Enlightenment for Idiots: An Interview with Anne Cushman
By Kristi Holmes
(Originally published April 24, 2008 at the blog, "yogagumbo")
In late April, my dear friend Sparky (a yogini friend and occasional commenter on my blog) left for a trip to India, where she will see the Taj Mahal and study yoga in in Mysore for a month at Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. Sparky was my first “yoga friend,” and we used to practice in a chilly corner of her basement, testing each other on the Sanskrit names of poses and generally trying to figure out what this crazy practice was about. So I am, of course, thrilled for her that she gets the chance to go on this amazing adventure. And, okay, I am a little bit jealous too!
Before Sparky left, I gave her a copy of what I think must be the perfect book for a woman traveling to India: Enlightenment for Idiots.
This brand-new novel by Anne Cushman, a contributing editor to Yoga Journal and Tricycle, features Amanda, a 29-year-old freelance writer and yogini from San Francisco, who is asked to travel through India to write a travel guide for spiritual seekers. This novel brings a delightful, hilarious mix of chick-lit and spiritual insight; I found myself laughing out loud at so many of the novel’s funny moments, and chuckling in sympathy with the very human foibles of the novel’s cast of yogis, gurus and everyday folks.
I was honored to have the opportunity to interview Anne Cushman. Our discussion is below:
What was the genesis of Enlightenment for Idiots? How did your own experiences as a practitioner of yoga and meditation come into the writing of the novel?
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. I wanted to write a book that explored these themes not as concepts, but as stories. In doing so, I drew on my many years of yoga and meditation practice to create an inner and outer world through which a fictional character could travel—a young woman on a spiritual quest who’s struggling with real-world issues to which many contemporary seekers can relate.
You’ve written numerous articles on yoga and meditation for such publications as Yoga Journal and Tricycle, as well a guide to spiritual travel in India, so you obviously have a great deal of experience writing about the topics in the novel. Was your writing process for work of fiction very different from the way you approach your non-fiction work? Did you learn anything unexpected about the process along the way?
Yes, writing fiction was a very different process from writing nonfiction. I did draw on the basic disciplines and skills of writing that I’d developed over the years. But in order to write fiction, I needed to go into a kind of dream state; a receptive, intuitive space in which I could hear my characters and their story speaking to me. It had less to do with willpower, and more to do with surrender—although, as in yoga, both elements needed to be present for the story to unfold.
Amanda, your main character, begins her journey to India under the assumption that enlightenment is something one can find “out there” by delving into different traditions of yoga and meditation, by visiting the “right” places and consulting gurus. By the end of the novel, she’s come to a very different conclusion. Can you talk a little bit about that American idea of finding enlightenment and the perils and pitfalls of Amanda’s approach?
I think the idea that awakening lies far away—and in the future—is an insidious force in spiritual practice that every practitioner struggles with at some point, not just Americans. As humans it’s hard to believe that, as Amanda says, the advice to be in the present moment actually refers to “THIS present moment, not some better one.” However, the “shopping” approach to spiritual practice is a phenomenon that has really flourished to an unprecedented degree in our consumer society, with often hilarious results. While it’s great to explore a wide range of practices, this consumer attitude can prevent us from really sticking with any of them long enough to experience any substantial benefit.
Amanda consults various gurus throughout the novel, and experiences moments of clarity in each of the different practices they recommend, but doesn’t really find any one guru to follow. In fact, when she finds the one she is most drawn to as “her” guru, that guru sends her away. Other characters have complicated relationships with their gurus, and some gurus show problematic attitudes (such as injury in yoga shows “resistance to surrendering to your teacher.”) What are your thoughts on a healthy and productive student/teacher relationship in yoga and meditation? Do you think that as Americans, we can or should ever surrender to the guru in the way that is expected in Indian culture?
One Indian teacher told me that traditionally, a yoga practitioner was advised to observe and study with a teacher for at least 12 years before accepting him or her as a guru. Our Western ideas of “surrender” look very different from those of the East, where the guru-student roles are traditionally supported—and circumscribed—by a whole range of social customs and strictures that are absent here. Personally, I have had many teachers but no gurus—so although I honor the guru path as an option, I can’t speak from personal experience about its benefits. I do, however, have deep respect and gratitude for the many teachers who have offered me guidance on my journey.
This novel has so many laugh-out-loud moments and satirical insights about how Americans approach yoga and meditation. For example, I loved the moment in the REI store when Amanda comments that going on a spiritual pilgrimage requires buying a lot of stuff. How did you walk the fine line in your writing between satire and respect for spiritual traditions?
Personally, I feel that our human lives are often funniest when they are most serious. I do deeply respect the spiritual teachings and traditions that I have learned so much from. At the same time, the scenes that grow up around these traditions are populated by human beings—and as humans, we can’t help but be absurd at moments.
My favorite character was the wandering Texan sadhu Devi Das; his “crazy wisdom” always delighted me and made me think. In an article for Salon, you wrote about a similar person you met in real life — Charan Das. Was he the inspiration for Devi Das? Can you talk a bit about how the two compare?
The real-life Charan Das was one of multiple “seeds” or initial inspirations that helped me dream up the fictional Devi Das character—a Western sadhu who speaks of himself as “we.” However, the fictional Devi Das grew from those beginnings into a completely different person, with his own unique past, present, and future. For instance, I never traveled or even spent much time with Charan Das, as Amanda does with Devi Das—I met him only on a few brief occasions. And while I never learned much about his background, I do know that he did not have a twin brother who tragically died, as Devi Das did.
What are you working on now? Will you continue to write fiction, or are you working on other types of projects?
I love writing fiction, and have started another novel!
Kristi Holmes is an ashtangi and writer living in Colorado. She writes the Yoga Gumbo blog at http://yogamum.wordpress.com and founded the online yoga community WoYoPracMo at http://woyopracmo.ning.com.