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Declaring Interdependence

by Ethan Nichtern

Insightful, passionate, and thoroughly fluent in pop culture, Ethan Nichtern gives voice to a new generation of Buddhist practitioners. Drawing as much from depth of practice as from the living of a contemporary American life, he demystifies the relevance of meditation and Buddhist thought in today’s world by showing us exactly what it looks and sounds like. The following is an excerpt from his first book, described as “Buddhism 3.0 meets the global consciousness movement.”

The Buddha said there were eighty-four thousand distinct ways to discuss his own teachings—but that was a conservative estimate. This is why there are now books on Buddhism and art, Buddhism and business, Buddhism for Dummies, Buddhist cookbooks, even Buddhist golf books. I haven’t checked, but there might even be a book about Buddhist teachings for your toy poodle. At its core, the tradition is ridiculously simple. As my main Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says, it’s about learning how to love—period.

This truth makes Buddhism no different from any other spiritual impulse or any other wisdom tradition that has ever existed. This may be disappointing for those of us who always want to be one step ahead of everyone else, living on the razor’s edge of hipster trends. And it will definitely cause a problem if we want to claim personal possession of the most avant-garde philosophies. In some ways, Buddhism is about as retro as you can get. I saw a great T-shirt the other day that said “Everything you like, I liked five years ago.” Another version of this shirt might say: “Every insight you have, the Buddha had twenty-six hundred years ago.” Maybe we should stop worrying so much about being original.

In order to really understand and embody love, we have to understand interdependence. Interdependence doesn’t just describe issues of global importance; it occurs on every level of our experience simultaneously, from the construction of our own personal identity all the way up to the ungraspable complexities of human society.

Sometimes when we quest for a hidden spiritual truth, we miss what’s right in front of us. Fumbling blindly for the mystical, we miss what is holy within the mundane event of walking down a city street. Interdependence only seems like a profound truth because we don’t recognize it 99% of the time. While we’re lost in the thought bubbles of “then and there,” interdependence always, already resides here and now. There is nothing mystical about this truth. When we encounter it, it strikes us like a big fat “Duh!”

Buddhist teachings can only be found in daily life—and they’re there whether we notice them or not. They don’t descend from some heavenly realm or operate on some rainbow plane of consciousness. And “a day in the life”—your life—is the only place you can experience truth, especially the truth of interdependence. You’ve probably had much more exciting days than the one I recounted in the prologue. But even the most boring day serves as a perfect reminder that no part of our lives occurs in the vacuum of outer space.

For those of us who live in big cities, the fine strands of the webbing that holds us together are extra visible. Sometimes our connection to other people is claustrophobically apparent, right smack in front of our face when those subway doors slide open at rush hour. With the in-your-face nature of city dwelling, a metropolis might surprisingly be ideal for practicing and realizing this truth (though of course, suburbanites and rural folks experience interdependence too). Instead of serving as a constant reminder of interdependence, however, a day of life in a big city is often spent maintaining caustic boundaries, yelling into cell-phones, averting our eyes from each other and holding our noses.

Millions of people choose to live packed like sardines in tins (which we call “studio apartments”), separated by only a few feet and thin plaster walls. And the reason we’ve chosen to live like this? Because human beings are simply not self-sufficient. We rely on each other for work, education, sustenance, friendship, art, culture, community, and love. Yet so much of the time we scurry from place to place, task to task, moment to moment, craving isolation and feigning anonymity. This is the paradox of contemporary living.

The idea of interdependence is not unique to Buddhist thought at all. There is a growing movement calling for more holistic and integrated ways of examining many global issues. People are declaring interdependence all over the place, in a variety of fields of inquiry. Many are trying to find ways to look at twenty-first-century issues without compartmentalizing problems, without analyzing them as if they existed apart from each other in separate, mutually exclusive spheres. These trends are most evident in areas like globalization, conflict resolution, and climate study. Likewise, narrative and visual arts are increasingly addressing the nature of expression from more interwoven perspectives. Again, there isn’t much about Buddhism that’s really “Buddhist.” After all, buddha is just a Sanskrit word that means “someone who is awake.” A Buddhist is someone who’s trying to wake up to the real conditions of her or his life. That’s all.

What makes Buddhism relevant to the twenty-first century is that—unlike many theories of global interdependence—the study of Buddhism begins in each individual’s heart and mind. On this level, love isn’t a vague, Hallmark-card idea. The kind of love that deeply understands interdependence involves precision, rigor, and a method of in-depth training. Love requires learning to look ourselves in the mirror, and learning to look other people in the eye. Buddhism, in turn, asks us to pause and look at even the subtlest causal connections and take our appreciation of them to greater depths. Meditation allows us to explore the building blocks that create our personal identities. Meditation forces us to not look at the world as a vague entity; it asks us to constantly examine our own mind’s role in the unfolding of each event. It directs us to witness the interdependence between our own habitual tendencies and the manifestation of the communities in which we live.

A lot of theories about how to make a positive difference in this world only examine and critique our collective issues on the macro or societal level. So often we forget to consistently examine ourselves as the very individuals who make up the systems of thought, expression, and action in which we collectively engage. For example, I may have truly wonderful ideas about the pitfalls of American consumerism, but have I taken the time necessary to familiarize myself with the mechanism by which my own mind craves things, moment by moment? As I discuss the nature of American consumerism, I should also probably become deeply familiar with the vacuum cleaner that is my own consumerism.

Buddhism’s contribution to the study of interdependence starts with individuals trying to understand what makes our minds tick—why we want what we want, fear what we fear, act how we act, do what we do. From there, we can initiate a discussion about how our world works. And once we gain some insight into the projector (our minds) and the projection (the world), we can begin to transform our personal projectors and that collective projection, in small ways and big ones. Who knows what this world might look like if we transformed it? It might look a little bit different. Or maybe, we might just look at it a little differently. Either way, understanding the mind is the skeleton key.

Ethan Nichtern is founding director of the Interdependence Project, a nonprofit created to bring meditation principles to the arts, activism, environmental concerns, and responsible consumption. A student of Sakyong Mipham, he leads meditation groups in New York City and throughout North America.

© Ethan Nichtern, 2007. Excerpted from One City: A Declaration of Interdependence with permission of Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm St., Somerville, MA 02144 U.S.A., This excerpt ran in the April 2008 issue of Kripalu Online.