Somerville, Mass., Wisdom, 2019; 225 pp., paper, $16.95.
Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining. Stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do.
Many years ago, I arrived in the U.S. for graduate studies and was also staying in a monastery for training. On the second day, the senior monk approached me and said, “So you are in America. You need to know four things: baseball, hot dog, apple pie, and Chevrolet, and you have to make a few bucks to get the last one.”
With graduate studies in the rearview mirror and after six years in the monastery, I started a career in a multinational corporation, creating complex algorithms. I also cofounded the Chicago Meditation Center, which I ran from my three-bedroom apartment. Many retreats were held there, and many wonderful spiritual masters visited. Now that I’ve retired from the industry and am not making bucks any more, my spiritual journey continues.
I was naturally drawn to Nichtern’s book, which weaves a tapestry integrating the three aspects of a unique journey. He has an impressive background for writing the book. He has been teaching Buddhism for most of his adult life. He has also been a professional composer (receiving four Emmys and two Grammys) and an entrepreneur, running several businesses. Nichtern’s deep practice of Buddhist teachings, received from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, resonates throughout the book and forms the underlying thread in his creative and entrepreneurial endeavors as well. This book is a result of his own direct experiences.
Commonly we think of success as making a buck. Nichtern looks at success a little differently. It is not just getting what you thought you wanted but incorporating a sense of wholesome well-being in your life.
The book is divided into six parts. Appropriately, the first part introduces a mindfulness practice. It is, so to speak, an operating system for enlightened living. The core principles are “As It Is” (what is presented to you) and “Up to You” (what you do with it), with help from clarity, intention, and effort.
The second part, “Getting Down to Business,” reminds us that conducting business is not separate from our innate wisdom. Nichtern offers profound tips, such as “Link your creative offering to your livelihood offering.” Trungpa taught the concepts of ground, path, and fruition. Simply put, ground is the starting point, path is the practice or the journey, and fruition is what we receive after persevering on the path. Nichtern reframes these principles for business purposes as “vision, plan, and execution.”
Part 3 addresses “Some Simple Business Principles” grounded in “confidence, simplicity, and authenticity.” Nichtern points out that having confidence in our business and having faith in our mindfulness practice are not different.
Part 4, “Interpersonal Skills and Ethical Conduct,” is a guide to behavior in business relationships. Blaming, making excuses, and whining have no place here. We learn to appreciate everyone and to be kind. In this section, Nichtern points us towards “the notion of Karma, the dance of cause and effect.” Our thoughts, speech, and actions may be impermanent in a higher sense, but they do matter on another level. He quotes one lojong (traditional Tibetan aphorism): “Don’t bring things to a painful point.”
Part 5, “Personal Attitude and Cultivation,” migrates from the interpersonal to the intrapersonal. Nichtern explores the strengths that one can cultivate. We look at “As It Is” and activate “Up to Us.” Here we contemplate impermanence. We may have vision and a creative plan, yet we also have an open door when change occurs. It is like examining the game plan at half-time and making adjustments. We need not take ourselves too seriously! Just as we train our body in the gym, we train our mind by honing our attention.
Part 6, “Creativity: The Wild Card,” reveals that creativity is pervasive if only we look. It is not just bringing a new product to the market; we are creative when we cook dinner! Nichtern challenges us to be daring and at the same time to “know when to stop polishing the turd.”
This book includes a treasure of resources such as websites and links to videos and music. Meditations for individual practice are included throughout (“Put the book down and practice!”). The lojong aphorisms are direct pointers. The most important resource is the workbook in every chapter. Nichtern provides probing questions for our own workbook. It is the door to spontaneity and expressing ourselves with utter honesty. It is asking a question to ourselves: “How are you doing?” Saying “fine” is not good enough. The journey begins by looking inward. Nichtern provides help at every step.
The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for forty years. He reviews regularly for Quest and works as a volunteer in the archives department of the TSA.