The Easiest of Times; The Hardest of Times

Buddha had it easy. He was not distracted by television, the Internet, news of disasters in foreign lands, or the latest shenanigans of stars and politicians. He did not need to return phone calls, respond to the emails piling up in his inbox, or catch up with the latest tweets and Facebook postings. He did not have to work at a job in order to pay the bills. He was not worried by stock market crashes, radiation leaks, climate change, or bank failures. His mind was not ceaselessly buzzing with the dull roar of traffic, muzak, and an ever-present electrical hum. He was not bombarded by seductive advertisements telling him he lacked this or that and could not be happy until he had them. He was not embedded in a culture that sought at every turn to engross his attention in unnecessary thoughts and distractions.

Yet his path was hard. The only spiritual advice he had as a young man was from traditional Vedic priests who advocated elaborate rituals and sacrifices as the path to salvation. He had to leave home and spend years wandering through the forests and villages of northern India searching for spiritual guides. And those of any help were few and far between; the spiritual pioneers of the time were just beginning to realize that spiritual liberation came from within rather than a deity of some kind. He tried everything available, studying with the best teachers he could find, even adopting austerity to the point where he nearly died of starvation. But, in the end he had to work it out for himself. When he did he came to the then radical realization that it is our clinging to our ideas of how things should be that cause suffering, and keeps us apart from our true nature.

Today we have it so much easier. We can reap the benefit of Buddha's discoveries—and those of his followers who added their own realizations. We can learn from the wealth of other Indian philosophies that have evolved over the centuries, and from Taoist teachings, Sufis, Western mystics, native wisdoms and other traditions. Not only do we have the benefit of centuries of spiritual enquiry in so many cultures, we can also access the wisdom of the many awakened people alive today. We can go sit at their feet, read their words, listen to recordings, watch videos or live streams on the Internet. We also have advances in psychology, neuroscience, chemistry and biology to augment our understanding and experience. Most significantly, we are distilling the diverse expressions of this perennial wisdom into a common understanding. Stripping away the trappings of time and culture, we are collectively discovering that the essence of awakening is simply letting go of our preconceptions and judgments, returning our attention to the present moment, and there recognizing our true nature.

In short, on the one hand, it is becoming easier and easier to awaken; on the other hand the times we live in make it ever-more challenging. How do they balance out? Overall, is it any easier or any harder than 2,500 years ago? Who is to say? But we can shift the balance in our favor by taking advantage of the growing wealth of wisdom that is now so readily available, choosing the most effective and direct paths to awakening. Yet being ever mindful of the distractions of our contemporary world that make it so challenging to stay awake.

Excerpted from book Seeds of Awakening