Monday, September 10, 2007

One City- A Declaration of Interdependence


I just finished a great book by a teacher I've been following for a couple of years now.  Ethan Nichtern is the young founder of The Interdependence Project, a movement that promotes meditation, the awareness of interdependence and activism.  Ethan puts out a weekly PodCast called 21st Century Buddhism. I never miss an episode.  So, I was anxious to pick up his book when it came out.  After the wait for the book, I was not disappointed.  The book is "One City: A Declaration of Interdependence".  I know that a lot of Christians are scared of anything labeled Eastern Philosophy or Buddhism.  And, I'm certainly not here to convert anybody (nor am I (solely) a Buddhist- see my article "Just Call Me BUTCH" for more on that)  But, my guess is that if you were scared, you wouldn't be reading a blog called "The Beautiful Heresy".    My take on Buddhism is it's more of a philosophy than a religion- a very pragmatic philosophy that has worked wonders for me.  Buddhism is about how to be fully human and deal with the day-to-day realities of this world.  You don't have to be a Buddhist to get something out of this book, you just have to be human.
The thing I like about Ethan's teachings is he is firmly rooted in historical Buddhism yet, he takes these fifth century B.C. concepts and translates them into the language and culture of the 21st century.  One City is about how we are all interdependent.  This is more than the idea that we are interconnected, which you may be familiar with.  Interconnected implies that we are independent beings who bump into each other and have an influence on each others' circumstances.  Interdependence goes way beyond that.  Who I am is dependent on a number of factors, most of which are way beyond my control.  Genetics, current circumstances, past events all play a part in who I am today.  This is both humbling and liberating if we can fully embrace it.  None of us is responsible for who we are.  So, there's no need feeling guilty about who we are.  OTOH, none of us is responsible for who we are.  So, we could have just as easily been born in another place and time and we would be a completely different person.  Don't be too proud of yourself.  In spite of what you might think, you are not a self made man.   Interdependence is about more than just influencing each other.  Interdependence is the recognition that we co-create each other and our world.  If we can get our minds around it, it is truly a principle that will change the world.  That is not an exaggeration. Buddhism is about studying how our minds tick.  One of the first things we need to understand is just how interdependent we are.

Ethan explores this whole idea of interdependence, framing it in our fast-food, infotainment, consumer-oriented, ruggedly individualistic world.  I loved the chapter on the "Inadequacy Principle", which is the systematic way we are each made to feel we are not enough (and not coincidentally, they have what we need to become enough).  Ethan then wisely cautions against the spiritual trap of thinking that if we only become more "enlightened", then we'll be enough.  Many people when jumping off of the consumeristic treadmill, jump right onto the religion treadmill; trading in one hopeless, frustrating pursuit for another.

Ethan does a great job of breaking down the five levels of interdependence starting with ourselves being interdependent creatures and placing that in the context of personal relationships, communities, global and universal settings.  He clarifies some commonly misunderstood perceptions of Buddhism blowing up myths such as the idea of egolessness (which many Westerns misunderstand to be nihilism).  This is part one of the book, an introduction to what interdependence is (and why we should care).  Part Two gets into practical applications

Meditation- what it is and why it's not just for spiritual freaks or people who have hit rock bottom (even though you might say I am/was both).  Ethan talks about what everyone can gain from meditation.

Consumerism- (The Hungry Ghost Principle for those familiar with Buddhism)- ironically, I read this chapter the day Apple launched their latest generation of iPods.  It was fascinating to sit back and watch myself process through the inevitable WANTING that reared up the moment I heard there was a better, faster, shinier iPod on the market.  Because of my new found mindfulness and awareness, I watched myself as I immediately began to try to justify getting one.    It was so cool to watch and understand the desire that was rising in me.

Entertainment- Ethan is pretty hard on entertainment. He's doing a series of PodCasts on the book and I can't wait until he gets to this one.  It's clear he's not against all forms of entertainment (he specifically states this in the book) and he's not trying to guilt anyone into anything. But, I think what he is getting at is the need for constant entertainment that so many of us have and the addictiveness of it.  I'm guilty of it.  And, I see it coming on even stronger in the next generation.  I intentionally left a DVD player out of the new vehicle we just bought because I don't want my kids thinking they have to be plugged in and entertained 24x7.  One of the great points he makes in the chapter on entertainment is the "need" to multi-task.  It got me really thinking about the effectiveness of multi-tasking. Even though I haven't given it up (and probably won't), I am more mindful and aware of it now.  And, I have cut back.  And, it's nice.

Non-violence- the chapter on non-violence is much more practical than just "Go out and protest the war."  It's about where violence arises from.  When I hear Ethan talk here, I hear the words of Jesus being echoed.  Violence doesn't come from nowhere, it starts in the heart, it starts with the thoughts.  One of the great things about Buddhism is it attacks problems at the root, in our thoughts.  Getting to know our own minds and understand the nature of interdependence is the only hope we have of ending the cycle of violence we find ourselves in.  If we constantly start with "them" than with "me", we have no hope.  The chapter on violence also covers internal violence we do to ourselves and verbal violence in relationships.

There are three more chapters.  But, I don't want the review to get longer than the book- (as I am apt to do).  If you're interested in learning more about yourself, how you can relate better to others and to the world and how you can contribute to making the world a better place, I recommend the book.  There's no weird religious stuff in here you have to follow, no vows to take and you don't have to worship Buddha to learn from Buddhism.  One City is written in a very non-threatening, easy to understand conversational style (just the way I like a book).  Ethan takes a lot of the mystery out of a very practical way of life (Buddhism) that can seriously reduce your level of suffering and the level of suffering in the world.  How can that possibly be a bad thing?

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