Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Reflections: Eat Pray Love

Elizabeth Gilbert is a journalist and writer from New York. She went through an emotionally draining period in her life when she was forced to confront the problems in her marriage. With a messy divorce and a rash and complicated love-affair twining against each other, her heart was crushed, and her will was broken. Swallowed by depression, she struggled to get her life back on track. A saving grace from her tempestuous love-affair was an introduction to a spiritual Indian Guru. Gilbert found solace through the power and calmness of Meditation and Yoga. But she needed more spiritual guidance to heal herself. She was fortunate enough to take a break and embark on a year-long expedition around the globe to discover herself. She chose three countries to visit, all of which coincidentally begin with "I", boding a good omen for her voyage of self-discovery. The first stop was Italy, due to her passion for the Italian language and anything Italian related. Her next stop was at her Swamiji's ashram in India. Finally, she reached Bali, Indonesia to meet an ancient medicine man who had accurately predicted parts of her life. In this memoir, Gilbert shares her experiences, challenges, revelations and lessons learned from her journey - both spiritual and personal.

Most women can relate to Gilbert. Her frank confessions of her innermost thoughts and emotions are sure to ring true with most readers. For the average practical, career woman, spirituality is often a skeptical subject. For many spiritual practices, personal heartfelt experiences are the highest testimonials. When a fun-loving, rational, modern, ambitious New-Yorker testifies the value of meditation, one can positively hope that people will pause and reflect on it seriously. I also enjoyed her writing - it was fluid and witty, liberally sprinkled with humor. Her candid recounts of her fumbling episodes are both funny and endearing.

What hooked my interest in the book was the underlying philosophical significance of Gilbert visiting each country. Italy was a place to experiment and drown herself in absolute pleasure - the pleasure of learning the Italian language, despite it not serving any "practical" purpose, and indulging in their exquisite gourmet treats. After a physically and mentally exhausting phase, nourishment and the pursuit of rejuvenation often begin with recharging the body and mind with pleasure. Gilbert treated her body with succulent pastas and pizzas, and her mind was stimulated with the challenge and enjoyment of learning the language she had always wanted to. This is very similar to Bertrand Russell's take on happiness - engaging the mind with constructive activities that provide simple pleasures and contentment. Psychologically speaking, it makes a lot of sense for it to be the first step towards healing.

India was for spiritual awakening and acceptance. Her purpose was to subject her nourished, pleasure-pumped self to four months of austerity, wherein she solely focused on controlling, disciplining and communicating with her mind - or her self. Achieving an inner-balance of harmony among the waging negative thoughts is essential to gain acceptance and wisdom. This is logically the second most important step in healing, aside being the vital step towards self-realization. Her experiences in India were my most favorite. I appreciated her honest accounts - her doubts, her frustrations and her perseverance to keep trying harder. She motivates those of us who have encountered similar stumbling blocks to keep trying harder. Some tips are also useful. I was quite envious and sad that I, as an Indian, had never availed of such an opportunity to experience a spiritual retreat. Her vivid and powerful spiritual experiences are quite inspiring and intriguing. I am glad that she found these experiences to be beneficial to gain wisdom and move on with her life.

Finally, she visited Indonesia to understand how to balance pleasure with devotion/spirituality. As much as I looked forward to reading this section, I was unfortunately equally disappointed upon reading it. Now I have to make it very clear that I am in no way criticizing the author's life. I have no right or wisdom to judge another person's life. But I have certain curious thoughts that I still want to share. I expected a more holistic perspective on the term "pleasure", but Gilbert's accounts in Bali seemed to primarily revolve around carnal pleasure. Gilbert openly shares the vow of celibacy that she took for that entire year of globe-trotting. But in Bali, she confesses that her profuse, unabated desires consumed her to the point where she had to relent. I'm not against sex, nor am I associating it with sin, but somehow it was disconcerting to me that a person who had just come out of an intense spiritual journey would still crave for a bodily pleasure. I am not advocating a saintly chaste life of penance for anybody. Marriage and spirituality can go hand in hand. But I view the balance of pleasure and spirituality to be much more encompassing (and perhaps on a higher plane), than indulging in the heat of the moment and then inserting a morning-after meditation session.

I was reminded of the story of Vishwamitra. Vishwamitra set out on an intense penance to become Vasishtar's equal - a Brahma Rishi to take revenge on him. But when he reached the stage of Raja Rishi, the wisdom that he gained from his penance informed him of his lowly pursuit to submit to an emotion such as revenge, and he decided to remain a Raja Rishi and gave Vasishtar the respect of being a Brahma Rishi. After reaching intense harmony with the self and the Universe, having reveled in the pleasure of being one with the Universe, with mere eucalyptus trees in moonlight enrapturing her, I was curious as to why Gilbert didn't choose to calm her body. I don't understand why one wouldn't invoke their insight when they were blessed with the potential to find happiness and harmony from within. Again, I am not judging her decisions or her life as being "wrong". There is absolutely nothing wrong. It just didn't fit my mental-model or expectations of how radically one's life, thoughts and views will reform with spirituality. It seemed like pleasure was being interpreted through a peep-hole and I was disappointed with it. Maybe I'm just being an unrealistic prude.

But I guess her experiences in Bali helped her ease back into normalcy, which I think was the overall goal of the journey. She connected with herself, learned from her insights, healed her wounds, accepted herself and her life and was ready to start getting back to her life in New-York. Probably that was the crucial balance she was searching for and I'm just being phenomenally prudish and idealistic. In all, the book is an interesting read which promises to inspire and provide some down-to-earth insights.

What about you? How would you define the balance of pleasure and spirituality?


SecondSight said...

Being much more vehement in my opinions of the book.. it seemed to me just an attempt at self-discovery with no follow-through whatsoever.
The writing is entertaining, she has a decent sense of humor, but her attitude seemed more to mark things off on a checklist (Eaten in Italy, meditated in India) than to follow through on each 'purpose' to its fullest, more with the pray and love parts than with the eat, obviously :). She never really seems to get over her need for a romantic partner at any point in the book. I'm not sure what to make of her spiritual experiences, given that such experiences can some times be quite hard to distinguish from physiological phenomena.

Neeraja said...

I have all the more come to realize that writing a memoir requires a lot of courage, for the author puts out his/her life to be judged and criticized and it's tricky to be sensitive to that issue while voicing our opinions on the author's thoughts and views :)

I did have the same doubts on her spiritual experiences - whether they were hallucinations. But since such an experience is already beyond scientific proof I'm not dwelling on it much. She seemed to gain insight from the experiences (as voiced in many parts of the book), so that puts me at ease.

But more than anything else, I'm disappointed that the book ended like a "Sex and the City" episode/movie, however much I'm trying to refrain from soiling her life-altering experiences which she was candid and brave enough to share...

SecondSight said...

I agree that writing a memoir requires a lot of courage, but does the fact that the writer is courageous give them license to expect greater sensitivity from us? The scale of learning/ life-changing experiences is not an absolute- Some people learn from a few bad dates, others go through multiple messy divorces to reach the same wisdom. I don't think its fair to gauge the depth of a person's understanding by the intensity of their learning experience, simply because we measure that intensity on our own scales, whereas the depth of the understanding is an absolute(And I'll explain that with a personal example in private ;)). I admire the candor and the courage in the book, I just don't think (subtle) 'objectives' of her search are commensurate with the conclusions of the book :)

SUMI said...

It was interesting to read your reflections on the book (I just typed 'review' and backspaced it out to change it to 'reflections') :-)

Very interesting because I had a completely different take on it. For e.g., I never thought her experience of pleasure in Bali was only carnal... I didn't give that bit a whole lot of thought, honestly. I assumed that the pleasure had to do with being in a beautiful place. And then of course she was trying to find a balance between pleasure and 'spirituality' as she called it, but to me it seemed more like mysticism than spirituality.

She triggered my instinct to explore, both within and without. That said, I never thought of whether she "really" did discover each aspect she set out to explore completely, and I really don't feel an inclination to do it... to me the book was just "sharing", more than following through on set expectations (of herself or the readers)...

I agree with your comment about the book ending like an episode in the Sex and the City. Haha! That's what bored me towards the end. The moment the love track started, it felt like a Hollywood movie, and that's the main reason I decided not to watch the movie. :-)

Neeraja said...

Sumi, thanks for sharing your views! Haha, POtato, poTAto... review vs. reflection, I guess ;) Sometimes no words can convey subtlety in semantics!

I guess I didn't register the beautiful descriptions of Bali after the first chapter on it. Even the mysticism part with the medicine man seemed to fizzle out abruptly and the bulk of the chapters on Bali were focused on her love affair and her friendship with the Balinese woman. I just found it silly that she would every now and then feel "guilty" and then meditate for sometime and then call it her balance between pleasure and spirituality. To me, it seemed like she was compartmentalizing things in her life, when really, the goal is to embrace and balance all of it at every phase of life.

But I agree with you that she did a good job of triggering that instinct of exploration and in bringing the idea of "spirituality" a little closer to people in the western world. I did find it an interesting read, despite the quibbles towards the end of the book :)