Like most New Yorkers, Ethan Nichtern spends a lot of time talking about commuting.
But he’s not complaining about the subway.
Nichtern, who’s a senior teacher in Shambhala Buddhism, uses “the commute” as a metaphor for how people approach their lives — schlepping from job to job and relationship to relationship, hoping for something better to happen.
In his new book “the Road Home,” he lays out an alternative: actually becoming comfortable with the discomforts of being a human being, mainly through the means of meditation.
For Nichtern, the practice isn’t a means to being more focused at work or getting better sleep or even becoming happier. In a conversation with Business Insider, he explained why.
Here’s a condensed and edited version of the transcript of that conversation below.
BUSINESS INSIDER: Why would you say that most of us are “commuting” through our lives?
ETHAN NICHTERN: A commute is a trip where you’re trying to get somewhere, but you don’t really enjoy the journey. You’re not really present for the journey — the journey is kind of garbage time to get you to something that’s meaningful.
The way that our objectified experience tends to work, is you never actually arrive, because even when you get to the object, you realise that it doesn’t really solve this fundamental discomfort with yourself, and therefore you look for the next object.
You get home at the end of the day, and you still don’t even feel at home. Now you’re just thinking about tomorrow, and then you get to work and you’re definitely not comfortable at work.
Or you travel and you take a nice shot to put up on Instagram but then you’re like, “what’s my next post going to be?” We’re generally uncomfortable with when we’re commuting, and the idea here is to bring that metaphor into our existential dilemma — that’s actually how we feel quite a lot of the time.
BI: What’s the other option?
EN: The other option is to develop tools to actually appreciate and be at home with the physical environments, our body, the identity that we have. and the emotions and thoughts that we have, — which is what I think Buddhist meditation is all about. It’s like, how do you actually turn anywhere into home?
I think that’s really the deeper existential and emotional resonance of what Buddhist meditation and Buddhist practice is for me. I don’t think it’s just about stress reduction or focusing, it’s really about inhabiting the present moment completely and also being a benefit to others in that space.
BI: In my experience, meditation has been a process of getting more comfortable with how ridiculous and busy my mind feels. Does that make any sense to you?
EN: I think this is why meditation is so difficult to really take on as a path, and people think it’s going to just make them instantly comfortable, and it never does, or if it does it’s just for a few moments.
It’s really this long middle part of the journey, which could take our whole lives — actually learning to feel more at home with discomfort. Learning to feel at home with this mind that’s constantly in commute, that is constantly judging itself and judging others. Learning to feel at home with our emotions, which can cause a lot of upheaval and disruptions.
With meditation practice, you actually just get more in touch with the mentality of commute, and that’s why we need so much compassion, you know, and so much kindness towards ourselves and others. A lot of the time, what we’re really coming home to is our discomfort.
BI: For someone who’s curious about meditation but has never tried any sort of contemplative exercise, what’s the best way to start?
EN: You can start online, but these teachings really thrive when they’re not just content. They thrive in relationship with fellow practitioners, mentors, and teachers, so I do think it’s always better to find you know physical groups or physical teachers and classes if you can.
But a lot of us are in a place, either because of our schedule or because of our location, where we can’t, so there’s lots of online resources, podcasts, apps, downloads that I think would be helpful. But I think the best thing to do is definitely to find a class that’s an introduction to meditation.
I want to say this in a way that doesn’t sound like a rejection of anything else, but I think if you can find a place that has some grounding in a longer tradition, so it’s not just like somebody decided to invent their own meditation tradition. This is why I love Buddhism, is that it’s a full psychological and spiritual tradition that’s evolved in different cultures over thousands of years — so there’s some integrity and some depth there.
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