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June 22, 2015

Book Notes - Ethan Nichtern "The Road Home"

The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Ethan Nichtern's The Road Home is a smart and engaging introduction to Buddhism and meditation.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Nichtern offers a wise, humane, and deeply sympathetic introduction to the practice of Buddhism…Not to be confused with Jim Harrison's book of the same name, the product of another bodhisattva, though both are steeped in the same spirit. Thoughtful and helpful alike."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Ethan Nichtern's Book Notes music playlist for his book The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path:

The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path is a modern look at teachings that have evolved over thousands of years and have now made a huge cultural and technological leap into the 21st century. These teachings are entirely humanistic and need to be practiced within the lives and cultures we actually inhabit. Buddhism, or "Awake-ism", is about, getting to know your own mind, contemplating your relationship to others, and helping the world we all inhabit.

There are so many contemporary songs that remind me deeply of the core emotional theme of The Road Home, so this was a hard list to narrow down. Instead of blindly stumbling through experience after experience trying to find a permanent sense of safety and belonging, if we really want to awaken fully to being human, we need to make our own heart and mind into an accommodating home. Thus, songs with the theme of travel, feeling lost, belonging, and connecting with others caught my ears.

I'm not sure if the playlist that follows is particularly "Buddhist," but that's sort of the whole point of the book, that Buddhism really means a path of "waking up" to what being a human being among other human beings is all about. Which means we have to wake up to our own time and place on earth, not someone else's.

Note: there is a chapter in the book about demystifying "karma," but so many songs and pop culture references have referenced karma in so many different (often confused) ways that I thought it'd be better to let that one chapter speak for itself, instead of throwing in an extraneous Boy George song.

Dark Dark Dark: "Wild Goose Chase"


Beirut: "Goshen"

These are two of my favorite contemporary groups, and both these songs remind me of the theme of the book's introduction, the idea of our confusion being defined by the lifelong mentality of a "commuter," someone who is always grasping blindly for the next object, the next experience, the next identity, the next relationship, even the next spiritual practice, and never actually arriving anywhere that could be called satisfaction, never reaching "home." The Dark Dark Dark song captures this sense of lament that we keep reaching for false promises, and the Beirut song has the haunting lines: "You never found it home/A fair price I pay to be alone."
Our confusion is heartbreakingly beautiful, and so are both of these songs, delivering the feeling I was trying to capture in the book's intro.

Madonna: "Material Girl"

The first chapter, after the introduction, is about meditation. However, as the book says, meditation is not a way to enter a bliss state or become a different person, a better "you." Instead it's a lifelong journey of "accepting your own friend request." The Tibetan founder of my Buddhist tradition, Chogyam Trungpa, used to warn against spiritual materialism, the tendency to use meditation or other spiritual methods as just another way to chase ecstasy or bliss just to feel ok. Madonna's classic 80's anthem (and also Don Draper's usage of meditation to create a Coke commercial in the last episode of Mad Men) are playful reminders to me of what meditation is not about. It's about truly befriending ourselves, not a way to chase spiritual bling.

De La Soul: "Me, Myself and I"

The first section of the book is all about our view of ourselves, our stuck sense of solid "me" and developing confidence in our basic nature. To me, the classic song by De La Soul plays with the fine line between self-awareness and confidence in our own mind, and the solid stuck sense of self-image we often get caught in, sometimes referred to as the "ego."

Radiohead: "Where I End and You Begin"

I love this Radiohead song, and the second section of The Road Home begins with a quote from it. So obviously it has to be on this playlist. I am always interested in how self-awareness can expand to an awareness of our interdependence with others, and the title of this song, and its melodic twists and turns, remind me to constantly contemplate "Where I End and You Begin."

Josh Ritter: "Girl in The War"

Something about this song is all about the communication and miscommunication that make up a relationship, and how we can get over our own fixed views of our subjectivity, connect with others, and use communication as a mindfulness practice.

Townes Van Zandt: "I'll Be There In The Morning"

The second section closes with a discussion of the student-teacher relationship in Buddhism, and something about this song reminds me of the power (and difficulty) of devoting ourselves to a committed relationship.

Kodomo: "Mind Like A Diamond"

Disclosure that the electronic musician Kodomo (Chris Child) is one of my closest friends. But he's also a great musician, and his work always reminds me of the ambient and visual structures of the mind. This song reminds me of the tantric or "vajrayana" teachings on visualization, and how we can use visualization to transform narratives about self and others, which are what the third section of the book is all about. Vajra is sometimes translated as "diamond," and refers both to the mind's reflective qualities, as well as its indestructibility, and kind of power we can begin to gain confidence in.

Stevie Wonder: "As"

Finally, We have to open our eyes to the society and world we all inhabit. The final section of the book looks into how the path of awakening is not just a personal, not just an interpersonal, but also a collective endeavor.

To help society awaken to compassion, we need ridiculous amounts of respect for our interdependence with others. Bodhicitta, the celebratory Sanskrit term for "awakened heart" or "awakened mind, "is not something that is built, but rather something that is discovered when we tap into our mind's potential to be available to the vastness of our present experience and our appreciation of others. This song is a kind of direct transmission of bodhicitta a musical revelation of how interconnected we really are. I've actually played this song at the close of meditation retreats I've led.

I never heard the line "I'll be loving you always," delivered without any of the romantic cheesiness you'd expect, but instead with a kind of spiritual urgency that can't be forgotten. I dare you to listen to it, and will bet that after its 7 minute arc is up, you'll be feeling inherently uplifted, awake, and open-hearted, which is what seeing interdependence is all about.

Sharon Van Etten: "We Are Fine"

This song is about surviving a panic attack and includes a duet with Beirut's Zach Condon. The song spoke to me since so many friends of mine got into meditation to deal with anxiety, fear, and panic. For me, the way to work with this path is to realize that the journey of awakening is about embracing, not evading, our humanity. So there isn't really any "transcendence" to awakening, if transcendence means getting away from our call to be normal human beings. Waking up is more our willingness to discover our own basic goodness, which allows us to be (in the words of The Road Home) "to be a brave and flawed person among other flawed people." On this basis, the realization that we are both fine, and we can make mistakes, we can start practicing a spirituality that's grounded, relevant, and about engaging with the world we really live in now. Something about this song hammers home the point that we are OK, no matter what emotion or thoughts we experience, if we can just learn to be more at home in our own experience.

Ethan Nichtern and The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Kirkus review

Business Insider interview with the author
New York Times profile of the author
Shambhala Times review
VICE interview with the author
Work in Progress interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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