When Anne Cushman ’84 needed a fourth course to fill her sophomore-year schedule and signed up for Professor Malcolm Diamond’s “The Self in World Religions,” she had no idea that it would alter the trajectory of her life. Struck by the idea of religion as the study of “the purpose of being human,” Cushman switched her major from English to religion, ultimately filming a documentary about life in a Los Angeles Zen Buddhist center for her senior thesis.
Following a postgraduation stint in Santa Fe, Cushman went to California to study yoga — a move that led in 1989 to an editing gig at Yoga Journal, a perfect fit for the former member of the University Press Club. During her decade-long editorship, Cushman also traveled extensively in India to conduct research for a guidebook on studying yoga called From Here to Nirvana (Riverhead, 1998).
While her guidebook offers listings of ashrams and meditation centers, what Cushman learned is that enlightenment comes from capturing “a sense of aliveness that’s already right here in the ordinary details of life.” That’s the down-to-earth message imparted in her debut novel, Enlightenment for Idiots (Shaye Areheart, April), which Publishers Weekly called “a hilarious take on the quest for truth that manages to respect the journey while skewering many of the travelers.”
The basic premise roughly mirrors that of Cushman’s life: Amanda, an almost-30 yoga instructor and freelance writer, is sent to India to write a guidebook aimed at Americans seeking a spiritual fix. “The book is a work of fiction,” Cushman says, “but I did draw extensively from a world I knew very well.” One of the experiences Cushman adapts for her character is Amanda’s befriending of a yogi who refers to himself as “we”. (“It’s supposed to break down our ego attachment to the idea of the separate self,” the fictional Devi Das explains.) The threads of imagination and reality separate when Amanda learns she’s pregnant, increasing the urgency to discover spiritual awakening in time to meet the deadlines of the delivery dates for her manuscript and her baby. Encountering a string of eccentrics on their own spiritual voyages, Amanda battles morning sickness and nefarious gurus on her hunt for someone who will illuminate the true path to enlightenment.
Using hefty doses of humor to explore “the intersection between lofty ideals and philosophy and the lived reality of contemporary Western women,” Cushman’s novel is full of droll juxtapositions, like Amanda’s to-do list: “Buy Imodium. Find enlightened guru. Breath mints?” Cushman also emphasizes the East-West divide by punctuating Amanda’s no-frills quest for awakening with e-mails — accessed at the Krishna Cyber Chai Shop — from an American Web site that provides tips on maternity “essentials” like baby-wipe warmers.
The co-director of the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training Program in California, Cushman hopes Amanda’s tale will inspire readers, imparting the same edict a yoga teacher offered Cushman years ago: “When you’re talking about being in the present moment, it’s important to realize that any moment will do.”
Iris Blasi ’03 is a writer and editor in New York City.