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'The Road Home' Is a Reminder That We're All in This Together and We're All Going to Die

Author Ethan Nichtern is out to introduce younger generations to secular, relevant, and modern Buddhist practices.

by Jennifer Schaffer
26 April 2015, 7:30am

The son of a meditating musician and a Buddhist psychologist, Ethan Nichtern was born into the world of Shambala Buddhism. As the Shambala movement aged, Nichtern devoted himself to building and adapting Buddhist practices for the next generation. In his new book, The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path, out this week from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Nichtern lays out a relatable account of the contemporary "commuter," who struggles to find a sense of home and moves through life with her eyes fixated on an ambiguous "elsewhere."

Nichtern's book offers compassionate, practical, and largely secular guidance rooted in his Buddhist practice. In an age of increasing fragmentation and restlessness, Nichtern offers accessible antidotes to everyday feelings of disorientation, distraction, and dissatisfaction. The Road Home ends with a stirring call to action on the global scale, emphasizing the ethical duties of the modern-day Buddhist. VICE spoke with Nichtern about selfies, self-consciousness, and the growing popularity of "McMindfulness."

VICE: You mention in the opening to your book that your father is a life-long meditator. Did you take to Buddhism and meditation immediately, or were you resistant to it as a kid?
Ethan Nichtern: A little bit of both. In the early 1970s, my parents both became students of Chögyam Trungpa, a really wild, creative, brilliant man who was one of the main pioneers of Tibetan Buddhism coming to the West. So I grew up around [Buddhism]; I took a class on it for kids, when I was ten or 11, but it was really the end of high school that I really started meditating on my own.

I was in college in the late 1990s, and it seemed like I—and everybody I knew—was depressed and could really use the practice and insights of Buddhism. At that point, [the Shambala community] had become more middle-aged, so I was really interested in how [Buddhist practice] could be framed for more Generation X, and now a Millennial audience. That was my initial reason for doing teacher training after college, and starting the Interdependence Project and teaching in the Shambala community.

READ: The Totalitarian Buddhist Who Beat Sim City

What is the Interdependence Project?
The Interdependence Project is meant to be a hub, in person and online, for people who are interested in Buddhism in a very secular, relevant, modern way. We have teachers from different Buddhist lineages teaching in person and online. [The project] is about applying Buddhist principles in conversation with things like Western psychology, activism—a lot of us were at the demonstration a few days ago to raise the minimum wage—and the arts.

Toward the end of The Road Home, your focus turn toward ethics and politics. Will your next project focus more on the activist aspect of contemporary Buddhism?
I think that [progression] is part of the evolution of Buddhist thought. If you look at the history of Buddhist thought, it started out as a very personal pursuit, but then there are teachings later on in Buddhism that are more about compassion and the interpersonal level of reality. That's the thing about living in a modern, democratic age and a globalized society: The interdependence of things makes us look at the political and ethical and cultural systems we all live in.

Our modern state of feeling lost but also connected is like an old human problem on steroids.

Is your trope of the restless "commuter" specific to the present, globalized world?
The metaphor of "the commuter" comes out of my interest in the different words used for existential confusion in Buddhism. Samsara literally means "wandering around" and the Tibetan word for 'a confused being' means something like "always on the go." That's where I get the term of the commuter. That notion of trying to get somewhere that is other than here, trying to fulfill something, trying to find home: I think that's a very ancient human feeling. There's something about how together we all clearly are—through our tech, our smartphones, our apps—but also how lost we feel and how scattered we are.

Our modern state of feeling lost but also connected, and the friction between those two feelings... it's like an old human problem has gone on steroids. To be a human being means you're trying to find your place in the universe. That's been true since [2500] years ago, but the fragmentation of modern life really exaggerates that.

You talk in The Road Home about the growing sensation of meditation in the tech world and among business executives. I have meditation apps on my iPhone! Do you think that this "fast food" version of meditation, as you call it, could actually be more harmful than positive?
What I say at the beginning of the chapter on meditation is "Meditation has become incredibly popular, in theory." But you don't see people walking down the streets of Brooklyn with meditation cushions strapped to their back the way you see people with yoga mats. Some people think, I'm going to invent a new thing, because the old thing isn't very accessible. I'm more interested in thinking, The old thing has tremendous value, so how do we actually update it and communicate it? Buddhism is about living in the present moment.

"The Mindfulness Movement" was on the cover of TIME magazine, but there's been push back against the superficiality of "McMindfulness," mass-produced or "fast food" mindfulness. But getting interested in something that helps you to treat yourself well, treat others well, de-stress, and see how connected we all are—even if you start from a superficial place, it will lead to something deeper. You start to see your own suffering, then you start to see other people's suffering, and then you start to look at society. So I say, let there be McMindfulness, as long as there are others holding the deeper view of "We're all in this together, life is short, we're all going to die. So let's try to develop compassion for ourselves, for others. Let's try to figure out how to create a really compassionate society."

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Photo by Marissa Dutton. Courtesy of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

My generation gets a lot of flack for being self-obsessed. How do you draw the distinction between selfie culture and self-reflection?
In today's culture, we're all interconnected via technology and also completely obsessed with how other people perceive us. I was watching GIRLS the other night—I hear Lena Dunham meditates every day, but that's unverified—and her gay friend [Elijah] is talking about his art. She's like, "Why are you taking so many pictures of everybody?" And he says, "I'm trying this new thing. I used to love my selfies, but then I decided—turn the camera around." I think that's what compassion practices. You start by focusing on yourself, then you realize, Oh, other people are going through this too.

When we're trying to get away from ourselves, we get locked up in the story of "What's everybody thinking of me?" That's a different form of self-regard than "Who am I? What is my experience?" We have to distinguish self-obsession from self-awareness. I worry about the kids who have to grow up in this world thinking What's everybody thinking of me? all the time. If I had a critique of millennials, it wouldn't be about you as people, it would be about the culture that you're faced with.

Check out Ethan Nichtern's The Road Home, out now.

Follow Jennifer Schaffer on Twitter.