I was a little late on the bandwagon of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, but I did hop on. And it was quite a ride.
A brief synopsis: Elizabeth went through a terrible divorce, which she doesn’t divulge much about. It almost came across as if she woke up one morning crying in the bathroom and wanted a divorce. There is no backlog as to why this marriage was so miserable – but it laid the foundation for her journey around the world to find “a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence.”
I have found that people who have read this book fall into one of two groups: the “this book changed my life” group, and the “I don’t need this narcissistic, whiny, self-help book.”
I fall somewhere in the middle. No, this book did not change my life, but there were times (on more than one occasion) while reading this book I did assess my own lifestyle and see how I could integrate some of what she has learned into my own self-discovery and life-appreciation. And at other times (on more than one occasion), I rolled my eyes at her self-deprecation and so-called “misery” while she flitted around the world with nothing to do but write, trying to recover from her #whitegirlproblems.
The story is broken up into three sections, each exemplifying a different segment of her personal journey in three different countries.
Italy: 36 Tales About the Pursuit of Pleasure
This chapter was my favorite. As it was the beginning of Liz’s journey, there were moments of grief and moments of discovery. Most importantly, there were moments of food. And lots of it.
Amidst the inherently sexy Italian men and women, Liz declared celibacy and remained determined to begin this journey for herself. And only herself. The mission? Pursuing pleasure. This seems to be elementary – everyone enjoys pleasure. However, in America and in today’s bustling society, sometimes pleasure gets lost in the grind.
“Generally speaking, though, Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure. Ours is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one. Americans spend billions to keep themselves amused which everything from porn to theme parks to wars, but that’s not exactly the same thing as quiet enjoyment. .. Of course, we all inevitably work too hard, then we get burned out and have to spend the whole weekend in our pajamas, eating cereal straight out of the box and staring at the TV in a mild coma (which is the opposite of working, yes, but not exactly the same thing as pleasure). Americans don’t really know how to do nothing.” (p. 61)
I experienced this on my last two vacations. Eventually, on both, I was able to relax and enjoy the peace and serenity of not working. This past year for me has been insanely intense. Work, work, work. And I am completely the type of person who camps out in front of their TV watching House marathons on a Sunday afternoon.
What did I learn from this section? Take a break. But don’t just take a break and watch TV or a movie or go shopping. Get in touch with what you truly love. What truly gives you pleasure. Find your passion and make time to pursue it.
India: 36 Tales About the Pursuit of Devotion
I don’t consider Eat, Pray, Love to be a religious text. However, Liz’s trip to India is full of deeply moving spiritual and philosophical discoveries. Some of which were a bit over-the-top for me:
“The Yogis, however, say that human discontentment is a simple case of mistaken identity. We’re miserable because we think that we are mere individuals, alone with our fears and flaws and resentments and mortality. We wrongly believe that our limited little egos constitute our whole entire nature. We have failed to recognize our deeper divine character. We don’t realize that, somewhere within us all, there does exist a supreme Self who is eternally at peace.” (p. 122)
I absolutely believe in a “supreme Self” and a “greater power” that lives within us all. I do believe that in order to maintain peace in our lives, we have to find that power and harness it. And sometimes, our egos do get in the way. So does our mind:
“Yoga is about self-mastery and the dedicated effort to haul your attention away from your endless brooding over the past and your nonstop worrying about the future so that you can seek, instead, a place of eternal presence from which you may regard yourself and your surroundings with poise.” (p. 122)
While I consider myself a spiritual (and religious) person, I am most interested in faith. Faith is having confident trust in something or someone without immediate reassurance or results. This is not to be confused with blind faith – which I whole-heartedly disagree with. This curiosity is about the fundamental idea of being entirely peaceful with not knowing.
“Faith is belief in what you cannot see or prove or touch. Faith is walking face-first and full-speed into the dark. If we truly knew all the answers in advance as to the meaning of life and the nature of God and the destiny of our souls, our belief would not be a leap of faith and it would not be a courageous act of humanity; it would just be . . . a prudent insurance policy.” (p. 175)
Much of Liz’s trip to India was spent strikingly alone. She spent hours upon hours meditating – trying to reach the highest of heights, closest of close to God. She struggled with the concept of sitting with herself for the required hours of meditation on end. Slowly, she learned she could control her thoughts. To turn off her ego and give her mind something else to think about – like being whole again.
What did I learn from this section? I’m afraid of silence. Even sitting in my apartment, in silence (well, as silent as you can get whilst living on a busy street in the city) clearing my mind of all thoughts other than writing this review, I find myself getting in the way of achieving my own focus. Get out of your own way. And the peace, focus and faith will come naturally.
Indonesia: 36 Tales About the Pursuit of Balance
The culmination of Liz’s journey takes her to Bali, and it begins with the same mindset as her exploration in India. She is there to meet with a highly renowned spiritual leader whom she met a couple years back. She is there to learn more about prayer and reaching the highest level of spirituality possible.
One particular visit to the home of her spiritual leader, Ketut, leads to discussing the common occurrence of arguing about God. They weren’t arguing about God themselves; they were merely pointing out the inevitability and reality of God creating much tension and disagreement all over the world. Through broken English, Ketut explains his rationale about dealing with the God-arguers:
“I have good idea, for if you meet some person from different religion and he want to make argument about God. My idea is, you listen to everything this man say about God. Never argue about God with him. Best thing to say is, ‘I agree with you.’ Then you go home, pray what you want. This is my idea for people to have peace about religion.” (p. 241)
If only everyone lived their life this way. This old man (whose age is approximated between 66 and 112 years) empowers the idea that all religions are “same-same” and there is no need to argue because they are all “same-same.”
Needless to say, while on her quest to seek balance, Liz gets distracted by a Brazilian man nearly 20 years her senior. She struggles and fights the attraction blaming her lack of “readiness” as the cause of not being able to let someone new inside her heart and mind (not to mention body). She comes up with every excuse possible – guarding her heart each step of the way.
Her Brazilian suitor is of deep understanding of her troubles as he arrived in Bali for many of the same reasons.
“You were young and stupid then. Only the young and stupid are confident about sex and romance. Do you think any of us know what we’re doing? Do you think there’s any way humans can love each other without complication? … You still have a woman in front of you, my friend. And you are still a man. It’s still two human beings trying to get along, so it’s going to become complicated. And love is always complicated. But still humans must try to love each other, darling. We must get our hearts broken sometimes. This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something.” (p. 276-277)
SPOILER: Of course, Liz succumbs to this divine Brazilian man and allows him to take care of her. In every way possible. She lets him in. And, with the help of many Balinese friends, she learns to do this while still maintaining the balance in her normal life.
After truly letting herself go and letting love back into her life, she has somewhat of an epiphany. This paragraph resonated with me almost more than any other in the book. Her ability to place into perfect diction a situation that very closely relates to many (if not all) of my previous relationships is remarkable:
“I have a history of making decisions very quickly about men. I have always failed in love fast and without measuring risks. I have a tendency not only to see the best in everyone, but to assume that everyone is emotionally capable of reaching his highest potential. I have fallen in love more times than I care to count with the highest potential of a man, rather than with the man himself, and then I have hung on to the relationship for a long time (sometimes far too long) waiting for the man to ascend to his own greatness. Many times in romance I have been a victim of my own optimism.” (p. 285)
This brings me back full-circle. Only when you get out of your own way are you able to find true pleasure and have utmost faith in the unknown. That’s what I learned from this section (and the whole entire book).
Elizabeth’s writing is undeniably insatiable. Her descriptions of each of the countries she visited placed me there. With her. Tasting the homemade Italian pizza, sitting in dark Indian prayer, and reveling in Indonesian love. I suffered through the several eye-rolls and fleeting whiny moments, but I commend her for having the courage to write such a brutally honest and intensely personal journey (although I wish I would have known a bit more about what caused the misery and severe depression that drove her on this journey in the first place). There is something so strong and vividly true about her story. It felt so real.