtue, good fortune and happiness in our lives. I’m going to offer an excerpt here from Zen teacher Norman Fischer, because it captures how integral the goodness of our friends is to living beautifully:
“Five things induce release of heart and lasting peace,” the Buddha said. “First, a lovely intimacy with good friends. Second, virtuous conduct. Third, frequent conversation that inspires and encourages practice. Fourth, diligence, energy, and enthusiasm for the good. And fifth, insight into impermanence.”
Then, for Meghiya’s further benefit, and to the cement the point, the Buddha goes through the list again, this time preceding each of the other items with the first: “When there is a lovely intimacy between friends, then there is virtuous conduct,” et cetera. In other words, friendship is the most important element in the spiritual path. Everything else naturally flows from it.
To live in attunement to the goodness of others – friends, family members, spiritual figures, historical ancestors – is a deep blessing. It offers a kind of ethical, civic buoyancy that supports us when we feel depleted; when our faith in humans falters; when we are disappointed, despairing or betrayed. Having a deep intimate of others’ goodness, an affinity with the loftiness inside them and their attempts to manifest it, counteracts so many ills: alienation, disappointment, some sad, cynical view that we are all just out for ourselves. Those of us who are lucky have seen too much goodness in others for that.
Here’s Norman Fischer again:
To be able to practice with good friends for five, ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years is a special joy. So much comes of it. As you ripen and age, you appreciate the nobility and uniqueness of each friend, the twists and turns of each life, and the gift each has given you. After a while you begin attending the funerals of your dearest friends, and each loss seems to increase the gravity and preciousness of your own life and makes the remaining friendships even more important.
When long friendships with good people along the path of spiritual practice is a central feature of your life, it is almost impossible—just as the Buddha says—for spiritual qualities conducive to awakening not to ripen…
So there is deep grace in sensing an affinity with the goodness in our friends, and living near to it. Like us, our friends will not always live up to the ideals of their young longings, but if they have treasured and struggled with the Lofty within them, they inspire us to be better in ways we cannot be alone.
So in writing of Bly’s Lofty Companion, I do no more than speak to that early love affair with virtue, speak up for it, and maybe elevate it to our consciousness a little more fully, that we may remember this early best self, converse with it more often, sense it in others, and also take up the invitation of adult life, of finding ways to ‘keep our integrity after we have lost our innocence...’