Photograph by 小佳 顏 / Flickr

Enlighten Me

words by willow defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers a holistic look at life on Earth, seen from above.

“We’re alive just as nature is alive: to be here, to be beautiful and strange. We don’t need to achieve anything to be valid in our humanness.”

Melanie Lau

Five years ago, I had what can only be described as an existential crisis. Donald Trump was president, the climate crisis was growing deafeningly loud, and so was my gender dysphoria. When my anxiety around all of this peaked, I quit my job as a magazine editor—the one I had worked years for—in order to try and make sense of it all. I wanted answers, to become enlightened as to why all of this was happening and what my purpose was in all of it.


Those years took me all over the world. In my studies, I repeatedly came across a symbol that has been central to many religions, cultures, and mythologies across the ages: the lotus flower. In Ancient Egypt, it represented fertility and rebirth. In Hinduism and Buddhism, it symbolizes enlightenment; blooming in murky waters, it shows how we can attain clarity amidst suffering. In Ancient Greece, it was also associated with divinity; in The Odyssey, Homer describes the lotus-eaters, those so obsessed with the divine that they have lost touch with reality.


We have a lot to learn from the lotus-eaters. Over the last decade, the wellness industry has boomed in the Western world. On the one hand, I found a lot of healing there and even worked in it for a time; on the other, I saw what can happen when spiritual disciplines are colonized and taken out of context—specifically when they are combined with Western individualism and ambition. When healing and enlightenment become commodified, we can start to believe that they are objects we can earn or achieve if only we work hard enough at improving ourselves. 


When we become so fixated on our search for healing, purpose, or enlightenment, we can lose sight of the very basic tenets at the heart of so many spiritual traditions: love, kindness, service, accountability, and so on. One example of this is spiritual bypassing; in the time since the pandemic began, I have seen a surge in the use of pseudo-spiritual language and concepts to justify all kinds of behavior, including racism (“I don’t see color”), appropriation (“we’re all one”), selfishness (“this is my truth”), and even eco denialism (“nature is healing”).


I’m a deeply spiritual person. As I have written about previously, I believe spiritual change is of critical importance to mitigating the climate crisis; we must look at the deeper disconnects that caused it in the first place. However, I’m wary of any notion of spirituality that presents it as separate from everything else: a path we must follow, a state we must attain, something we can earn, an excuse to disengage. To me, spirituality is organizing and activism, ecology and biology, relationship and reconnection to the world. It’s what’s all around us and within us already.


In a recent story for Atmos, The Body Is Not an Apology author Sonya Renee Taylor eloquently explained why self-love and realization are not goals, but givens: “Radical self-love is not something you have to achieve. I understand the word radical to mean, quite literally, something that is inherent; something that is already in us and that speaks to the origin of who we are. In order to radically love ourselves, we have to understand what is blocking the natural flow of what we came onto this planet with.”


I’m not sure that I subscribe to the notion of purpose in the way I once did, as something we must unlock or achieve, a secret we can uncover. I’m not sure that I need to become enlightened, either. Maybe it’s okay not to have all of the answers, to let my petals unfold in time and float among the waters of uncertainty. Maybe our purpose is all the same: to simply be here. To find joy and spread it. To be singular and strange. To do good and give back when we can. To love this world and if we’re lucky, leave it a little better than how we found it.

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