An Interview with Author Anne Cushman

Q: What inspired you to write Enlightenment for Idiots?

A: A few years ago, I walked out of a yoga studio where I was teaching a class and passed a young woman sitting in her car in the parking lot, her yoga mat on her lap and her meditation cushion on the other seat, sobbing into her cell phone. “I wonder what her story is?” I asked myself. And in that moment, the character of Amanda—the narrator of “Enlightenment for Idiots”–was born.

I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection between the lofty ideals of ancient Eastern spiritual practices–such as yoga and meditation–and the all-too-human daily lives of their modern practitioners. In my writing I especially like to explore the lives of contemporary Western women, which are obviously dramatically different from those of the celibate male ascetic yogis who developed these systems. When the two worlds intersect, the results are often hilarious—even when they’re life-transforming.

When people ask me to summarize the novel, I say, “It’s the story of a young American wannabe yoga teacher looking for enlightenment and screwing up her life.” Just about everyone knows someone who fits that description—and often, it’s themselves!

Q: Is this story based on your own life?

Enlightenment for Idiots is fiction, not memoir, and all of the characters, including Amanda, are inventions of my imagination. But obviously, I drew on my own life experience to invent this fictional world—most specifically, on my travels through India over a decade ago to research a guidebook to ashrams, yoga centers, and pilgrimage sites called From Here to Nirvana. That was a journey that, like Amanda’s, shredded any illusions I might have clung to that yoga could protect its practitioners from their own human failings—while at the same time, paradoxically, it deepened my faith in the practice’s transformative power.

I also drew on my memories of pregnancy and early motherhood—which for me, unlike for Amanda, occurred years after my travel in India. For me, motherhood was a spiritual journey in itself, offering the deepest teachings in loss, love, sorrow, and joy that I’ve ever received.

When I first started working on the novel, Amanda was actually two women—best friends who plan to go to India together to study yoga. Before they leave, though, one of them has a fling with her yoga teacher and gets pregnant, so instead of going to India, she stays home and has a baby. I envisioned the novel as an exchange of letters, postcards, and emails between these two characters as they walk their very different paths toward spiritual awakening. But the parallel timelines quickly got too complicated, and my writing group told me they were having a hard time telling the two voices apart. A light bulb went on in my head: What if they were actually the same woman? At this point, the story really took off.

Q: What’s the wildest adventure you had on your own journey through India?

In India, every day is an adventure. A simple trip to the market or post office can blow your mind and your heart wide open. But in terms of sheer drama, I’d have to say it was the time I got caught in a blizzard while on a day hike in the Himalayas. I ended up spending the night in the cave of a sadhu—one of the wandering ascetic yogis who have been part of Indian spiritual culture for millennia. He was fairly reluctant to take me in, and only agreed to let me sleep on the cave floor once I had convinced him I was a vegetarian!

Q. Amanda’s love life is a mess. Why did you tell the story that way?

For many contemporary women, navigating the stormy seas of intimate relationship is its own kind of spiritual practice. As Amanda wryly notes, in our love relationships we can sometimes feel like one of those yogis who stand in a circle of fire in the blazing sun with giant boulders balanced on their heads. Relationships are a kind of yoga, demanding incredible commitment, balance, and strength even as they open our hearts to greater love and joy. And paradoxically, sometimes it’s when they fail that they become our greatest gurus.