Recently I found myself in an art shop with an Eastern bent, or at least the kind of Eastern that fundamentally Western people enjoy. The shop’s owner was a nice guy who went out of his way to be accommodating to someone important to me, so I bought a small book in gratitude. That book, the cheapest item in the store, was Enlighten Up by Andrea Smith. It’s a thin, illustrated book of philosophical nuggets, some that make sense and others that either self-contradict or don’t seem to apply to real life. Seeing as this seems to be the natural state for a lot of entry-level philosophical content these days, I’ve decided to run through Enlighten Up to address some of its sticking points.
Right off the bat, this book gives us a good indication of its aims. On the title page, it promises “easy ways to rise above it… whatever it is.” “Whatever” is the operative word here. That’s a grand hyperbole, all things considered. Daily practices like meditation and yoga can be great at reducing stress resulting from spilled coffee and jerky coworkers, not so much major problems like the deaths of loved ones and the horrors of war. This book of platitudes isn’t actually designed for “whatever”, it’s designed for First World problems. This is only accentuated by the fact that Andrea Smith, according to the “about the author” page “…shares her time between her island home on Maui and her artist retreat in Sedona, Arizona.” In other words, Andrea Smith is a rich, white person who spends every moment of her life in luxury and can therefore afford to see the world as a place full of light and love.
“Love” and “Peace” are the big concepts in Enlighten Up and I think that’s the root of not only the book’s problems but the problem with modern, vague philosophy in general. Love and peace are not compatible concepts. That may seem counterintuitive, but let’s really think about it. Love is the root of a lot of intense feelings, crazy behaviors and passion. Peace is the absence of passion and intensity. It is control, calmness and contentment. One can have love or peace. One can pursue peace or love, but pursuing one hinders the other. People throw around these two words all the time because they’re pleasant, but they’re not philosophically compatible.
Smith also insists that the natural state of life and humanity is joy. Once again, I must insist that this isn’t true for most people, just privileged people. Joy is hard to achieve with an empty belly, loneliness and unpleasant obligations. It’s one thing to be grateful for good things, which Smith also recommends, but another to try to manufacture joy just because you feel like you ought to. Joy isn’t the natural state but it is an organic sensation. Joy cannot be achieved at will and it cannot be a part of one’s approach to life. It can only be true if it arises spontaneously.
The last bit of confusion in Enlighten Up involves God, or rather the use of the word God. The book is decidedly not Christian, Jewish or Muslim, but it’s also not especially Buddhist. The word God pops up in general spiritual space as if everyone understands it as shorthand for the same thing, which is irresponsible or just plain lazy. The truth is, I don’t know what the word God means to Andrea Smith, so its use here is meaningless outside the context of vague spirituality. It’s the philosophical equivalent of the word “zesty” in food packaging.
Toward the end of Enlighten Up, Smith insists that the path of rightness can be boiled down to choosing love over fear. My mind can’t help going to a scene from Donnie Darko that addresses this false dichotomy and I don’t think the argument against it has ever been articulated better. There’s more to life than love and fear. There’s a whole spectrum of human emotion and motivation. I can understand the desire to boil life down to the simplest possible elements, which is perhaps what spirituality is designed to do, but life isn’t simple. Complicated philosophy doesn’t sell thin, precious books of truisms, though. Complexity doesn’t get one a house in Maui and a retreat in Sedona.