The world really is getting smaller.
I’m a 56-year-old Jewish Baby Boomer from Manhattan who became a spiritual seeker in my early twenties. Typical of so many of my generation, I looked for enlightenment in the East, not the West. I traveled to India in 1984, and three years later, in a brief encounter with an extraordinary teacher, I found what I was looking for. Shortly thereafter, I started teaching myself and have been traveling the world doing just that ever since.
In the decades since, the East has been coming to the West, and vice-versa. I recently returned from a teaching trip to India supported by the Times of India Foundation where I was launching the Indian edition of my new book. I was speaking at schools, colleges, conference centers, bookstores, and ashrams.
One thing became clear almost immediately after I arrived.The great surge of modernization in that ancient land is generating enormous stress for the multitudes who are striving to cash in on the new opportunities for prosperity. I could feel it most strongly when speaking to young people.
They are under overwhelming pressure from their families to excel and conform: do well in school, get a good job, get married, have kids, send them to college, and—best case scenario—move to the USA so they can do it all in the promised land. Three decades earlier, I had come to India to find my soul. Now young Indians want to come to America to find material success.
The most revealing incident happened at my first talk at a college in Mumbai: I noticed that the title had been changed from “Spiritual Self-Confidence” to “Self-Confidence.” I was surprised—India has always seemed to me to be the one place in the world where no one has a problem with the word “spiritual.” When I inquired as to why it had been removed, the organizers informed me that if they used the word “spiritual” in the title, young people wouldn’t come. “Spirituality is for grandparents,” I was told.
So, in my talks, which many young Indians did attend, I found myself in the odd position of explaining to them that India’s great gift to the world has been her rich spirituality and that her greatest luminaries have been powerfully enlightened men and women who all, in one way or another, courageously bucked the status quo in pursuit of their own higher development.
I emphasized how rare and challenging it is to become a truly independent agent in this world. That was why, in every talk I explained how, unknowingly, we are all conditioned—by our families, culture, and the times in which we’re living—to see the world in the way we do. That was why I asked them,
“Do you ever think for yourself about the meaning of your life? Are you thinking your own thoughts, in the way that your culture’s greatest luminaries have done?”
Shortly after arriving back from India, I led a week-long retreat in the Mojave desert in southern California. People came from all over the world, including Australia and Europe. But what was most intriguing to me was that two Asian women familiar with my work came all the way from Taiwan to spend that week with me exploring the depths of meditative stillness and the secrets of consciousness.
The world really is getting smaller and more integrated and more incredible every day, I marveled. If fifty years ago you were to tell somebody that Americans would teach enlightenment in India and that Asian seekers would come to California to learn about what the Buddha taught from an American Jew, they would never have believed you. I can hardly believe it myself.
This article was originally posted on Andrew Cohen’s BigThink.com blog, “The Evolution of Enlightenment.”
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Editor: Kate Bartolotta
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