Book Review: The Universe Has Your Back.

“I do things that make me hate myself; one of which was buy and read this book.”

I’m still giving it three and a half stars.

Everything about this book annoys me and summarises everything faux-thentic about health trends and the self-improvement movements of today. But I’m still giving it a three and a half star review.

First, there’s the title. Unless you’re an animist or pantheistic, the universe isn’t a sentient being with an intention or direction for us, but “The Universe” has become a safe little catch-all word for a higher power when talking to people who’s faith you don’t know (like, people who might buy your book) and to whom religion has all kinds of negative connotations. So right off the bat, there’s a kind of chicken-shit, non-exclusionary* marketing-friendly approach to the message that pisses me off as being insincere and uncertain about what exactly it is has your back while claiming certainty that something is definitely behind you and not in a creepy way.

Secondly, there’s nothing I hate more** than when someone (sometimes it’s me) is going through an awful time and invariably a friend will message “I’m sending you good vibes” (sometimes this is also me- to someone else. I do things that make me hate myself; one of which was buy and read this book). I understand how much time and effort is in – say- ten Hail Maries; good vibes tend to last as long as it takes to write the message and feel like the spiritual equivalent of clicking like on a political post instead of writing to your MP or protesting some shit.

So, being that I hate everything this book represents, why did I buy it?

Sometime in the summer of last year, I joined codependents anonymous. It seemed that my closest friendships followed a familiar pattern of intense sharing, then storminess (with me feeling increasingly put upon and acting judgmental), then taking a long break or falling apart. Many years before, I had made a conscience effort to no longer seek out needy people, so there was only one other constant left to change: myself.

Once I heard the stories shared in the voice only CODA Skype group call, I knew I would be coming back again to better understand myself, even though I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Turns out, there’s a workbook on amazon. For alcoholics, there’s even an app.

What a time to be alive, when help and the reasons for needing help are all so easily within reach, online.

There’s just one problem: I’m agnostic, and recovery in all 12 step programs requires a belief in a higher power. Also, coming from a middle eastern upbringing, this raised all kinds of “hells, no”.

Why not rely on ourselves?

This was the first question. Like, seriously, why is it even in the steps, not just as step two, but in step 3, 5, 6, 7, and 11??

That’s a lot of god when the closest thing to a higher power I have is google voice search. And the hope of getting a reply from Cher on twitter.****

But I realised a few things while considering the impossible:

  1. Relying on myself wasn’t working. I’d gone from being a reclusive, crowd shy person, who had near panic attacks when her housemates were all in same room with her (and very real panic attacks when life got too “lifey”), to needing to be at a party to even feel like I existed and drinking a lot to get over the feeling of awkwardness, to being a control freak at work and in my personal life and even my appearance at times.
    I was using the mental image of a perfect me that could exist if I just kept on top of everything, expecting myself to be the goddess of my own life, and always feeling like I was never good enough for not making everything ok, for not managing the unknown, for not being in control of my anxiety or moods, or even my bodily wellness.
  2. It’s a mindhack: our minds are wired to believe that something out there is watching over us. I’m sure some new age person out there will say the aliens engineered us that way, but I suspect if our ancestors didn’t believe that we would never have left our caves.
  3. It doesn’t have to be real. I could have a figure of papa smurf by the bedside cabinet and turn over all my problems to him to fix and I would still get the benefits.

But I’m a geek, so my first step to anything is geeking up by reading about it, and this book is about developing faith from basically zero. And I had audible credits, so here we are.

What I got from this book

The book talks about how to move from feeling like I needed to anticipate, predict and plan for every future outcome— something that had occupied so much of my life for so long— being full of self-judgment for “bad decisions”, being full of anxiety about making the “wrong” decision in the present (and thus avoiding them in some cases), into being more open to possibilities I can’t foresee, more trusting that when I jump, a net will appear (or whatever the metaphor is), instead of my approach which is to thoroughly research the various ways successful jumpers had jumped, make a detailed jumping plan with jump metric targets and review dates to reassess how to and when to jump.

It talks about how to move from being resentful and judgmental (two of my favourite hobbies) into at least being awake enough to stop that inner narrative and forgive yourself for it and let it go. To be more happy with my life today instead of waiting for a future, more perfect version. And it does this without really telling you what to believe in. That’s up to you and completely open.

The flaky sounding title isn’t so flakey, after all. She doesn’t subscribe to any one faith, and just reads from different spiritual teachers for the underlying message of how to be faithful, ignoring the sticky business or who or what it is those teachers have faith in and what rewards/punishments they offer- which works for me.

And yes, it did this with examples that made me clench my fists and need to take rant breaks (having a meltdown during yoga class? Really?) and listing examples I just couldn’t see as real turmoil (not being invited to an acquaintance’s – who she spends some time trashing- birthday. Gee, her life is hard).

In the end, irrespective of whether I saw those examples as ‘valid’ or not, I could relate to the symptoms, anxiety, self-judgment, self-doubt, fear of change, fear or things I can’t predict or control, defensiveness, isolation, judgement of others.

And all of these things were holding me back.

So for that realisation, and for making me ready to let the reins fall a little bit and enjoy what is right now in my life, it’s earned 3.5 stars out of five. Four overall for her reading of the audiobook.

Do I recommend it to others? it depends.

  • Are you ok with mantras (in english and sanskrit)? there’s a lot of them in this book. If these annoy you, find another book.
  • Can you stand to read a series of “Rich girl problems”? The yoga mat meltdown, the birthday invite that didn’t arrive, not finding the perfect flat in LA quick enough, her not being invited to a global public speaking event..these can test the patience. If you can look past the examples into the feelings being them (self-doubt about life choices, exclusion, impatience, not feeling worthy) then the stories are helpful, but if not, find another book.
  • are you ok with a bit of magical woo? like, writing down things you want to work out for you and burning them? If not, this book isn’t for you.
  • the chapter on judgment and where it comes from is great.

*So important in the self-improvement and wellness movements, where everything is as valid as actually valid things.

**there are at least a few million things I hate more. I love and hate stuff on a scale of infinity.

****it is obvious to me that Cher is god. She looks simultaneously male (in drag) and female, gay and straight, is white yet not white, tweets in thundering all caps, and seems to have been around forever.

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