The Divine Darkness

Christian Meditation of Pseudo-Dionysius

Most people have never heard of Pseudo-Dionysius, an early Christian mystic and philosopher who wrote his works under the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite. However, the works of Pseudo-Dionysius, particularly “The Mystical Theology,” are probably the closest the Christian tradition has ever come to something like Zen.

Pseudo-Dionysius describes a type of meditation, in which the Christian attempts to get closer to God through a process of denying any specific intellectual concepts about him. The idea is that, since God is the origin of all things, He is completely beyond all of those things. He is even beyond being and non-being, so that it is neither possible to say what God is nor what He is not:


“neither does anything that is know Him as He is; nor does He know existing things according to existing knowledge; neither can the reason attain to Him, nor name Him, nor know Him; neither is He darkness nor light, nor the false nor the true; nor can any affirmation or negation be applied to Him, for although we may affirm or deny the things below Him, we can neither affirm nor deny Him, inasmuch as the all-perfect and unique Cause of all things transcends all affirmation, and the simple pre-eminence of His absolute nature is outside of every negation — free from every limitation and beyond them all.”


Pseudo-Dionysius refers to this spiritual state, in which one approaches God by denying all concepts, as “agnosia” or “unknowing.” He also describes it as “the divine darkness.” By rejecting all attachment to dualistic intellectual concepts in order to reach a higher spiritual understanding, Pseudo-Dionysius created something like a Christian equivalent of Zen Buddhism.


Unlike the “Gospel of Judas” or other Gnostic texts, there is nothing heretical about Pseudo-Dionysius as far as the Catholic Church is concerned. Pseudo-Dionysius is and always has been an acceptable author for Catholics interested in meditation to study and learn from, and his works influenced a number of later Catholic writers. Even though his works are extremely obscure, Christians with an interest in Eastern religion can use the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius as a bridge between Buddhist meditation and their own faith tradition.



It's Not Just Relaxation

Many people think of meditation as being a type of deep relaxation exercise, but this isn't really the case. It is true that meditation practice can help promote a deep sense of inner peace, but that isn't the same thing as relaxation. It is also true that there are some very effective and beneficial self-hypnosis exercises for relaxation or the treatment of anxiety and insomnia. Meditation, however, is not about learning how to hypnotize yourself so you can fall asleep. It's about learning how to stop being hypnotized so you can wake up.

There are a number of different meditation traditions around the world. The word actually comes from the Catholic tradition- to “meditate” originally meant to deeply ponder the spiritual meaning of a sacred text such as the Gospels, and Christian mystics also practice a type of meditative prayer they refer to as “contemplation.” Jewish mystics meditate through the practices known as Kaballah, which involve complex symbolism and imagery. Taoists also use symbolism and imagery in their internal alchemy meditations, but some types of Zen meditation emphasize clearing all conscious thoughts from the mind completely. Others emphasize observing thoughts as they arise and then letting them go.


The important thing to understand about these different types of meditation is that they are more similar than they may appear. No matter what the method, most types of serious meditation aim at the same kind of mental state. This mental state is not “chilled out” or hypnotized, but alert and aware, present in the moment, and attentive but still. The benefits of this mental state are many, including better health and an improved ability to handle the problems of life effectively. Meditation can be practiced within a religious tradition or outside of any tradition. Most people who have seriously practiced it consider it indispensable.

Organ Emails

To: Heart

From: Brain

Subject: Re-thinking recent developments


Lately I've noticed that you've been pursuing certain interests that, while understandable from the perspective of my own right side, can be seen as detrimental to the whole of the body we both serve. I appreciate that your sense of fulfillment is nebulous and frustratingly subjective, but if we're being honest we both know you're not the best decision maker in this corporeal locus. I urge you, for the sake of our system's total health, to refrain from further acts of motivation that may cause our host long-term harm.

To: Brain

From: Heart

Subject: Re: Re-thinking recent developments (2)

Ya know what? I am absolutely, positively, 100% sick, sick, sick of you getting all high and mighty about what's best for everyone. You think you're so smart just because you've got all those memories and cognitive functions and "logic" in your wrinkly little synapses, but let me tell you something, buddy-- You're not as great as you think you are. Do you have any idea what it's like to be working at full speed all the time? Even at rest, I can't ever stop moving. Ever. When our host goes to sleep, you get to shut down whole segments of yourself and let your weird parts run wild. Meanwhile, I'm still pumping away. You think you know how everything should go? You don't know crap. I want my work to count for something and if that means a little suffering along the way, then so be it. One life to live, you gray mass of self-importance.


To: Heart

From: Brain

Subject: Re: Re-thinking recent developments (3)

Obviously, passions are running high right now. I urge you to keep things in perspective. I'm not calling into question the value of your function or the importance of your contribution to decision making processes. I'm merely suggesting that, in this most recent case, you've overstepped your area of expertise. You may have noticed that our host isn't sleeping or eating as much as would be healthy and our immune system is having to deal with a variety of new environmental pressures, including the dust of a stranger's bed and, as of last Saturday, the grime of a particular gutter outside O'Malley's Pub. We're on the verge of a total collapse and I'm just trying to mitigate a disaster. We'd be better off working together on this one.


To: Heart, Brain

From: Liver

Subject: Please stop

You guys... you guys gotta stop arguing. Seriously. I can't take much more of this. Me and the kidneys have been talking and we think it's time you both just shut up for a while. One of you gets going, then the other responds and it's us filtering workers who suffer. So much toxicity. Word has it the lungs aren't happy, either. Please, just pack it in and do something else for a little bit. Stop making decisions, the both of you, before you get us all killed.

Special Guest Horoscopes: 2012 Presidential Candidates

The stars don't need trained professionals to read them. Fate has been moving since before humans appeared in this world and it will work its wonders after we've gone. That's why we like to invite new people to our humble blog to read the weekly horoscopes from a fresh perspective.

The 2012 presidential election is starting to heat up with sitting President Barack Obama making his first push to raise funds and garner support, as well as the field of Republican candidates starting to shape up. Since they'll be spending a lot of energy talking about what they're going to do to make life better over the course of four years, we here at Zen Ramblings decided to test their intuition by having them tell you how to improve your life over just the next week.

Aquarius (Rick Perry)

Each generation must learn from the mistakes of the last, lest those mistakes be repeated. Also, each generation must make sure that the last generation's mistakes aren't still ongoing, as they could reflect poorly on the current generation who really didn't have anything to do with that racist term written on a large rock on the family property but I'm paying for it anyway. So, um, don't do the bad stuff your daddy did.


Pisces (Jon Huntsman)

A lot of folks have misconceptions about a very popular faith in my home state of Utah, but they haven't really educated themselves about it. If they did, it might not change their minds about it, but perhaps they'd realize that it's the Thetans that are ruining the economy, not the oil industry or subprime loans. Educate yourself this week or you might end up saying something wrong and stupid.


Aries (Michele Bachmann)

Eat a raw chicken every day this week. Feel its poison proteins dribbling down your chin and crunch its brittle bones between your teeth. It is the only true path to power. Gaze into my eyes and tremble!


Taurus (Gary Johnson)

Some people say I'm too liberal to be a Republican. Some say my pro-choice stance is bad for my chances at the polls. Some people say I'm just a weapon to marginalize Ron Paul. Some people also say I shouldn't fill my socks up with cottage cheese, but I refuse to listen! Do whatever you want this week and damn the naysayers!


Gemini (Ron Paul)

Is Gary Johnson with you? That bastard thinks he can steal my libertarian vote? I was the libertarian candidate when he was just a sour-faced talking head on ABC News! Ya know what you should do this week? Take care of your own damn self and for the love of God stop listening to Gary Johnson! Also maybe try to legalize heroin, just a little bit.


Cancer (Mitt Romney)

I'm still the only truly viable candidate, right? I mean, we've been experimenting with minorities and women and various sideshow freaks for a while, but if the GOP actually wants a chance at the White House it's gotta be me, doesn't it? Jeez, the party I'm with. You want some advice? Don't hang around with crazy weirdos. It's career poison.


Leo (Rick Santorum)

Whatever you do, don't Google my name. I mean, maybe do but only click on, like, the sixth or seventh link in the search results, or maybe the header ad depending on what day it is. I'm so... I'm so exhausted. Nothing I do works. My advice to you, Leo, is to never, under any circumstances, underestimate the gays. They're... they're brutal.


Virgo (Buddy Roemer)

Okay, Virgo, here's what you do: You take that money you were gonna spend this month on ice lattes at the Starbucks, you break it into nickels. Then, you stuff those nickels into a long, green tube sock and swing it over your head as fast as you can. Once your nickel sock reaches maximum speed, you bring its full fury down on the nearest turtle and collect the valuable minerals hidden inside. That's how you save the economy!


Libra (Herman Cain)

Ya know the problem with horoscopes? They're too damn long. No, I believe that a good American is a hard-working American and an American can't be hard-working if he has to waste precious time reading some long horoscope. That's why I'm in favor of one-sentence horoscopes. Yep, horoscopes that are just one sentence long. Any horoscope that is more than once sentence in length is a waste of your time and you shouldn't read it.


Scorpio (Jimmy McMillen)

The cost of the horoscopes is too damn high.


Sagittarius (Vern Wuensch)

Who am I kidding? I'm not gonna win. I'm not even gonna place. I got an ugly face, a name nobody knows how to spell or pronounce and I'm crap at raising money. I'm surprised you even asked me to read a horoscope. I guess I'll tell all the Sagittarians to stick to what they're good at and never try anything new, ever.


Capricorn (President Barack Obama)

The above collection of weirdos and idiots are why I've had to fight tooth and nail to win health care and jobs for millions of Americans. Think on that, Capricorn, the next time you fill out a ballot.

Special Guest Horoscopes: Tyrion Lannister

The stars don't need trained professionals to read them. Fate has been moving since before humans appeared in this world and it will work its wonders after we've gone. That's why we like to invite new people to our humble blog to read the weekly horoscopes from a fresh perspective.

Tyrion Lannister is one of the central characters in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels. He's an exceedingly intelligent dwarf with mismatched eyes and a tendency to get himself into trouble just as quickly as he gets out of it. He stopped by the Zen Ramblings office in the five days between instances of people trying to kill him for crimes both real and imagined. While he hid in our stock room, he insisted on paying for his room and board by interpreting this week's horoscopes for us.


It's commonly accepted knowledge that the whore is less respectable than the knight, but speaking as one who has extensive experience dealing with both, I can assure you they are equals in the realm of honor. This week, try not to judge others merely by their profession.



Where I come from, there are precious few vintages of wine but I love them all the same. A strong, Dornish red gets a man as drunk as the weakest Arbor gold, so I love them all the same. You would do well to give up your pretensions likewise.



Aries, eh? I once knew a man named Aries. A fine fellow, so long as you ignored his fascination with fire, murder, rape and torture. No matter how bad you feel about yourself this week, know that there are far worse people in the world who share a number of superficial similarities with you.



You're a stubborn one. Aye, as am I. Sometimes it pays, most times it gets you a smack across the face with a metal gauntlet. But I suppose you cannot change your stubbornness any more than I can grow to be a champion knight. Accept yourself for who you are, just don't be surprised when that results in damage.



Forget dragons. Twins are dangerous creatures. I know how much havoc mine own brother and sister can cause, and they're always fighting. Imagine what twins can do when they work together. Find a common bond between your competing sides and put them to good use... and woe to those who stand in your way.



"I once knew a maid with hair the color of sunlight..." ah, I suppose I'm a romantic when all is said and done. I can tell you are, too. It's nothing but trouble, this love business. Oh, but what is life without it? Accept your agony. There's no changing it and it may just make you better.



Spend some time getting to know your father this week. You may find he's a wonderful man. If not... well, how good are you with a crossbow?



A friend you can buy is a friend who can be bought from you. Figure out who your real friends are before you need to rely on one.



Some mushrooms make a delicious soup and some mushrooms can kill a man, but they all sprout from the ground. In your travels this week, keep a discerning eye on the road lest you make a deadly soup of your endeavors.



Never trust a gossip and certainly take caution when becoming a gossip yourself. There are only so many false walls, secret chambers and hidden books between you and a spearpoint. Figuratively speaking. Probably.



There are those who will tell you that money cannot buy happiness. These people have no money. Spend a few days this week throwing around some coin and see if your mood doesn't improve.



A home is a nice thing to have, but it's not strictly necessary. If life is a journey, you're better off sticking to inns, taverns and the occasional pile of straw in a stable. Your lack of comfort will be rewarded with stories and friendship. Or just stories, which is still worth it.

Special Guest Horoscopes: Les Ni-Huang, Professional Gamer

The stars don't need trained professionals to read them. Fate has been moving since before humans appeared in this world and it will work its wonders after we've gone. That's why we like to invite new people to our humble blog to read the weekly horoscopes from a fresh perspective.

Lester Ni-Huang is a Korean-born, American-raised computer programming consultant and professional video game player. He has participated in several championship-winning Starcraft teams in his native South Korea, found notoriety in last year's Southern California Mario Party Tournament and currently earns a second income leveling World of Warcraft characters for people who are too busy to level themselves and too insecure to play a low-level character. Les brought his intelligence and ambition to today's horoscopes.


Sleep. Sleep is holding you back. When I was an aspiring gaming pro, I saw my heroes pass me by like speeding meth trucks in the night while I lay in my bed catching useless Z's. If you want to succeed in life, try replacing hours of sleep with energy drinks. And not that namby-pamby stuff you get in a can. I'm talking those energy shots you can only find in truck stops and on the Internet.



Money has no inherent value. GP sitting in your inventory does nothing, but GP spent on a Diamond Demon-Slayer Sword is an investment in being awesome. Now all you need to do is find out what your personal Diamond Demon Slayer Sword is. And don't say "mini-van". The answer is never "mini-van".



ARRRIEEESSS!!! Sorry. I always wanted to do that. But seriously, I speak from experience when I say that running around with two meat cleavers attached to chains tied to your arms will make people take you more seriously.



If RPGs have taught me anything, it's that you'll never get better at anything by doing things you already know you're good at. No, you've gotta go for the big, bad monsters if you wanna level up. That's why you should spend the next several months only trying to date supermodels.



As your sign can attest, two players is better than one... unless the other player is a complete n00b who doesn't have sense enough to reload before the panic event. What I'm saying is choose your friends wisely.



Water sign. Man, water levels are always the hardest and your whole life is a water level. I guess that just means you shouldn't feel bad when things go wrong for you and you should feel really accomplished when things go well.



When a task looks insurmountable, remember: Just aim for the weak spot. It usually glows, comes out after you've chipped away at strong spots and makes a rewarding noise when you hit it... metaphorically speaking.



The hero. The princess. The castle. The final boss. The power-up. The secret ending. In life, you are all these things. To be a winner, you need only render the cutscenes to tell the story you want to tell.



I know it feels great to be the best at something, but consider this: When was the last time anyone gave a damn about a high score? Play to be happy, then stop playing when it stops being fun or you run the risk of rage-quitting.



I know a fat, middle-aged guy with thick glasses who plays a waifish, 19-year-old female elf. He hates himself but he loves being Ar'ithrya. Do whatever it is you need to do to be whatever it is you want to be and don't let anybody judge you for it.



You can't "win" at Tetris. You can definitely win at Dr. Mario. But which one do people still play? Not everything has to have a point. Experiences can be great in and of themselves.



Gamers have to deal with a lot of stereotypes. Me? I'm not an ugly dweeb who lives in his mom's basement and has no social skills. I make $120,000 a year and eat a vegetarian diet with my girlfriend. Your hobbies don't define you. Don't let them and try to make them.

L'il Philosophers: Soren Kierkegaard, Age 6

If the tooth is "free" from my mouth, all is well. I can accept this. But if the tooth requires extraction, then I must ask: By what means? In what way? Dental procedures must be conducted dentally, which is to say, by a dentist. It must come as a result of leaving school in the middle of the day to visit the dentist's office to undergo a procedure, bloody or bloodless. This I cannot abide. Those who would extract my tooth by artificial means, which is to say the means of the world, and not by nature are those who are tolerant of dentists, which is to say indifferent to my plight as the bearer of the tooth. Ah, yes, the concept of dentistry in itself is a good and proper thing, but my life as a patient of dentistry, it is indeed wretched.

And whose promise am I to accept as the way of the world? Am I to sit by and yield to the insistence of my father who promises that a new tooth, a stronger tooth, a better tooth will grow in the lost tooth's place? Am I to bow to my mother's promise that a creature of unknowable qualities, a tooth fairy, will look upon my incompleteness, my ugliness, my pain and in replacing the talisman of that pain acknowledge it and describe a better, kinder world?

Ah, but would this be correct even if this tooth fairy did as my mother insists it will? Is it right and pure to exchange my talisman of pain, a natural thing, a true thing, with something as base and worldly as money? And what does it mean that the money the tooth fairy leaves is such an insubstantial amount as to be meaningless on its own? It seems to me this indicates some cruel lesson about worldly things. Why, in order to acquire enough money from the tooth fairy to do anything of substance, a boy would have to lay the entire contents of his mouth under his pillow in one night.

And yet I am also promised that every tooth I have will go as this one, my talisman of pain, will go, only gradually. This tooth fairy would make a mockery of my plight by trading my agony piecemeal for insubstantial coin after insubstantial coin, encouraging me to do naught but suffer blood and loss for what amounts to the price of one piece of candy, the very same thing that renders my teeth in need of "emancipation" in the first place.

I have no recourse but to reject all of this on its face. What am I to do for my teeth, let alone every other part of my being, if every promise one institution or another makes to me fills me with doubt? How is a boy to go through his life feeling doubt for his own body? Though I cannot accept my mother's assertions of a tooth fairy, I must have faith that the course of my dental health is as it should be, that good will come from my pain. If a martyr I must be, then I will be a martyr. If to the dentist I must go, then I will go, head held high, mouth open wide. But I shall not spit when the dentist tells me to spit. I will only spit when I know it in my soul to be right to spit. And I will not accept my father's assertions that new teeth will grow in the empty spaces of my lost teeth, but I will have faith that I can do whatever it is I need to do in this life toothless, or with new teeth, or with any strange thing that may sprout where once teeth stood. Because this is my mouth and this is my life and I will not bow to the conventions of those who would make doubt my first and only thought.

Night Driving On Mars: Harron

There are three things on Phobos. There is an elevator (of sorts) that connects to the Mars return rocket. I say "of sorts" because it's not really about elevating anything. It's more of a loose tube that whips out from the moon and carries a small car to the rocket in orbit. Then there's a warehouse and dormitory that prepares supply drops to the planet. See, it's not cost-effective to bring a whole rocket down to the surface because it'll have to expend so much fuel just to lift off again. So, all supply runs connect to Phobos where the goods are loaded into re-entry cases that get gravity-launched to drop sites. It uses almost no fuel, the cases are re-usable and they're light enough to load up hundreds in the one quarterly rocket to Phobos that takes warehouse crews to and from their shifts. And then there's Radio Orbit, a narrow broadcast tower on a hill.

The warehouse folks are all robotics geeks, maybe one or two physicists. We didn't have much to talk about on the way in. They did ask me what business I had on the Stray. That's what they call Phobos on account of it being a stray asteroid caught up in the planet's gravity. I told them straight: I'm going to Radio Orbit to talk to Harron. I must have sounded like some stupid fanboy. I dunno, maybe I am. Anyway, they told me I'd have to talk to the tram engineer about looping around to the tower because nobody ever goes there, so they keep the line cold. I asked them how Harron got supplies and they said they were all planet drop crew. Local distribution wasn't their business.

I had to slip the engineer some credits to get him to heat the line. I guess I should've expected that, but it pissed me off all the same. I mean, a guy travels 90 million kilometers to do applied robot engineering and he still acts like a lazy union employee. It must be some kind switch in the human brain.

When I got to the Radio Orbit tower the engineer told me to call the warehouse on the comm link when I was ready to come back. That was 16 hours ago. I've been listening to the show, drinking cold beers and laying on Harron's bed in the little apartment across the hall from the production room. Harron's just been doing his thing, playing deep cuts from the past 50 or so years and saying pithy things about... shit, I don't even know anymore, I've been listening to it so long. It's really getting to me, so I finally tell him to shut up. Around four minutes later, his rant stops abruptly and he says,

"Who the hell?.."

The air goes dead after that. He doesn't want the whole colony listening.

"You fake son of a bitch," I say into the relay mic. It occurs to me that it's really hard to stay angry when you're arguing over a radio delay. From the time I say something mean to the time I get a response, eight minutes have passed. The beer helps keep my blood up, but it's a put-on. When I finally hear back from him, his tone is different. He's been waiting, too. Waiting and thinking.

"Don't tell anybody, man."

Geez, he sounds sad. By that point, the air has been dead too long. The good people of Mars and Phobos need their music. I flip the transmission switch and let the playlist come back on. But not Harron. He and I still have some words.

"How long? How long have you been broadcasting from Earth?"

I guess it doesn't matter, but I felt like asking it anyway. Eight minutes later,

"Three years. I ran the show from the tower for two, then I pre-recorded a few months' worth and set up back home. I got lonely, man. You see that station. Ain't exactly a summer cottage."

I flip a few more switches, futz around with the terminal and make some adjustments. There's a little counter on the terminal next to an open broadcast slot. Judging by where it is on the schedule, I'd say it's where one of Harron's talk bits is supposed to go. That means I've got 15 minutes to come up with something to say to the whole colony or risk more dead air. Sure as hell won't let Harron do whatever he planned on doing, though there's still seven minutes left to change my mind. Seven go by, a few full of Harron begging me to let him back on the waves. He's still yakking when I switch off his connection. The open air comes up, I switch on the broadcast mic and I take a deep breath.

"You're looking quiet tonight, Mars. That's what I like about you. There'll be some more tunes for all you folks riding the MW-1, the MS-3, the MN-2 and all the other twisty roads in a while. Until then, we're gonna chat. Let me tell you about this lady named Nan..."

Night Driving on Mars: Rocket to Phobos

They strap you into these real dug-in seats. Shit, when I was a kid everyone talked about how someone would figure out this G-force business and make interplanetary travel no different than a puddle-jumper between Florida and Cuba. I guess we're still talking about that today. Passenger rocket trips always start the same. They take your clothes and throw them in these vacuum packs and usher you to these stalls where you put on your launch outfit. It's bad news to go up in your civvies. The launch gear is basically just a disposable jumpsuit with a break-away backside. This embarrassing little design decision was the result of regular folks losing bladder and sometimes bowel control before breaking atmo. That's what happens when a body that has never known more than one G meets the stress of a planet that doesn't want to let go. Hell, even veteran cosmo-jocks get wet on a launch from time to time. So, here you are, strapped in a dozen places to a bucket seat with a conspicuous hole in the middle, your ass and the asses of everybody else in the cabin hanging free while soothing music plays over the intercom. And when the ship goes vertical, kicking the ground with an angry, scientific fire, every last one of them, and you, are like babies again. No control. No comprehension of the world or lack thereof outside, messing yourselves because gravity don't give a damn.

Of course, nobody talks about it. Nobody likes to be reminded that they're an adult who unwillingly shed all the lies and dignities of society under the endless duress of physics. At the same time, it's easy to forget that you're basically sitting on a space-faring toilet. There are bigger things happening. There's the fearsome roar of the engine, then the sudden silence of atmospheric break. The pressure leaves in an instant and your body lifts ever-so-slightly with new weightlessness. The straps keep everyone in place, so it's not like you're floating around. The suction of the seat also doesn't help. Still, here you are, gazing out a window to a star-speckled darkness that makes the very concept of a sky seem quaint.

These rocket rides, they never seem long. Even when I've taken crazy 12-hour trips like the Luna cruise, it all goes by so fast. Maybe one day there'll be a generation of true spacers who spend all their time in the black and they won't have a sense of wonder about it, but until then we terrestrials get to glide through the halfway point between terror and awe, feeling small and alone, simultaneously begging on the inside to go back to ground and bone-deep afraid of the descent.

The approach to Phobos is unreal. It's basically just a caught asteroid, all lopsided and ugly. It doesn't look like someplace a ship can land, which is just the brain being unimaginative. I mean, round bodies don't seem any more stable when you think about it. All it takes is for something to be big enough, or for the ship to have the right kind of legs. The Phobos rocket uses some combination of magnets, drills and clasping claws, but it stays put no matter what. Touching down next to the offload station, the world goes upside down and then as soon as someone opens a door things right themselves again. The human mind. It's not cut out for this stuff.

Andrea Smith's "Enlighten Up"

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.