Celebrated Buddhist teacher and author Ethan Nichtern joined Garrison Institute Retreats Director Jane Kolleeny for a conversation about some of the profound, often painful, and life-changing lessons being learned from the global pandemic and its effects on our psychological state of mind.
They began by exploring the Buddhist teaching of groundlessness and its connection to this moment, as Nichtern said:
“In a sense, the whole human race is getting a crash course in groundlessness. It’s a great opportunity for awakening, but it’s also incredibly scary.”
Nichtern observed how some are responding to this groundlessness by growing increasingly cynical while others are holding onto a positive certainty. He shared that the Buddhist teachings on emptiness call us to spot both of these false story-lines, relinquish them, and just rest in groundlessness.
While this time is one of groundlessness, it is also a time of disruption. Nichtern defines disruption as a gap, “a space where we get a little wiggle room, where we can step out of a karmic pattern or shift a karmic pattern.” This pandemic is revealing what those karmic cycles were and that our systems have functioned with a lack of regard for one another—especially the most marginalized.
Nichtern believes this gap is an opportunity for awakening and a powerful time to cultivate a different intention and way of being in the world. He encourages us to reflect on our lives before this pandemic and ask: “What was I doing that didn’t serve? What was I doing that didn’t lead to awakening or benefiting others? How do I want to shift?”
The conversation transitioned to the impact this pandemic is having on our well-being. Recognizing that many people are in quarantine and facing greater isolation right now, Nichtern helpfully distinguished between aloneness and loneliness:
“The quality of aloneness is the bravery of being with oneself; whereas loneliness is the experience of not wanting to work with aloneness, so you’re constantly trying to get validation from other sentient beings.”
Aloneness is about authentically confronting oneself, which is really what the practice of meditation is all about. This time of isolation and social distancing is an opportunity for stepping back from loneliness and stepping into aloneness.
The Buddhist path of compassion, rooted in the truth of interdependence, calls us to serve others. However, in seeking to alleviate the suffering experienced in this moment, Nichtern stressed the importance of beginning with one’s own mind. “Buddhist thought first arose from the idea of working with one’s own mind,” he shared. “We can only work with our own subjective experience and that has to be the basis for how we alleviate suffering. The more we are able to work with our own mind, the more we are able to benefit others.”
Because we are suffering ourselves, we must look at our own mind and engage in practice before trying to serve others. If we don’t, we risk replicating problems and confusion in our efforts to help. Nichtern mentioned the importance of self-care in this process:
“Anything can be a self-care ritual if it’s transformed by the intention to benefit both self and others. And anything can be a way to avoid ourselves if it lacks intention, including meditation. We can use our meditation to zone out. It’s really important to look at the rituals in your daily life as part of your practice.”
Visit Nichtern’s website to enjoy his blog and podcast and to browse other resources.
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Ethan Nichtern is an author and senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. He has written four books, including the acclaimed work The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path, and most recently, The Dharma of The Princess Bride. For over 18 years, he has taught classes and workshops on meditation and Buddhist psychology.
Jane Kolleeny has been studying and practicing Buddhism since the early seventies when her teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche arrived in Boulder, CO. Jane is the Garrison Institute’s Retreats Director and teaches at the Westchester Buddhist Center.
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