Your Emoticons Won't Save You: An Interview With Ethan Nichtern
If you don't know Ethan Nichtern, author of the new book, "Your Emoticons Won't Save You" or the Interdependence Project, the secular Buddhist non-profit he founded 10 years ago at 102 Bowery, you should. IDP invites the curious, cynical, hopeful, discontent, and philosophically hungry to discuss the human experience from a Buddhist perspective. But, first, you'll meditate.
Ethan has created a space where, among the honking horns below,
people gather to watch their minds and create a little more space in between
thoughts. Add some contemplative activism to the mix (like the initiative to
eradicate plastic bags and the prison project) and workshops to support artists
and you've found yourself a rare and engaging space. Good things spread. IDP is
now located in L.A., Seattle and Austin and people from around the globe tune
in for weekly podcasts. Last week I sat down with Shastri Ethan Nichtern, (at age 33 he's
the youngest senior teacher in the Shambhala tradition) to discuss his new
book, why we should meditate, Allen Ginsberg and the miracle of the word 'banana.'
Rachel Bennett: What prompted you to write this book?
Ethan Nichtern: I wrote a shorter long story a while back about a road trip during college to an old summer camp which was more autobiographical, but people thought it was a good story so in the last year and a half I decided to expand it.
When did you first write it?
When I was 23. It turned into a 108 page novella. About half of the twelve poems that come after the novella were written when I used to perform and read with the Sacred Slam poetry and music performance group and six poems come from thinking about writing this book. I've always wanted to publish more creative work. I wrote a non-fiction book about contemporary Buddhism, "One City: A Declaration of Independence" but when I write creatively I think my writing is better and closer to home. I also liked the idea of writing about a guy who's trying to get into Buddhism and thinks he's a poet rather than writing something about Buddhism.
Did you have a strong sense of the story before you began
writing it or did it shift a lot in the writing process?
It did shift a lot. The shorter original version was more like a travel log of the road trip. I wanted to find a way to turn it into a real microcosm of a spiritual coming of age story -- I mean a post modern spiritual coming of age story. I think spiritual coming of age story can feel a little too limiting or a little too spiritual. I don't like the word spiritual.
Why don't you like it?
Well, I like the word spiritual better than the word religion. Most people are actually slow to define what they mean when they say religion. I just don't like any word that takes you away from your life or lends the notion that practicing awakening is separate from the rest of your life or that seems like it's creating a different realm. When I think of Buddhism, I think of my secular, humanistic, ethical and psychological practice. If a word makes you think you go to another realm or some astro-plane it's not so helpful to what my practice is all about. This story is trying to convey some heartfelt, real approach to spirituality in an age of apathy and irony.
It's a human story.
Yes, and it is a spiritual coming of age story, but there's no enlightenment at the end. He just gets a little bit farther long in a transition space.
I love when he notices the homeless man on the train and
looks at his own key chain and says, "It occurs to me that there's objectively
a right number of keys to have on your chain and if you have too few or too
many you're basically homeless either way." What does home mean to you?
That's much of what this book is about. His last name, Bardo, is a Tibetan word which means transition space or loss. It's in between life situations that you experience a Bardo. College for me was a huge Bardo. You don't know where home is. Particularly where home is as a place. When I started working on this project again in late 2010 I had another loss of a sense of a stable home. Alex considers home the way I consider home: it's relational. It's almost a cliché thing to say but also very powerful: home is where the people are with whom you feel at home. Alex is not clear where home is and that's how a lot of my life has felt. There was a mirroring that happened when I picked this project back up at age 32, an "I don't quite know where home is" space.
Is this something you're trying to heal or is this
something you are simply trying to accept as the way life is?
Both, but I would definitely like to heal it. But, as the same time, it's not going to be a solid thing. Alex hasn't figured that out yet. I don't know if the poetry has figured it out either though it has a more mature sense of longing, especially "A Wary Invitation to my Future Child" and The Problem with Spooning. "Both are about looking for a type of relationship in a longing but also confused and funny way. I think that home is finding healthy relationships and that's how a human being comes to feel at home. You relate to yourself, your mind and to others in a healthy way. Alex is looking for all these things, but he's not there yet.
So these themes of loss and home were central from the
Yeah. I mean I knew I wanted to portray that period of life for my myself and the friends I knew and I wanted to try and capture this idea of feeling in between childhood and adulthood. I think a lot of times when you're 21, 21 you think you're grown up but when you look back in your 30's you realize how not even close you were. That's the feeling I get from teaching college as well, and so I think I wanted to bring in to it the multiple forms of loss and transition that were going on then when you lose your childhood best friend, you lose your sense of whatever clear innocence you had around your family and the heroic aspects of your family - and you lose your first love. Alex is really feeling all those things converge at once and in some ways those things were converging for me at once and I wanted to try to get them all into one narrative.
Were your characters colored and shaped before you began
Yes. Almost every character is a composite of two people from my life, including Alex. What you learn as a writer that you don't know at the beginning is that voice is the most important thing. When you read all the great works, either fiction or nonfiction, what makes somebody come along for the ride is the voice. I also knew I wanted it to be sad and funny at the same time. I think I write funny well because I like listening to the quirky. I mean, everything I do in my life is considering the quirkiness of the human mind and of the human condition. From a Buddhist standpoint this novel is really about looking at the awkward space of the First Noble Truth - the struggle and the awkwardness of life and coming to terms with loss and that life is never what you wanted it to be or thought it would be. But, the first Noble Truth is also funny.
Alex has an exceptional ability to notice the
idiosyncrasies and neuroses in the people he loves. His observations are sharp,
nuanced, and compassionate. Do you think there's something to be said for
watching more and acting less sometimes?
Yes. Alex is very smart. He's just learning and is definitely the more passive voice in exchanges. He's so smart but he's so pained by his own intelligence at the same time. He watches his friends hurt others and themselves. It's such an interesting thing to see your own stupidity clearly. This is very much a dharmic trait where you see all the neuroses and you can lay it all out clearly.. There is a line in the book when Alex and Sophie are eating mushrooms together and he looks at her and says to himself, "there is so much clarity about who she wants to be and so much confusion about who she actually is. And that shit has got me hooked." and that describes several of my major relationships. The stupidity of the inaccessible person which definitely goes back to high school. There's another where he says everything goes back to high school and the nature channels in the end. I do think with both genders in our society there' s a certain level to which we're attracted to mean people because they remind us of the first person who was mean to us who we thought if we could get to not be mean to us we'd have won or we'd have improved somehow as a person. Then, at a certain point there is a spiritual development where you realize there is nothing redeeming about being mean.
Or redeeming about having someone be mean to you.
Right. But, you always think there is something behind the inaccessibility. It's not even meanness, its inaccessibility.
When did you first know that you liked to write?
I was in sixth grade when I decided I wanted to be a writer. I've known I was a writer since before I was clear that I was a Buddhist. I would write these long stories of Lord of the Rings meets Dungeons and Dragons meets some kind of Buddhist something or other about a twin brother and sister who were prince and princess of a kingdom. My seventh grade teacher really helped convince me I was a writer, too. She was hugely influential.
How was the process of writing this novella and book of
poems different from writing your first book, "One City: A Declaration of
It was deeper, more intense and a lot more fun to write this book. It's much harder to find the voice when you're writing non-fiction but when you're crafting a story or poetry, voice is the first thing you think of and as long as it's coherent and engaging you can establish it however you want. Also, for a little while I kind of got sick of dharma books. I wanted to write something spiritual that approached the whole thing from a very different angle.
What does the title "Your Emoticons Won't Save You" mean?
It's a play on multiple things. The novella takes place in 1998 but the poems are from later on. The poem "Smiley Face" is a commentary on the 2011/ 2012 culture of indirect communication and this plays in to the narrative in terms of not being able to express quite how you feel, but being able to perform; An emoticon is a performance that doesn't quite land with the feeling. Performing feeling rather than actually feeling is endemic to this era. It's also a play on the Buddhist notion of non-theism and that nobody is going to save you. There's no savior. The cover of the book by Douglas Einer Olsen really captures this -- the juxtaposition of an animated emoticon onto a natural landscape from the camp scene. This deep longing for nostalgic nature onto a fake, but also longing face. It's a very sad, longing emoticon.
Your main character, Alex, "tries" to meditate several times. He never succeeds in his attempts. Why do you think he has such difficulty meditating?
I'm not sure he has difficulty meditating as much as he has difficulty being. That's why this is sort of like a secret dharma book in some ways. I wanted to get across that it's not as if once you get on a spiritual path then everything goes smoothly. It's not like amazing grace. A lot of times you fumble around on the path after you're already fully committed to it. Alex knows he wants to do this, but he's also self -effacing, calling himself a "wannabe poet" and trying to meditate. I think a lot of people feel the same lack of genuineness that Alex does when they first start to meditate. They want to do it very well but they feel not only like they're failing, but that they're actually a fake when they're practicing. Alex is feeling his fakeness very strongly. In part he's celebrating that in some narcissistic exercise, but he's also wishing he could be genuine: a genuine poet, a genuine person, a genuine Buddhist.
How do you define successful meditation?
As a teacher the main success in meditation is just doing it. As you begin to practice more there are signs to look for in terms of how much you can stay with yourself and how much your awareness deepens but most of the signs are really in noticing what happens while you practice and the ability to recognize whatever state of mind you're in when you're in it. That's the interesting part: a lot of people feel like they are failing because they are recognizing a state of mind that they don't want to be feeling or they feel don't doesn't align with what meditating "properly". What teachers look for, especially when someone is beginning a practice, is as Pema Chodron says, "Do you know what's happening to you when it's happening to you?" Because usually we don't. So that's what successful meditating is: doing it, developing some sort of gentleness towards yourself and developing enough awareness to know what's happening when it's happening with a non-judgmental attitude. The progress starts happening when you start to recognize what you're feeling when you're feeling it.
How has your meditation practice affected your writing
I trust the process of staying present more. Block is not so much of a problem because there are so many blocks that come up when you're sitting and you just stay and then you wander and then you come back, wander and come back, which is very similar to the writing process where you just have to rest with the boredom. Unless you get on a roll. But, when you're not on a roll you have to stay. Not stay writing, but stay in the space of awareness, which can be boring and frustrating and resistance-provoking. Also, meditating helps me in terms of characters because it really tunes me into how thoughts and feelings work, the quirks of how we react, the idiosyncrasies of being a human being. I'm fascinated by some of the greatest literary works of our time having really crappy dialog. Stilted. It doesn't feel like it comes from the real way people talk and I tried to write really good dialog in this which comes from the practice of listening to people which is actually a form of meditation. You learn to listen. I ask myself: What do people actually say when they talk? When there a break in what they say how do they inflect and how do I write that on the page? I think listening to the way people express language comes from a mindfulness practice.
Did you ever have moments during meditation where you had
flashes of insight about the book?
I did and then you have to work with the discipline of knowing when you're meditating and when you're doing writing practice.
There's a story about Allen Ginsberg: The language of poetry is so spontaneously arising and he was finding great lines come to him in meditation so apparently he asked his teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche , if he could bring a note pad with him to which he responded, "Sure, we'll see how it goes." So Ginsberg started jotting down when a great line or thought or premise came up but after a while he was just writing. He wasn't meditating anymore.
Our minds always have that tendency: to think that THAT thought is
the most insightful thought. But if you can surrender that to meditation and
NOT write it down right now but instead wait until the end of the session you
see the potency of what insights are there. I think that any insight worth
having and writing down you also have to be willing to let go of.
Insight arises in the mind when you're in this open space where
something about the way things are rises. You're not holding your mind so
tightly so you're in a more let go but aware space. Something brilliant may
arise, but you have to view it like skywriting because otherwise you start
fixating on it and it loses its brilliance.
At one point Alex says, "I think I might be actually
starting to like myself." Do you think liking one's self is realized by people
who meditate more than those who don't?
I think meditation helps you see yourself as humorous. You start to laugh at yourself. You start to appreciate yourself and you're so I don't know if it's more than other people, but meditation has helped me a lot. What I wanted to get across in this story is that the Buddhist path is not at all linear. These realizations and insights take a long time to stabilize. He has this huge "I like myself realization" but the next night he makes a mess of himself so this realization takes a long time to integrate into his experience. He's in a transition. He's moving towards something. He is a good guy, but, he's also a partial spiritual fuck-up and those two things can co-exist. It's not that when you get on some path of awareness you're all set.
Alex clings to nostalgia. We all do that. Why is that do you think?
Because we don't know where we are now.
What helps you feel creative?
For me creativity these days is just about having the time to figure out what I want to do. And being around free thinkers which is interesting because, in studying Buddhism, you develop some sense of devotion to lineage which means in some ways you're not a free thinker, you're not re-inventing the wheel. You're saying, ‘let me study from somebody else and let me try to integrate some insights that have already arisen about the human condition into my specific life.' But, to be creative, you have to have a certain amount of that and a certain amount of hanging out with people who are coming up with their own stuff.
Like a lot of people at IDP.
Like a lot of people IDP, a lot of people in New York and a lot of people in the world. Everybody's like that when we let ourselves be. That's one of the tragedies of a more conservative mode of thought. Buddhist circles can be very free-thinking but they can also be more conservative in thought where we don't want to think of reality on our own. We don't sometimes want to think of how we contemplate. We all invent our own reality and so there's something in creativity about connecting with your own way of expressing yourself.
How, then, do you honor the teachers in the lineage who
came before you and at the same time be a creative and expressive human being?
You honor them first by studying them. You should be able to quote the people who came before but you should also be able to express things very differently. If you can reference what the tradition says and then offer a radical interpretation that actually speaks to your experience or somebody else's experience, that's great.
In a lot of ways this book is a reinterpretation of how to
approach the First Noble Truth. In terms of feeling more creative, it's about
putting myself around people who are really thinking their own thoughts and
having their own feelings which means they're approaching reality from
different directions. It means hanging out with people who are a little
idiosyncratic and weird, honestly, and who aren't like you.
That doesn't always feel comfortable.
No. But, life shouldn't always feel comfortable. Especially if you're going to challenge your own rigid ways of experience and thinking.
You are the founder of the Interdependence Project. What
was your hope for IDP when you started it and has your vision changed or
broadened into something different?
When I first started IDP the idea was to create some classes and projects and conversations around Buddhism that made Buddhist practice very relevant to contemporary life and to the modalities like arts, activism, media that people were interested in and to just start the conversation. I still want to discuss not just what Buddhism is but rather, when you're practicing Buddhism what does life look like? Not being explicitly Buddhist, but being implicitly Buddhist and culturally Buddhist in 2012. What do Buddhists think about politics, art and culture rather than how do you meditate? I also want to keep the fires burning with our transformational activism.
Then how do you define a Buddhist?
Somebody who's using meditation and studying Buddhist psychology and philosophy to try and gain greater sanity.
How do you define sanity?
Where you know your own mind to the point you're not causing harm, you're feeling fulfilled and you're actually benefiting yourself and others through your life. And that you feel more at home in your own mind rather than an alien there.
Why do you think so many creative types are attracted to IDP?
I think Buddhism inherently inspires the space for free-thinking, and so creative people are often drawn to meditation because it puts them more in touch with the way that thoughts actually function, which is such fertile ground for all types of creative expression.
How can we reconcile being Buddhist then, which seems to
be about letting go and not attaching to our thoughts or feelings, with being
an artist and utilizing the pain?
There's a huge difference between good and bad art. Good art explores the first Noble Truth. Bad art dwells on it. The notion of creativity is that it can illuminate struggle from different angles, from non linear and expressive angles. A lot of artists are afraid to practice Buddhism for fear if they do they will lose their edge of suffering and they won't have something to express.
Why do you like language and what do you think our
responsibility to language is?
One of the reasons I like language from a dharma art perspective is that I think language is a miracle. With a lot of art you're playing directly with people's sense perceptions, visual or music is auditory perception, but the beautiful thing about language is that it's indirect. So if I say banana, there's no banana here, but if I can say the word banana to you and I can spark some shared experience of banana, it's a total miracle. Because there's no way to guarantee that you and I have any of the same relations to those phonetic sounds, but the fact that we can communicate across an indirect mode of communication and somehow that touches a direct experience, that's the poetry of language and it's miracle.
The editors of Realitysandwich.com say the site's name is
borrowed from a work by the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg -- it is a prime example of
his use of startling verbal juxtaposition to suggest new ideas and
connections. I've heard that you studied with Allen Ginsberg when you were a
child. What do you remember most about him?
Allen Ginsberg invited me and few other kids over to his East village apartment when I was about nine years old and led us through some writing exercises. He studied with the same Buddhist teacher as my parents. I don't remember much about the writing. I do remember his kindness. It wasn't until high school and college when I actually studied his work that I could fully appreciate the way he painted with words.
IDP offers weekly classes and retreats. Visit here for more information.
Teaser image by katerha, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet