Seeing for Oneself

Dubbed a “dharma brat” since childhood, Ethan Nichtern describes how he found his own path to Buddhist practice.

Ethan Nichtern

On a Village street, a small group of young people, mostly in their twenties, were marching, miles away from the event they were protesting. For every protestor, about two police officers flanked the group, walkie-talkies on and batons ready, apparently waiting to pounce if any of the demonstrators broke formation. For a moment I thought it was the cops who were marching, because they outnumbered the demonstrators. The energy of the scene was confused, sad, impotent. There were no clear messages being articulated, no hopeful voices to be heard, and definitely no chance for fruitful dialogue between those charged—ideally—with protecting our society and those charged—ideally—with carrying our society forward with compassion, energy, and vision. It was just a large group of angry cops set against a tiny group of what seemed to me to be privileged but disempowered kids, both groups left to mutter furious clichés about making the world a better place while chasing the ghosts of their own aggression down a city street.

It took me a few months of being back in New York to think about what I’d seen, about why so much visual energy had been compressed into my first twenty minutes back “in the world.” Times Square is a huge visual minefield of ads primarily targeted at an audience between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four, teenagers and young adults being the most impressionable in their habits of consumption. But there is another Times Square—the one inside my mind, the one that meditation practice is helping me get accustomed to. This is the Times Square where all ads are placed by subsidiary companies of the imaginary Mega-Multinational Corporation called Ethan’s Hopes and Fears, Inc. What a devastating place my own Times Square is, and what a place to be stuck as a permanent tourist! I remembered what meditation meant to me, why I now claimed it as relevant to my own life. It was a tool of empowerment in the face of all the flashing billboards, both internal and external. It was the way I could begin to look at the space of my mind—to see what amorphous products I was trying to buy and sell, what fixed notions of identity were being hammered out in my dungeon sweatshops, what digital fantasies were getting me high and horny.

I could return to that space over and over again with a useful tool at my disposal. By returning to the space of my mind repeatedly, I could begin to see it for what it was. And by seeing it, I could begin to see through it.

Then I thought about the young protestors I had seen. There’s a very definite link between the meditator and the protestor. Both are acting from the genuine inspiration to help a world they must love dearly. Both are willing to look out the window and see the suffering in that world. Both are willing to take a look at the causes and conditions of our world, and to call into question the confused, materialistic forces that built Times Square. But the meditator may have a tool the protestor often lacks. This tool is a method of practice in which one refuses to externalize the truth of suffering as somebody else’s fault or problem; the training is to always bring our focus back to the causal link between our internal Times Square and the external Times Square. With this attitude, we cannot demonize anyone in particular, because we see that they are as confused as we are, that they live under the same basic conditions. How can we stay mad at someone who’s subject to the same basic conditions—and even claim righteousness in our anger?

I think I’ve felt a lot of shame about my existence. I’ve been completely privileged by the circumstances of this human life without feeling much power to affect the course this world takes. I don’t think I’m the only person in America who feels this way; I’m definitely not the only young person who feels this way. In my heart, a deep sadness is mixed with joy and optimism in one big fat sushi roll of ambivalence. I’ve concocted so many ways of trying to sweet-talk this ambivalence into some form of comfort instead of just facing it.

At times I’ve given up and become complacent in hopelessness, searching for creature comforts wherever I could, even though I’ve seen countless hints in my own life that this way of relating to existence is ultimately like trying to lick honey off a razor blade. I’ve even convinced myself there is something exquisite about the image of licking honey from a razor blade. Sometimes I’ve been bitter and angry instead and looked desperately for someone and something to blame, only to find my bitterness turning on myself. Sometimes I’ve done both—settled for material comfort and gotten angry at the “system”—only to discover my own inescapable hypocrisy. Sometimes I’ve even celebrated my inescapable hypocrisy. Usually I’ve done all these things in a single day.

No matter what my response is at a given moment, the practice of meditation has been there, like a pristine, unadorned mirror. It looks at all these mental attitudes like more grist for the mill; it chews on them and never gets full from bullshit. Every time I bring something to the practice, it answers, almost as if it were an external entity: “Oh, that’s where your head is at right now, Ethan? Good, bring it on, we can work with that.”

The power of meditation practice doesn’t stop there, though. It lends insight—through repeated glimpses that slowly increase in clarity—into the connection between the way our minds are constructed and the way our world is constructed. When I question whether it’s possible to have a less confused mind, meditation answers with a head-banging Yes. When I question whether it’s possible to share a less confused world, meditation answers with a heart-thumping Yes. Personally, I want to learn how to perceive with that mind and how to act for the benefit of that world. That’s why I’ve chosen to become, like my parents did before me, a first-generation student of my own mind.

Ethan Nichtern is a writer living in New York City.

Image 1:"Back From the Mountains" by Clark Strand
Image 2: "Done" by Alan Pizzarelli
Image 3: "Hot Day" by L.A. Davidson
All photographs © Richard Hunt, Courtesy of Dee Evetts, Curator of The Haiku on 42nd Street Project, Sponsered by The Haiku Society of America, 1994.

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