Ethan Nichtern
Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2007
224 pp.; $15.95 (paper)

You come into the city and if you’ve been away for a while, you return as a child. The world feels stark, the edges sharp, your senses are on fire. Your condition is one of wonderment; you cannot help but stare. But you know this will change if you stay. Life will assume a rhythm. You will fall into a routine. You will begin to hurry and to cast your eyes downward, and after several months you will suddenly notice, with something like grief, that when the subway jostles and your body collides against another’s, you no longer feel that cool electric shock of human touch. And even though you will grieve, the absence of this feeling will somehow seem necessary. It will seem like self-protection. It is hard to remain at the edge.

Several years ago, before I left New York, I would sometimes bring my lunch to Union Square on warm days. Most of those afternoons I’ve since forgotten—they seem unremarkable to me now—but one in particular I remember. On that day, a woman with wild white hair shuffled into the park, sat down stiffly on the bench across from me, and slowly, as if anointing herself with holy water, emptied a bag of birdseed upon her shoulders. I remember this vividly: the way the tiny yellow kernels clung to the wool of her sweater and pooled into the folds of her skirt and scattered over her shoes. She leaned back, looked at me fiercely, and closed her eyes. First one pigeon flew to her, and then several more, and then a dozen. They crowded upon her arms, pecking at one another in blind, furious hunger, blurring the edges of her body in a flutter of wings. It was an act of madness—she had lost her mind, she was being devoured by birds. It was an act of magic—she was whispering an incantation, she was disappearing into a whirl of feathers. I stared, slack-jawed, with my half-eaten sandwich on my lap.

When I looked around, I saw that others were staring, too. People glanced up from their newspapers and gasped. Others halted on their hurried walks. It was a gesture of such grandiose and appalling strangeness that it shook us from the narrowness of our lives, and we, her audience, began to murmur to one another. We forgot ourselves, and for a few minutes, before the birds had had their fill and before the woman calmly clasped her purse and shuffled away, we acted as if we were not strangers but friends, as if there were no walls between us. And such was the hypnotic power of this act, which I’ve come to think of as a kind of offering, that for an hour afterward, on the long walk back to work, I felt as if I were in a waking dream, and the streets of New York appeared to me again as new.

If we stay in the city—if we stay anywhere long enough—we lose our wonder, we forget even that we once possessed it, and then something happens to shatter the routine—a blizzard descends upon us, or a blackout darkens our streets, or a woman disappears before our eyes—and for a few brief miraculous hours our lives are upended and we come once more into the presence of one another and into the possibilities of human connection. We talk to strangers. Our hearts feel open. The question that Ethan Nichtern pursues inOne City, his first book, is whether this experience of openness, which we know to be unpredictable and fleeting, might be cultivated and made to last. This is not a project new to Buddhism—to be open you need first to be aware, and training in mindful awareness has always been at the core of Buddhist teachings—but Nichtern, a twenty-nine-year-old teacher in the Shambhala tradition, is perhaps well-suited to consider the ways in which modern life derails us from our efforts to remain open. Like the rest of us, he’s been long tethered to the wheel of communication technologies—the daily whirligig of email, internet, cell phones, IM, and pagers—which we employ in pursuit of greater connection but which so often leave us feeling emotionally frayed and oddly disconnected. And Nichtern, who grew up in a generation coveted by advertisers, knows well the effects of relentless consumerism: the rootless desire it creates, the feeling of constant inadequacy. “So much time in life has been lost chasing the morphing ghosts of Cool,” he says, “when I could’ve been learning how to be Kind.”

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