Images © Meredith Arena
Images © Meredith Arena

FOR THE PAST THREE YEARS, a burgeoning grassroots activist movement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—the 4,200-member Interdependence Project—has been creating a template for what it calls “integral activism.” In this Buddhist-inspired approach to political engagement, activists cross-examine their own actions and attitudes with the same vigor that defines their campaigns for policy reform. Made up largely of a younger generation of meditators, the Interdependence Project espouses a distinctly contemplative platform: that progressive social change won’t be truly effective until activists commit to an ongoing investigation of their own motives, reactions, habits, and beliefs.

This is not just a more self-centered activism—it’s entirely pragmatic. “If you think SUVs are bad, and you go around slashing tires, SUV owners are just going to get more righteous and find a way to drive bigger Hummers,” says Ethan Nichtern, the group’s 30-year-old founder. “In other words, you don’t convince people to change their habits by telling them they suck. You have to investigate the mind that thinks those people suck.”

Nichtern (poet, self-described “dharma brat,” and charismatic author of One City: A Declaration of Interdependence) is a great admirer of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a secondgeneration teacher in the Shambhala tradition. His parents were both early students of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the pioneers of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. At 24, Nichtern, a 2000 graduate of Brown University, picked up his parents’ vocation and became not only one of the nation’s youngest Buddhist teachers but also one of the most popular. With his pop-culture savvy and self-referential humor, the Manhattan native quickly amassed a following of meditators who seemed eager to take their practice off the cushion.

Gradually, this group evolved into the Interdependence Project, a movement Nichtern describes as a kind of “bridge organization”—one that provides a forum for those interested in transforming themselves through inner work and those interested in transforming society through the arts and activism. The ID Project, as its members refer to it, is an amalgam of social and cultural initiatives. Alongside its political advocacy, it houses interest groups in creative writing, the visual arts, and theater, in addition to offering three dharma talks with guided meditation each week. But it is the group’s activism that has earned it considerable attention from individuals and institutions outside of American Buddhist and meditation circles. New York State Senator Eric Schneiderman, a staunch advocate of integral activism and the project’s unofficial mentor, lends the ID Project a degree of political clout that is unusual for emergent sanghas in the West. Schneiderman says he feels that if Buddhism is to grow in America, more of its practitioners need to reach past the personal and start delving into the political.

“It seems to me that shila [moral conduct] is such an important part of the dharma, and from what I know there are sanghas in Asia that are tremendously active politically, where Buddhists are very involved in all sorts of political and revolutionary activities,” says the senator. “In the United States you find that a lot of people think activism is divisive or dualistic, and that we shouldn’t do it. But I feel that’s sort of used as a rationalization for avoiding taking responsibility for things.”

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