In The Road Home, Ethan Nichtern, a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, investigates the journey each of us takes to find where we belong. He reveals how our individual quests for self-awareness ripple forward into relationships, communities, and society at large. Here, Nichtern discusses the metaphor of “the path,” and the effect of mediation on the creative process with the writer and fellow Buddhist practitioner Maud Newton.
Maud Newton: Just about everyone can relate to this idea of the commuter’s narrative, of being on a quest—often a frenzied one—to find some kind of satisfaction. “A nonstop quest for anything that makes us feel temporarily safe within the rudderless journey of aging,” as you say in The Road Home.
Ethan Nichtern: I’ve always been fascinated by how language and metaphor conveys spiritual and psychological ideas. With traditional Buddhism, there are so many analogies and images for being on a path, a journey. Why are there all these analogies about a path in a tradition that is so much about stillness? The word for basically all our cycles of destructive behavior, samsara, literally means wandering around; “the commuter” comes from the Tibetan word for a confused sentient being, which means something like “always on the go” or “goer.” So I thought about the unsettling feeling of not ever being at home where you are—that we are always trying to get somewhere else—and realized it’s the basic definition of confusion.
I’ve also been thinking about this quest for home in the long history of human narratives, basically from The Odyssey to Battlestar Galactica and beyond. That question of home has always been a big emotional question for me, but instead of looking for home in the objects of experience, which could be physical or ideological, or in an identity—identifying as a writer, say—the Buddhist path is about turning our own mind into a safe home. It’s so interesting to write a book that is about a journey to this place, because this notion of always being on the go, never feeling like you can land, feels really universal.
MN: Until I started meditating and studying the Alexander Technique (like you, my Alexander teacher is a longtime Shambhala practitioner), I had this idea that if I became more at peace with myself, and especially my emotions, my creative work would suffer.
EN: I love having this conversation. At the Interdependence Project, the two biggest groups of people I hang out with are artists and activists. This question with activists is very clear because the thinking is, “If I lose my anger, I will not be able to act for positive change in the world.”
MN: I so relate. I wouldn’t claim the title of activist, but I’m an ardent protestor. I felt concerned about losing my fire about injustice in the world and also that “accepting” my feelings in the way I incorrectly imagined Buddhism would require, a hazy glorified angel choir kind of acceptance, would extinguish the vitality of my emotional experience. I would be wrapped in gauze and trying to create out of that place.
EN: Exactly, that is the perception. So many creative people say that. It’s interesting because I just interviewed Ruth Ozeki, the great novelist, who meditates every day, and I know a huge number of highly successful creative people who are dedicated practitioners. Luckily what you find out when you actually practice for a long time is that your emotions are not going anywhere.
MN: I find that when I’m committed to the practice, I judge my work less while I’m writing it, which turns out to be helpful. I also have so much more clarity about it, especially when I’m writing about something personal or emotional. Many years of psychotherapy helped a lot, too, I should say, but sitting fosters a different kind of awareness.
EN: I totally agree that there is this growing sense of clarity and recognition. There’s also the point, as many artists say, when there’s a real sharp edge of emotion, when there’s a deep moment—a moment of grief, of heightened passion, or a heightened anger. Sometimes there is more fuel and potency for creative expression there. You know I also write fiction and poetry, and I definitely feel that personally as well. But these aren’t necessarily just moments of heightened emotion; what matters is that they’re moments of heightened clarity.
MN: How else do you find it has influenced your writing?
EN: One other thing is that the Buddhist teachings talk so much about is the intention behind our actions. That’s a question that a lot of creative people work through that is a really good question to sort out. One of the last chapters of The Road Home is all about Dharma art and creative process within the more cultural and societal vision of the teachings, because the founder of the Shambhala tradition, Chogyam Trungpa, was also a very versatile artist. He was a fan of creative expression as a means for awakening, as the cultural side of awakening. As such, the practitioner starts asking, “What am I putting out there and why? Does it contribute something, or am I just celebrating confusion?” You start to question what the appropriate expression is and what the compassionate expression is. Not that you can’t be dirty or ironic, or express really intense life situations, but we have to ask, “What is the purpose of putting this out there?” When you are a practitioner, it’s not that your emotions get deadened, but your intention becomes more important. I think you are completely right that meditation gives you much more ability to work in an emotional moment. But you also think about the effect of expressing a little bit more as you become more interested in awareness, interdependence, and helping others.
MN: I spend a lot more time now arriving at clarity about what I’m doing, in a way that combines the intellectual and emotional. It’s helpful to me to de-clutter motivations. Letting feelings be there, but deciding and being able to decide—not in every moment, but ultimately, as I work—which feelings are going to govern my creative process.
EN: I love that phrase “The de-cluttering of motivation.”
MN: I used to spend so much time getting stuck on every neurosis and swept up in every feeling and your book describes the ill-effects of that so well.
EN: The ultimate problem with this idea of the “commute” is that we are so often trying to get away from our own humanity. The Road Home is really saying that the journey is toward your own awakened humanity, and actually taking that to heart. Since I am a human being—I don’t know why that happened or how that happened or how long it’s going to last, and it’s not going to last that long no matter what, for any of us—but since a human is what I am, I should figure out how to be awake with that, rather than commuting towards something else.
Ethan Nichtern is a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition and the author of One City: A Declaration of Interdependence. He is also the founder of the Interdependence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to secular Buddhist study as it applies to transformational activism, mindful arts and media projects, and Western psychology. Nichtern has taught meditation and Buddhist studies classes and retreats across the United States since 2002. He is based in New York City.
Maud Newton is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in Harper’s, New York Times Magazine, Narrative, the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, the Awl, Oxford American, Granta, Tin House, the Los Angeles Times, Medium, and many other publications. She’s working on a book for Random House about the science and superstition of ancestry.
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