As Buddhist practices and philosophy attract renewed interest in these quickening postmodern times, where’s the curious explorer of consciousness to start? Where historically she may have committed to years of training during which she’d only see her guru once a year, today she can have a Facebook exchange with an adept while streaming the most recent episode of Scandal. Buddhism is encountering Western consumer culture, political activism, and the self-help market. Does our current predicament mean it’s harder to wake up to the world as it is? Ethan Nichtern is a senior teacher in the Shambhala tradition of Buddhism, and he’s written a guide that contextualizes ancient teachings while making them accessible to a contemporary audience. The Road Home: An Exploration of the Contemporary Buddhist Path (out on FSG North Point last month) approaches Buddhism as a living tradition, timeless in some ways but in need of translation for new cultural contexts.
But this book is not Eastern Thought à la mode. Nichtern’s understanding of the tradition he’s presenting, and his own involvement with it as someone who grew up in the Shambhala tradition and went on to found an organization dedicated to secular Buddhist education, comes through as he elegantly jumps from Ghostbusters references to Heidegger quotes in order to demystify the philosophy and practices he’d like you to know aren’t just for monks in robes. He uses the metaphor of the commuter, who floats through life, never present with what he has, always looking towards the next thing, always outside himself. This commuter strives for that thing that might finally bring contentment. Instead of demonizing the commuter, Nichtern humanizes him, and instead of offering platitudes, gives some practical perspective. We often think of intellect and heart as opposing aspects of human experience, but they meet and dwell in Nichtern’s generous and compassionate analysis of the Buddhist path.
I had a chance to talk to the author while he was on a commuter train to Boston for his recent book tour. As a friend and student, I didn’t want to hit him any softballs, so we got into it about McMindfulness, ayahuasca, and Slavoj Žižek’s critique of meditation.
Does a person have to do a lot of mental exercises to make Buddhism relevant to a contemporary life, or is Buddhism timeless, and naturally applicable to our postmodern situation?
I think there are two kinds of translation: there’s linguistic translation, and I think a lot of the translations of terms that were chosen for Buddhism by scholars in the mid-20th century are somewhat different than the way we colloquially relate to terms, or the ways other related systems like Western Psychology relate to terms in the year 2015. So, words like suffering or words like attachment, I think what those actually mean from an experiential standpoint in the contemporary world, I think that’s one level of translation that has to happen.
And then, I think the notion of any spiritual teaching is always intersecting with our cultural context. So, while I do think there is something universally human about Buddhist teachings because it comes from a human looking deeply into his own experience, I think there always has to be an updating for one’s own cultural context. So I would say there’s a natural relevance, not an automatic relevance. We need to take traditions and first, try to really translate them into our language and two to think about how they intersect with the various cultural, political and artistic paradigms that we have. So there’s always going to have to be an updating. And I think with something like Buddhism that has– for me, in my humble opinion– so much spiritual integrity, but it’s never really made as big of a transition as it’s making to enter the 21st century globalized technology-driven world. I think we’re probably going to need new linguistic and cultural translations of Buddhism more and more often. It has to come more and more on the spot, in the moment, while still understanding the context of the tradition. So, again, I think it’s naturally relevant, I think it’s universally human in that it was a person looking at his own experience that started it, but I don’t think it’s just automatic that it would make sense to us without really looking into our own cultural context and our own experience of the emotional and linguistic experience of right now.
Mindfulness is a bit kind of a buzzword these days, which often leads to a discussion about whether it’s right or wrong to teach or practice mindfulness in its Buddhist context or as separate from Buddhism. Is there a right or wrong way to practice? And what do you see as some of the pitfalls or successes of what’s being called the Mindfulness Movement?
I think it’s great, and there are some warnings. But I don’t think the warnings are super problematic, or aren’t more problematic than any other aspect of our consumer and advertising culture. I think it’s a spirituality entering a problematic advertising culture. But I don’t think it’s any more problematic than the rest of that culture. One thing that’s important for me is that mindfulness, by and large the way people are using that word, even if they’re using it in a totally medical context, that that word is coming from Buddhist psychology and philosophy. You know, there are non-Buddhist meditation traditions but actually if you look at the yoga tradition, mindfulness is not one of the eight limbs of yoga. So when you see mindfulness, such as the people who have popularized that term, the Jon Kabat-Zinn’s, they are definitely extracting that from Buddhist thought, and there’s no way around that. It’s interesting because, I don’t know if you read this article in The New York Times Magazine, which I thought was a good one, called ‘The Muddled Meaning of Mindfulness’ which makes it out to mean less than it actually means. So I do think part of writing The Road Home for me was, what if the same way a person enters a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course, what if we could begin to talk about the much deeper and broader ethical, psychological, philosophical teachings of Buddhism in the same relevant, secular way that we talk about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy or mindfulness in schools? Why can’t we find a way to talk about where mindfulness comes from in the same down – to – earth, scientific and resonant tone?
I think the other conversation that’s going on around this that I’m really interested in McMindfulness, if you’ve heard the term, this kind of co-opting of the term by consumer culture. And, you know, you have that critique from Slavoj Žižek, which I mention in the conclusion of the book, and which I think in some ways is a valid critique, but in some ways as I said in the book is quite incomplete. But I think one of the things is, in terms of superficial mindfulness, is that everything has a surface, and it’s not wrong to enter something on its surface. There has to be something superficially resonant for us to get into anything. That’s just the way we encounter experience. It’s only a problem if there’s not anything underneath. I have a lot of trust, though, in the long-term picture of Buddhist thought, in terms of corporate mindfulness and things like that.
Even if you do start with mindfulness as stress – reduction, you will eventually go through a process of encountering your own dissatisfaction and your own connection to other beings. And you will at least begin to question what you are putting into the world. It might not happen quickly but I do think that there’s a bit of a viral quality to mindfulness and the Buddhist teachings that once you open your eyes to what your experience is actually like, you begin questioning the culture that we’ve all co-created. I’m a little more optimistic than some people about than some people, but I do think it’s really important for people who are teaching mindfulness to also hold the view of interdependence, that it’s not just about stress – reduction, it’s about seeing how we affect others, and what society we’ve collectively created, and if that’s a society that helps people feel at home, or if it makes them feel incompetent and alienated.
You talk in the book about this tendency we sometimes have when embarking on a spiritual path to compartmentalize what you might call the worldly and the spiritual, separating these aspects of our lives. What does Buddhism have to offer in terms of how we look at this dichotomy?
I think this dichotomy between our worldly or mundane existence, and our spiritual existence, as I mentioned in the book, it’s definitely something that is in a way amplified even more in some early Buddhist teachings. I argue that there’s a certain historical reasons for that that aren’t necessarily the nature of reality, and that they’re really more about the society the Buddha was living in. It was a society where the worldly endeavors were separate from spiritual endeavors. But I think this theme of unifying our spiritual and our secular existences in something called sacredness is something a lot of Buddhist thinkers talk about. The Shambhala teachings make that union very explicit.
And then there are different thinkers like Charles Eisenstein who are thinking about this reunification of what was never separate, the spiritual and the secular. But it’s really talking about our tendency to divide our experience as individuals to profound and holy parts, and then the mundane commuting parts we’re just getting through so we can get back to those little nibbles of profundity, or bliss, or deeply meaningful spiritual experience. Which we can each define in our own way! For some of us it’s a religious tradition, for some of us it’s an ecstatic dance party, for some of us as I say in the book it’s an ayahuasca ceremony. So the notion of reunifying with sacredness is to begin to try to trace a process through life where you’re not making those distinctions. Where there’s not certain conversations you’re having that are holy and others that are mundane. There’s not certain activities that you engage in that are meaningful and other ones that are meaningless. That you’re trying to unify in the sense that you’re trying to uplift your whole experience.
I think one place that we all make this separation, and it has really negative consequences on our happiness and the society we create is our work life. So many of us are alienated from what we do for a living, we don’t consider our path to awakening, so we get really fragmented and it just becomes the means to an end at some point outside of our career, enjoying life. But often we’re willing to engage in really negative things just on the hope that outside of work we will eventually have a deeply spiritual experience. I think that’s a view that needs to be reunified. Everything we do is sacred, and if we don’t take that view, as I talk about in the book, we end up with a kind of split personality where we are mostly a kind of zombie commuter, mostly a person who is not really connecting with meaning in our life, and then every once in awhile we have an ecstatic or profound experience that’s worth a Kodak moment, or worth an Instagram moment. Although I don’t know that an Instagram moment and a Kodak moment are the same thing because there are so many more Instagram moments.
Thinking back to the ayahuasca line in the book, you make a great point that in taking a certain, sacred perspective, our commute to work can be as meaningful as an ayahuasca ceremony. I think about the way that we’re drawn to this big epiphanies, and fast, profound transitions. I feel like mindfulness asks us to pay close attention to the smaller, incremental changes. If change really happens at a glacial pace, how can we check in with those more gradual changes?
Well, I have zero critique of ayahuasca. I have Buddhist friends who have done ceremonies and seen great benefits from it. I think, in that notion of how it could separate our spiritual experience from our secular experience in a problematic way, or make us chase peak experiences, which is something that Buddhist thought really critiques, which is this experience of emotional materialism that I talk about in the book. You know, we’re always chasing these few moments where we feel like we really connect with our deeper spiritual selves. And it’s more the view that I was talking about. And I think, as I say in the chapter on karma, you can have sudden shifts. But it’s not so much about having a sudden shift in experience, it’s not so much about what happens at whatever ceremony we do on Saturday night. It’s more about how you show up to your life next Wednesday morning. Because the point of doing any practice– Tantric Buddhism has these practices too where you could possible shift your outlook to something more profound– is that then you have to stabilize the insight from that experience. Sometimes I think people do, in whatever form, have these profound moments, but then it feels like that was just another temporary profound moment that has faded, and we spend a lot of time trying to get back to that moment, rather than letting that profound moment open us up to our moment by moment experience in a new way.
If we’re going to look for those moments, from a Buddhist standpoint you have to have the view of how do I practice afterwards with whatever I recognized? How do I use some kind of method like meditation or some kind of interpersonal method like working with someone on your insights to actually bring the insight into lived experience. I think a lot of us have an experience of total union with the universe when we’re in a peak romantic moment or a peak artistic moment, or a peak hallucinogenic moment. But I’m really interested in how those peak moments inform how we are the next time we’re on a subway platform. Do we remember our connection with the universe when we’re with two hundred strangers on that Wednesday morning. It’s a very traditionally Buddhist critique in some ways of the way we think if we find the right method and do it once or a few times, we won’t have to show up and practice in the other moments of our lives. And for me, the point of the path is that you have to keep showing up. And it’s a less sexy way of looking at things, but it also feels a lot more realistic to think about using those rare moments to integrate into our mundane experience so that the whole thing becomes sacred again. The time we would normally consider a commute could be a more meaningful moment, which is the majority of our life when you really look at how the timing breaks down. The majority of our life is very mundane. If we can raise that to a sacred experience we’ll really start connecting more. So, that’s what I was thinking about with bringing up ayahuasca in the book.
A really interesting thing you talk about in the book is what you call ‘transformational activism,’ which is about engaging Buddhist practices and ethics to change structures of oppression on a personal, interpersonal, and societal level. I think, to some people, there is a tension between this engaging of practice for transformation with what seems like a Buddhist ideal to accept things as they are. What do you make of this relationship between change and acceptance?
I think that’s one of the ways people who are interested in some kind of transformation often misread a very subtle point that Buddhism is making in terms of how personal transformation, interpersonal or collective transformation comes about, the idea that there is a tension between acceptance and transformation. I think thats also embedded in Žižek caricature critique of Western Buddhism is this subtle misunderstanding of what Buddhism is actually saying about the relationship between acceptance and transformation. Acceptance is something you practice in the present moment. You know, I talk about resting in the gap between our impulse and our reaction in the chapter on karma. And that’s a really intense practice of personal acceptance. I think the thing about acceptance is that if you want to really change anything you have to really deeply understand the causes and conditions that have brought the current situation into being, which is what we mean by acceptance. You have to really welcome the current manifestation of reality.
So, if we live in a racist society, if we live in a sexist society, if we live in a classist society, if we live in a society that really doesn’t promote comfort with who we are, or anyone really, from the standpoint of the commuter, of always reaching for something outside of ourselves, then when an experience causes us to encounter that– and I’m thinking about what happened in Baltimore– if you want to change something you have to look much more deeply at how it came to be the way that it is. I think to have the strength to do that you have to assume on a very deep level that the confused people that have collectively brought this current situation into being are actually innocent of evil intentions and what we are burdened with is confusion. We’re confused about who we are in our relationship to each other, and I think there has to be some compassion and acceptance of saying I’m going to look really deeply and I’m going to see why this society is the way it is. And that’s a painful process. But if we are already rejecting the state of things, from this standpoint we’re not really becoming students of how things came to be the way they are. What Buddhism says is that if you try to solve a problem without really understanding the causes and conditions that brought that problem into being, in all its complexity, then you will probably act habitually to re-create the problem.
One example I think of in terms of this is my productive friends, whenever Fox News says something crazy, they will post a video link to the crazy Fox News thing. And of course this will bring more views to Fox News, which furthers their profit motive. So, until we understand that that’s part of what makes Fox News what it is, this reliance on a progressive engagement with them, we’re just going to kind of keep playing our part in re-creating more and more power for Fox News, which isn’t a sentient being, it’s a corporation. It’s a mindset, really. It’s the kind of defensive and aggressive mindset that is a way for certain people to relate to reality.
So I think the transformation happens the moment after acceptance. Because I think a lot of times we get confused about the nature of past, present and future. That’s something I talk about more personally in the chapter on karma. Transformation is something that happens right on the edge of where the present meets the future. And acceptance is something that happens right on the edge of where the past meets the present. So the flip from one to the other can actually end up being very quick. You can accept the fact, that, let’s say you’re at an anti-war rally and somebody is yelling “we should bomb them all!” The acceptance is saying, ok, there’s a confused individual who thinks violence is going to solve violence. And then the transformation is, how do I react skillfully to actually shift the karmic patterns here, which we don’t always know how to do, and we have to be willing to make a lot of mistakes. And we have to know that some things are going to be pretty hard to accept. I don’t think the attitude is that acceptance is about acquiescence. I think of it as the one-two punch of transformation. Acceptance is the left and transformation is the right. But unless we are really accepting the way things are, we won’t be able to understand the causes and conditions. So we end up giving things that we want to transform more power. Which is what happens when someone posts a link to another crazy Fox News video. I’m not sure how to crystalize all that…
I think you made a number of great points that clarify what I see as a frequent argument from fellow activist friends about this misconception of accepting things as they are instead of striving to better conditions for everyone on the planet.
You’re not just one of the only Buddhist writers but probably one of the only writers period to mention Žižek and Family Guy in the same paragraph. You do a great job of picking through contemporary cultural references to find dharmic lessons, so I was wondering what fictional character from pop culture would you most like to take on as a dharma student, and what would your first instruction be?
Two thoughts come to mind: one would be Jerry Seinfeld, and I would teach him compassion meditation for other people, because he is wayyyy too into his own dilemma. And also, Hannah, Lena Dunham’s character (on Girls). I think they’re both very similar characters in different cultural moments, and I would teach them both tonglen compassion meditation. And then I would have them write something together because they would probably write something good together.
(Author’s Note: The non-fictional Jerry Seinfeld and Lena Dunham are both meditation practitioners!)
Ethan Nichtern is a Shastri, a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. He is the author of The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path (Farrar Straus and Giroux, North Point Press, April 2015), One City: A Declaration of Interdependence (Wisdom Pubs, 2007), and the Novella/poetry collection, Your Emoticons Won’t Save You (Nieto Books, 2012). He is also the founder of the Interdependence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Secular Buddhist practice and transformational activism and arts.
If Slavoj Žižek or any of the characters from Girls would like meditation instruction, please tweet @ethannichtern or @spacecrone