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.”

As you might expect, the path to openness, what Nichtern calls “the practice of interdependence,” is a familiar one: take your seat on a cushion and watch your mind for a while. Much of One City is basic Buddhist primer, albeit for an audience in their twenties. Nichtern explores Buddhist notions of self and emptiness, and he examines the Six Perfections (meditation, generosity, discipline, nonviolence, exertion, and wisdom) in terms of contemporary social ills. He is at his best when he uses these ideas to help us understand the difficulty of feeling connected in a world where each of us is tied to thousands of others in myriad, tenuous ways—through the forces of globalization that give us T-shirts stitched by the hands of laborers on some far corner of the earth.

One City crackles at times with humor and fresh insight, as when Nichtern quotes from some of our more unexpected dharma masters (the rapper Nas: “Life’s a bitch and then you die / that’s why we get high”; or the Velvet Underground: “Between thought and expression lies a lifetime”). But some of his analysis feels shallow (as in his discussion of the effectiveness of nonviolent movements), and he occasionally meanders into thickets of abstraction—language that feels at a remove from everyday experience. Nichtern’s dilemma is, of course, one faced by all Buddhist teachers (and spiritual teachers in general): how to make new and relevant to our times teachings that have stood for centuries. In his prescription for three “post-meditation practices,” he comes closest to doing so. “I try to question one consumption choice that I make every day,” “I pick up and dispose of three pieces of garbage that I did not create each time I go outside,” and “I try to say ‘thank you’ every time a service is performed for me, every time I am part of a financial transaction.” This is hardly revolutionary stuff, but it deals with the here and now, with the simple interactions that make up our daily lives. I wanted more of it, and I hope that Nichtern and others will continue to think in this direction. With a set of such common and earthly tenets, we may begin to chart a course back to an everyday experience of openness and connection and wonder. And if we can manage to live this way—on the edge, with our hearts open—when it’s over we might be able to say, as Mary Oliver has written, “all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”