Enlightenment for Idiots
by Anne Cushman

Shaye Areheart Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-307-38164-4.
Reviewed by Deborah Robson
Posted on 02/24/2009

Fiction: Mainstream; Fiction: Spirituality

I'm always interested in the ways people put in-depth knowledge to work in fiction. I picked up Enlightenment for Idiots because I was curious about what someone who knows enough about yoga to have experience as an editor at Yoga Journal would write in the way of a novel.

Anne Cushman does a fine job of grounding this work in the various types of yoga, playing off that foundation, but it was her publishing-specific details that had me reading out loud to my daughter.

The premise is that Amanda, a freelance writer in need of cash (a redundant statement, I know), takes on an assignment to produce, on deadline and as part of a series, a book called Enlightenment for Idiots. (Cushman herself wrote a nonfiction book called From Here to Nirvana.)

Amanda heads off to India, looking for personal direction and enough enlightenment to pull off her assignment. While there, she gets e-mail notes from her editor.

Here's what the editor writes shortly after Amanda arrives in India:

From: Maxine@bigdaybooks.com
To: Amandala@yahoo.com

Amanda, Production is pressing me about art and design so I'm hoping I can get some sample chapters from you soon. If you haven't found enlightenment yet just leave that part blank, we'll dummy something in until you get it.

And, later on:

From: Maxine@bigdaybooks.com
To: Amandala@yahoo.com

Interesting story in the Times today about yoga teachers trademarking the names of certain yoga postures. Very foresightful of them. I suppose "yoga" was taken centuries ago, but any way we can lock up the word "enlightenment"? Please look into it.

Except that the last sentence would have gone to the publisher's legal department rather than the author, this is bizarrely too close to reality for comfort these days.

Enlightenment for Idiots has a chick-lit-style cover and many characteristics of that genre, with more depth than is common in that (ouch) marketing segment. Cushman manages to explore the topic of enlightenment in a variety of ways throughout the text. As she says in an interview about the book, "I've always been interested, in my writing, in exploring the intersection between the lofty ideals of spiritual practice and the way those ideals actually play out in our flawed but beautiful human lives. I'm particularly interested in the experiences of contemporary Western women as we practice these paths that were designed primarily by and for celibate Eastern men."

The plotting tends to be too orderly in some ways (characters show up at just the right times, and so on), but it was an entertaining (amusing but not fluffy) read.

Great for the current circumstances of overwork and need for a bit of thoughtful escape.

Speaking of specialized knowledge, there's a story about hemp near the end of Enlightenment for Idiots that does not ring true to a textile worker. The story is offered as a sort of parable, and I expect it's repeated frequently within some communities of spiritual seekers. It refers to the use of the plant's roots to make rope (p. 339), and that fact is a pivotal component of the brief story. Because hemp is a bast fiber, the parts that are useful for textiles (including rope) come from the stalk, not the roots... The story thus works in its context, but doesn't connect to the reality of fiber production.

This review was previously posted on the reviewer's blog site.

Anne Cushman is a contributing editor to both Yoga Journal and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. She has also been a coauthor of From Here to Nirvana, a seeker's guide to spiritual India. She co-directs the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Visit the book website.

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