Where Politics and Buddhism Intersect

For most of my childhood my father's Buddhist faith was little more than silence -- early morning meditations that I never even witnessed. But when I hit my mid-20s, it became real. I was looking for some kind of psychic comfort, some kind of larger explanation for all the suffering I saw in the world, so I started reading his old, dog-eared books -- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Beginner's Mind, The Power of Now. I gained insight into my own anxiety but still felt desperate for a faith that also offered a political analysis, a set of ethics, a worldview.

It turns out that one of my own peers -- 29-year-old Ethan Nichtern -- has provided just that in the form of his new book, One City. He writes passionately and innovatively about our interdependence and its implications for our lives and our world. Nichtern's toolbox is deep and original -- surprising metaphors, hip-hop lyrics, personal stories, plenty of traditional Buddhist training -- and his voice is resonant and refreshing. In a time when most Buddhist leaders seem up in the clouds and most political leaders seem lacking in moral imagination, Nichtern represents the wisdom of the in between.

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Describe one of the defining moments that led to your commitment to author One City.

Being in a bookstore and seeing that the books with Buddhist topics were either in the self-help section or the Eastern Religion section, and wondering why there wasn't any books that contained Buddhist ideas near An Inconvenient Truth or books by Naomi Klein, or the guys who wrote Cradle to Cradle. I've always viewed my study of Buddhism as more cultural and political than anything self-helpy. And there's definitely nothing about Buddhism to me that is either a) Eastern or b) religious. So I wanted to write a Buddhist book that might make it into a different section of the store.

I'm sure you get called an "old soul" quite often. In what ways was your age an asset and in what ways was it a hindrance in the writing of this book?

Youth really is not an asset ever, except in Hollywood, the music industry, and sports, where it dominates. In almost any other field, being young becomes this cute little pet name, which almost always lessens the potency of your work. In the so-called "spiritual" world of meditation, youth is a huge curse. The meditation world is mostly very middle-aged, so people are trying to find ways to talk to young people (in the Buddhist meditation world, "young" means anyone under 45), but it's a world in which age is equated with wisdom, with the number of years you've been meditating.

The link between age and wisdom is incredibly interesting, because the effect could easily run in one of two opposite directions. Aging could mean the deepening of insight, increased curiosity and understanding of the world arising from more experience, which is why age is often equated with wisdom automatically. Or age could mean the deepening of habits, hidden assumptions, and narrow-mindedness which crowd out the ability for the person to learn anything new or grow or create. I think aging has a little of both of these effects.

Describe the Interdependence Project.

The Interdependence Project (ID Project for short) is a new nonprofit organization. Our mission is to bridge a gap that desperately needs bridging -- between the inner cultivation that comes from meditation and self-reflection and the outer transformation of society, which is the work of activism, art, ecology, and community service. So we are starting all of these projects and groups to get people interested in changing the world into seeing why they need to meditate, and getting all these meditators into working to transform the community through activism and art.

We have a lot going on and starting up in New York City: three weekly meditation groups, a political engagement group, community service, low-impact consumption practice, a mindful business group, a writers group, a theater group, a film group, an online magazine (Sentient City), a daily blog (also called One City), and a free weekly podcast. We are very new, but the best way to connect is to download a podcast or visit the Web site.

Why do you think Buddhism is largely perceived by contemporary Americans as a spiritual discipline only concerned with the personal and not the political?

Well, I think the main reason is that Buddhism developed mostly in nondemocratic societies. Political activism is the result of a democratic worldview. You can't really view your spiritual practice as political outside this framework, and the conditions for a truly Buddhist politics are just developing now. Also, the idea of compassionately analyzing the superstructure of one's society is really a western idea stemming from Marx.

Traditional Buddhism sees compassion as service and good works that help other individuals or groups of individuals. It doesn't have a lot of systemic or cultural analysis in its canon of teachings. That's its biggest weakness by far. But it does have an understanding of how to work with our minds as individuals that surpasses anything I've ever studied, which is its biggest strength.

I also think that Buddhism is a mostly self-help psychological discipline here because that's how the publishing industry labeled it. Buddhism is going to learn a ton from Western identity movements like feminism, postmodernism and various civil-rights movements as it develops here. The narrative of "sagacious Eastern wisdom" meeting "Western greed and stupidity" is ridiculous. We have a ton of wisdom in our culture, as well. We've got better music, too.

You talk about the Inadequacy Principle, our general suffering because of the idea that we are eternally "not enough." How do you think current technologies, like social networking sites, have deepened our generation's experience of the Inadequacy Principle?

Facebook and MySpace and things like that are pretty amazing. The response rate for seeing interdependence is amazing. We can send messages out, circumventing the narrow corridors of corporate media, and connect with a lot of people in a hurry. Anything that aids connection and communication is potentially awesome.

At the same time, there's the danger of co-opting the wisdom of interdependence for its entertainment value. We just go online to "feel" connected, without any real human contact or meaningful interaction. This kind of "faux" connectedness or "kitsch" connectedness is a big danger. We need to examine the mindset that is engaging in the technology to know the difference between using technology to genuinely connect, versus using technology to escape. The only way to do that is [to] watch our mind on a subtler level than we are used to. Only way to do that is to meditate.

As you admit, acknowledging interdependence, especially on a global scale, can be exhausting and overwhelming. How do you recommend that we prevent feeling powerless in the face of it all?

Until we recognize that feeling powerless is the greatest of all propaganda models, we're going to be paralyzed by guilt again and again. Especially as privileged Americans. This propaganda works first on an internal, personal level. In meditation, we watch all of these guilty thoughts arise about feeling powerlessness. But they have no real essence, and while we're caught in these thoughts, we are missing the opportunities to do little things, moment by moment. Meditation is about watching our mind's propaganda and putting it in perspective. Our mind has its own Fox News Channel, and we learn to call that internal channel on its bullshit, too.

The thing about the propaganda of powerlessness that's so destructive is we usually say: "I can't do something that's going to fix this immediately, so why do anything?" and then we do something that makes it even worse and deal with the psychological hangover the next day. That's not real smart.

You write, "Generosity is not about how we give, but what we take." How do you think current models of "community service" and philanthropy miseducate young people about generosity?

We are all taught to be generous with our leftovers, after we've consumed way more than we needed to begin with. So I think responsible consumption is the first step in learning generosity. In NYC a movie now costs $12, a drink at a bar costs $8, and people throw down money for those things mindlessly. But try to get someone to give the same amount to a good cause, and they hesitate and hesitate. We have a generosity model that doesn't question our priorities seriously enough. We spend money on junk, and then are generous with the change.

You make a fascinating point about mindfulness as a method for preventing dogma, and taken to the logical conclusion, war. How do you see the current situation in Iraq fitting into this framework?

It's been commonly agreed that the administration was trying to get into Iraq in the first meeting on September 12, 2001. Even before that. Mindfulness is the curiosity to bring our mind into the present moment as if we don't already have the stock answer to a problem. Mindfulness inherently means you don't know what comes next, because you are placing your attention in the present moment, which is always undiscovered territory. You don't just rehash an old script. You bring your mind into now and assess. If you don't do this, the present moment will only play out the brittle assumptions of the past, and that's how we get into vicious cycles like the military-industrial complex. And then, as the quagmire deepens, you just keep responding the same way, and the cycle deepens and deepens.

So obviously there were a lot of unexamined assumptions that went into U.S. decisions post 9-11. The deepest assumption that almost no one in mainstream media tried to practice mindfulness of was: "Violence is the necessary response to terrorism." Really? Pay attention and see if that makes sense beyond our habitual assumptions from the past.

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