A Father and Son Embrace Meditation


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Ethan Nichtern and his father, David Nichtern, both teach meditation.Credit

As a senior Buddhist meditation teacher, Ethan Nichtern, 36, is well versed in the practice. He grew up with a father, David Nichtern, a musician (“Midnight at the Oasis” may be his best known composition), who also teaches meditation. Their shared interest in the practice, they said, helped to smooth the inevitable challenges of any father-son relationship.

“It’s like fighting with nerf swords rather than real swords,” said Ethan, whose most recent book, “The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path,” examines mindfulness and Buddhist teachings in the context of Western psychology and pop culture. “Buddhism is one of the most psychological of the spiritual traditions, it’s about self-inquiry and self empowerment.”

“There were times, like any teenager, where I tried to push dad’s buttons,” Ethan said. “But I think the fact that we were practicing helped us turn it into a game with a sense of humor.”

“We actually started keeping track of who could make the others eyes roll more, like a sporting event,” he said. “I would do things like tell him that I hadn’t finished my paper or project when I had, and he would roll his eyes in disbelief, and I would exclaim, ‘That’s 4-2, I’m winning!’ ”

He remembers a few particularly “tough moments” from his college years, when “I just wasn’t figuring out what I wanted to do.” His father would ask, “What are you majoring in? What are you going to do? What are you doing this summer?” which would set Ethan off. Meditation, he said, helped “take the edge off the whole situation. I think it helped me to know, in the back of my mind, ‘This is a compassionate person who has my best interest at heart.’ ”

His father, David, said meditation probably allowed him to notice when he was being triggered by emotions like fear, and to avoid taking that triggering to be reality. “For example, driving a car. There is no parent who says, ‘O.K., you’re 16 now, here are the keys.’ You sit at home and you bite your fingernails to the bone.” Meditation helps you “make space around the reactive mind,” he said, and to be less caught up in the emotions.

Ethan was 10 when he first formally meditated. For six Saturdays in a row, he and a half dozen other children between the ages of 8 and 13, all of whom also had parents who meditated, met at the Shambhala Meditation Center in Manhattan. He remembers it being “really, really boring.”

But something clicked. “I remember my thoughts were happening in my mind, and they may or may not relate to what was happening in the outside world,” he said. “That there was this whole world of thought that was related to but different from the physical world.”

Ethan began exploring meditation more seriously his senior year of high school, when he would meditate for 10 to 15 minutes every day after school behind the closed door of his bedroom. It was important, he said, to do “my own thing.”

A romantic breakup his freshman year of college cemented his dedication to serious meditation. With meditation, “you’re actually present with what’s happening,” he said. “You’re dealing with the difficulties, the strife, the awkwardness. You’re learning how to be accepting through that.”

In 2007, Ethan founded the Interdependence Project, a New York-based Buddhist and meditation center, with chapters and study groups in a number of cities. Members tend to be millennials or slightly older and to be interested in the arts and environmental activism, he said.

Father and son said two meditative practices in their tradition have served them well. One is Tonglen meditation, which Ethan described as “a wonderful practice that can be done ‘on the cushion’ or ‘on the spot’ during or after an argument or misunderstanding.”

“As you breathe in, you imagine yourself taking in, or at least staying present with, the confusion and suffering you perceive in the other person, even if you feel judgmental toward them,” he said. “As you breathe out, you imagine yourself sending them healing or helpful situations.”

Such “compassion meditations,” he said, were especially helpful in his 20s, because they “allowed me to empathize with all the difficulties my parents had dealt with which were more hidden from me growing up, and helped me to really appreciate how much my parents had done for me once I could get the perspective to really empathize.”

Another contemplative practice they find useful is to meditate on the fleeting nature of things. “All feelings, negative and positive, will pass at some point,” David added. “Recognizing impermanence helps us to let go and open up even in challenging situations.”

“We are continuously working on ourselves,” David said. “The key part about being a meditator is saying, ‘I’m going to work on my own state of mind.’ ”

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