Devotion: Response to New York Times book review

I just finished Dani Shapiro’s new memoir Devotion a few weeks ago. I was very moved by the book. It was my first introduction to Shapiro’s writing, and I was impressed with the way she articulated her experience in a brief space. I found her writing strong and her searching earnest, her reporting honest.

In her New York Times Book Review entitled “Middle of the Journey” Judith Newman had a different take on Shapiro’s new memoir, which chronicles her two year search for own spiritual family and belief system:

… after a while her anhedonia becomes less understandable and more exasperating. Alone in her house with her espresso machine and her “bottles of gourmet vinegar, bee pollen, truffle oil,” she reflects, “I’ve been having trouble maintaining a sense of solitude.” And while she goes on to explain what she means (“the kind of silence inside of which one can transact some private business with the fewest obstacles, in Thoreau’s words”), one finds oneself thinking, perhaps ungenerously, that this pondering is a luxury of the privileged. The searching seems to bring Shapiro nothing but more tsoris. “At times I was convinced that I had made a huge mistake, delving this intensely into spiritual matters. Was I becoming one of those earnest, humorless people?” (My marginal note, I confess: “Yes.”)

And then, too she concludes the review by writing:

By the end of “Devotion,” Shapiro does conclude that while she believes we are all connected in some way, she will always have doubt about God. That’s fine, and honest. But I couldn’t help wishing that two years of spiritual searching would bring her out of her funk; that perhaps I could lead her to the Congregation of Cher, where instead of everyone chanting “Amen,” they’d shout: Snap out of it!

This review hit me strongly. At first I stepped back and thought, ‘okay, Newman has a point.’ Yet, reading the review a day after attending a workshop with meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg , I found myself thinking about my experience of the book and Newman’s in light of the conversation and discussion the day before at the workshop.

In the review Newman refers to the four Brahma Viharas of Buddism– loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equinimity. Having just listened to Sharon share her perspective on these, I brought that experience to the reading of the review. Let me say more. It may be perfectly true what Newman says, about Devotion coming from a privilleged position. From a particular perspective, the suffering of someone in Shapiro’s position may not measure up to that of someone living in the slums in Calcutta.  But, I believe that that is missing the point.

In Sharon’s workshop, she shared her definitions of the Brahma Viharas which are virtues for expanding our perspectives/minds– definitions that I will paraphrase here to try to articulate my point. Loving kindness acknowledges our connection to one another; compassion takes seriously that we all suffer, sympathetic joy rejoices when others are happy, and equanimity is the wisdom that comes from understanding there are things we cannot change. Sharon referred to equanimity as the spaciousness we bring to compassion that insures that it is not all about us. If we seek to live from these values and to look through them,  then the process of moving through our experience(s) is always valuable. And the art that we create &  the stories that we tell become a way to share with one another something about our shared humanity– our joy, our suffering. (Though admittedly, art can, like anything, serve us to move forward or not, though I tend to think that Shapiro’s memoir is of the supportive nature).

After the workshop yesterday with Sharon, I was part of a discussion around how the Buddha left his wife and 2 day old child to go on his search. One woman at the table began to tell how Thich Nhat Hahn tells the story that Buddha’s wife blessed him to go as she saw it as his path. The other woman shared the story of the Buddha returning to his family and knowing that his wife would be angry, and therefore telling his followers to let her be so towards him. (She later also becomes a nun). The first woman was thrown off by this story, saying she wanted to sit with Buddha’s leaving again in light of this. For me this second story made me more comfortable, felt more true. If Buddha is to be an inspiration to me, he must be both human and respectful of the human experience. What woman, no matter how sure of her husband’s path, would not have anger about him leaving her with a two day old? The anger would need to be expressed as part of the process of her own growth.

I would not put faith in a story that left out the truth of living our path(s)–the messy, unattractive, raw emotions that can rise with the moving towards our fullest potentials. We can be called forth to a different life,  but it is never so simple as merely jumping into it. Changing our ways, and moving into our true selves creates turbulence, anger, and any multitude of emotions (including as well the ‘positive’ ones– such as joy, pleasure, etc.). If these are not given space, then how can we call the movement enlightened? I left the dinner conversation feeling grateful for the story which humanized and made more real to me the people in a story that is meant to lead those who choice to follow it to a higher way of being.

This seems related to the struggle that Newman has with Shapiro’s book. Is Shapiro’s sharing less valuable because she is stuck ? Or because she is privileged? I appreciate the kick in the butt sort of tone of Newman’s review. We all need that– and certainly the sharing of a story sets us up for unexpected feedback that may indeed simply be what we need to move on. But the story, in its honesty, strikes me as potentially more meaningful than one that tries to gloss over the real life details of trying to move forward and through the mundane and ordinary rhythm of living.

What is equally interesting to me is this: Eat Pray Love, which became and remained a bestseller, came from an equally privileged perspective. Taking a year to eat, to pray, and to love is certainly not something we can all do. Yet this book sky rocketed in sells. What makes the difference? One book swings towards the pain body and the other towards pleasure. Yet are they that different? Does the success of one over the other not say something about our culture and what we are most comfortable with?

The spiritual path, though designed as a practice of integrating tools to lessen our suffering, is not about becoming happy, per se. I think there is this way that we believe that if we practice our practice (art, yoga, dance, prayer, etc) we will somehow avoid suffering, ascend to some place where we can avoid pain, confusion, or death. Yesterday, Sharon referred to this as well. In response to someone’s question about what to do in meditation in relation to chronic pain, she said to ask “what am I adding to this moment that is superimposed and not here.” She went on to explain that it is often the first hint of approaching pain that makes us spin into panic and run away from it. I think that exactly this, is the question to ask of Shapiro: what are you adding to your pain? And I think her book is an open window into her experience of trying to sort this out.I believe Sharon said it like this “one of  the sorrowful messages of our society  is the belief that ‘if I had it together, I wouldn’t suffer.’

We rarely get the privilege of watching one another work through these questions. We move in and out of conversation and rarely touch the heart and soul of one another. We stay on the surface and guard our sorrow, our pain and sometimes, as well, our joy and happiness.

We all require someone to say, ‘hey, snap out of it– let’s get going,’ but I also think we’d be better off if we were more comfortable with acknowledging that we all suffer. Why get so caught up in who has more right to suffer or whether or not we believe that someone else has it too good to suffer. If we could just meet where we are there’d be more space for figuring out how to let go of the sense that we are all alone.

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