Eat, Pray, Love: Book Summary
Eat, Pray, Love
By: Elizabeth Gilbert; Summary by: Stacey Tuttle
Note: With 5 million copies in print and a movie coming out August 13 (starring Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem and James Franco), Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love, (a New York Times Bestseller released in 2006) is sure to see a resurgence of popularity and interest. Eat, Pray, Love is Gilbert’s beautifully written memoirs documenting her journey not just across the world, but more importantly through her exploration of faith.
Shepherd Project Ministries does not agree with many of her spiritual views, but does think that she raises some important questions and issues, and that her book has been and will continue to be both significant and influential in the world at large, and as such is something Christians would do well to be familiar with and able to discuss. Gilbert, through her book and upcoming movie, has provided an immense opportunity for believers to engage with others in matters of faith. What follows is a summary of her book.
- For a better understanding of some of the critical themes, please click here to watch our video podcast online in which Dr. Craig Smith helps provide some clarity on the issues.
- For a list of quotes for discussion, click here.
- For a review of the movie Eat Pray Love starring Julia Roberts, click here.
INTRODUCTION (or How This Book Works or The 109th Bead)
Japa Malas are strings of beads used by Hindus and Buddhists in meditation to help with focus and devotion (this idea later morphed into the rosary). Three represents balance: the Trinity, a barstool, etc., and japa malas have 108 beads “a perfect, three-digit multiple of three”. Ergo, in effort to find personal balance, the book itself has 108 chapters in 3 sections (36 chapters in each section) chronicling the author’s journey to three locations: Italy (to study pleasure and food), India (to study prayer and meditation) and Indonesia (to study balance). There is a 109th bead attached to the japa mala which prompts the mediator to thank their teachers. This introduction serves as 109th bead, and is not only an introduction, but also Gilbert’s grateful acknowledgement to her teachers and friends.
BOOK ONE: ITALY (or Say It Like You Eat It or 36 Tales about the Pursuit of Pleasure)
“I wish Giovanni would kiss me,” is Gilbert’s opening hook. Giovanni is her Italian language exchange partner, whose charm is only increased by the fact that he is much younger, Italian, tall, dark and handsome and has an equally charming, tall, dark and handsome twin. But, she proceeds to explain why this is a bad idea. It’s not that she has any moral compunction about having twin lovers, but that she has decided that, in her search for healing and peace, a year of celibacy is necessary medicine.
Gilbert flashes back to three years ago to tell the events that catapulted her out of her marriage and into this journey across the world. As she said, “I was trying so hard not to know this, but the truth kept insisting itself to me. I don’t want to be married anymore. I don’t want to live in this big house. I don’t want to have a baby.” As the primary bread winner, she had worked hard to create the ideal suburban life, and even as it progressed famously on the outside, on the inside she was not only questioning that she wanted it, but dreading having to live it. She declines to give specifics on the collapse of her marriage, admitting it would be a biased report. But, the critical point not only of this chapter but also in her life happened as her marriage disintegrated: “What happened was that I started to pray. You know – like, to God.”
As she has introduced “that loaded word—God” into the book for the first time, she takes a chapter to, “explain exactly what I mean when I say that word, just so people can decide right away how offended they need to get.” She describes her very inclusive theology saying that even though she uses the “word God… [she] could just as easily use the words Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu or Zeus” or the ancient Sanskrit “That” or “even the most poetic manifestation of God’s name… ‘The Shadow of the Turning.’” She says the terms themselves are all “equally adequate and inadequate descriptions of the indescribable” and she has chosen the name “God” out of simple preference.
Gilbert was raised Protestant and therefore considers herself a “cultural” Christian and not a theological one, meaning that, though she does “love that great teacher of peace who was called Jesus” and even occasionally asks herself, “WWJD?”, she “can’t swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God.” Rather, she is drawn with “breathless excitement to anyone who has ever said that God does not live in a dogmatic scripture or in a distant throne in the sky, but instead abides very close to us indeed – much closer than we can imagine, breathing right through our own hearts… and who has [reported]… that God is an experience of supreme love.”
She compares her beliefs about God to a “really great dog” she got from the pound – “a mixture of about ten different breeds [that] seemed to have inherited the finest features of them all.” When asked what kind of dog she had, she simply answered “brown.” “Similarly, when the question is raised, ‘What kind of God do you believe in?’ my answer is easy: ‘I believe in a magnificent God’”
Gilbert describes her first prayer, “speaking to the creator of the universe as though we’d just been introduced at a cocktail party,” the simple essence of her prayer, “Please tell me what to do.” and the response she received which began with a comforting sense of being surrounded by silence and stillness and ended up with a voice speaking to her from within that still silence with warm compassion. The voice, she said, was her own voice, speaking from within herself. She says it was “perfectly wise, calm and compassionate…what my voice would sound like if I’d only ever experienced love and certainty in my life.” What did it say? “Go back to bed, Liz.” She says this wasn’t so much a religious conversion experience as the beginning of a religious conversation.
Her divorce got uglier than she thought possible. Meanwhile, she falls in love (and moves in) with David and 9-11 occurs (made all the more poignant by the way it parallels her marriage, “everything invincible that had once stood together now became a smoldering avalanche of ruin”). The relationship with David became a vortex of insecure addiction and withdrawal. Gilbert is honest and insightful in her analysis of herself during this time, making a poignant parallel between herself (hooked on David’s love, which was often withdrawn) and a junkie whose dealer no longer supplies the drug for free.
Gilbert qualifies that there were a few good things that did happen during the years of her divorce and on/off again relationship with David. The first good thing was that she started learning Italian for the pure love of it.
The second good thing that happened during this time was that she was introduced (by David) to an Indian Guru to help her in her newfound spiritual journey.
The final good thing was that, on a business trip in Bali, an old medicine man invited her to (or rather prophesied that she would) return to Bali and live with him for a time. He read her palm and prophesied several things – that she was a writer, would lose her fortune shortly and then regain it later, that she would have 2 marriages and that she would soon return to Bali.
Wanting both “worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence—the dual glories of a human life…the singular balance of the good and the beautiful” she decided to take a year to travel to Italy, India and Indonesia—four months in each place. And in each place, rather than try to explore the country itself, Gilbert’s goal was “to thoroughly explore one aspect of [herself] …in a place that has traditionally done that thing very well”: Pleasure in Italy, Devotion in India, and Balance in Indonesia.
Before she could go, however, the divorce had to be finalized and was getting really ugly. She confessed to a friend that she wished she could just petition God for help, but she felt guilty asking God for things she wanted rather than just the courage and grace to handle whatever comes. At her friend’s advice, she agreed to try petitioning “the universe”. So she asks God to intervene – admitting failure in the marriage, but also pointing out that their divorce is becoming a poisonous process to all involved and therefore needs to be resolved. Furthermore, “It is my understanding that the health of the planet is affected by the health of every individual on it. As long as even two souls are locked in conflict, the whole of the world is contaminated by it,” she writes. Her friend then proceeds to help Gilbert get the petition signed by all the hearts who would agree with that petition…so they began to call out names of everyone they could think of who would agree with and sign that petition including Bill & Hillary Clinton, St. Francis of Assisi, Abe Lincoln, Gandhi and Mandela, Katharine Hepburn and Scorsese… and on and on. Of course, it wasn’t physically signed, but they were convinced it was signed by all these hearts that were in agreement. Within minutes of the petition signing, Gilbert received a call that her divorce was final.
Within weeks she is living in Italy—paid for by an advance from her publisher, who wanted to purchase the book she would write about her year.
Gilbert describes her first mouthwatering meal in Italy and a contented night of sleep.
Her first few days in Rome she explores restaurants, eats lots of Gelato, marvels at the fountains and works on her Italian.
Though admittedly not a great traveler in many respects (which she details with great humor), Gilbert professes to have a few great survival tactics. “I am patient. I know how to pack light. I’m a fearless eater. But my own mighty travel talent is that I can make friends with anybody.”
Gilbert’s first order of business is to enroll in language school. After a frightening and mortifying realization that just because she qualified for level two doesn’t mean she can handle level two, a relieved Gilbert lands in level one classes.
Gilbert gives a little history of the Italian language. “They handpicked the most beautiful of all the local dialects and crowned it Italian.” (Note: This is essentially how Gilbert handles God and religion: handpicks the most beautiful of all religious teachings and calls them God and religion.)
“They come upon me all silent and menacing like Pinkerton Detectives, and they flank me –Depression on my left, Loneliness on my right.” In a haunting and beautifully written chapter, Gilbert details the interaction she has with Loneliness and Depression (she personifies them) that track her down shortly after her arrival in Italy. She concludes, “[Depression] settles into my favorite chair… Loneliness watches and sighs, then climbs into my bed and pulls the cover over himself, fully dressed, shoes and all. He’s going to make me sleep with him again tonight, I just know it.”
Gilberts talks about her struggles with depression over the past few years and all the various ways she fought it. She evaluated all the possible root causes: psychological, situational, genetic, cultural, astrological, etc. She also tried every suggestion she could find for ways to help fight against it, from wearing orange-colored underwear to herbal teas to prescribed medication. She describes her deep concern over medication, but also somewhat begrudgingly confesses that it gave her very necessary immediate help.
In a panic over the return of Depression and Loneliness, and not wanting to resume her medication (which she quit taking 3 days prior, feeling it wasn’t necessary in Italy), she begins to write a prayer to the voice she had heard before: “I need your help.” She says that she can always talk to that voice, “even during the worst of suffering, that calm, compassionate, affectionate and infinitely wise voice (who is maybe me, or maybe not exactly me) is always available for a conversation on paper at any time of day or night.” She’s not quite sure who the voice is, it could be God, her Guru, her guardian angel, her Highest Self, or her own subconscious. However, life is hard and that is “why you sometimes must reach out of its jurisdiction for help, appealing to a higher authority in order to find your comfort.”
Rising up from within her is the response to her plea for help, “offering [her] all the certainties [she has] always wished another person would say.” The response she writes down tells her she is loved no matter what. She can take the medication if she needs it or not, it won’t change the love. The voice tells her she is protected in life and even after death and promises it is “stronger than Depression and … braver than Loneliness” and will never be depleted.
When she awoke, Loneliness and Depression were gone.
She wonders why she, devoted Yoga practitioner, hasn’t been able to get herself to do any Yoga while in Rome.
Gilbert describes in detail some of her new Italian friends.
Gilbert comes from a long line of hardworking Swedish immigrants and English Puritans, so relaxing and seeking pleasure, as she is supposed to be doing in Italy, is not something she really knows how to do. She points out that Americans in general enjoy hard work and entertainment, but do not necessarily know how to enjoy simple pleasure and certainly do not know how to do nothing. And Gilbert had to battle against her “ingrained sense of Puritan guilt” over whether or not she deserved any pleasure. Eventually, she decided that the pleasures she would pursue in Italy (too many to pursue them all) were language and food (with an emphasis on gelato).
Seeking pleasure in Italy leads Gilbert to tackle the issue of sex and why she has decided to forego it for the time being. She confesses that she started early, and for the past two decades has always had a “boy or a man (or both)” in her life, with never a pause in between. “And I can’t help but think that’s been something of a liability on my path to maturity.” She also has begun to realize that she has no boundaries whatsoever with the men in her life, not only physically, but monetarily, emotionally, etc. She gives everything away to that person, including her identity, merging with them so completely as to become just like them in the process. The end result of which, she doesn’t know who she really is.
She wonders, “How many more different types of men can I keep trying to love and continue to fail? Think of it this way—if you’d had ten serious traffic accidents in a row, wouldn’t they eventually take your driver’s license away? Wouldn’t you kind of want them to?” Besides, she confesses, “I’m exhausted by the cumulative consequences of a lifetime of hasty choices and chaotic passions. By the time I left for Italy, my body and my spirit were depleted. I felt like the soil on some desperate sharecropper’s farm, sorely overworked and needing a fallow season. That’s why I’ve quit.” And she commits to “never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.”
At a professional soccer game, Gilbert is delighted to learn new Italian phrases from an old and avid soccer fan who was spewing out “eloquent curses” in Italian. She explains some of the soccer loyalties and culture and the tradition of “going out” after the game, which, she was surprised to learn, means going not to a local bar, but to a local little bakery for crème puffs.
Attraversiamo, a pedestrian term meaning “let’s cross over” is her favorite new Italian word.
Gilbert details her walking tour of Rome, stopping last at the Augusteum—a ruinous monument which appearance and purpose was remodeled and altered countless times throughout history. Gilbert sees the Augusteum as a sort of metaphor for her own changing life, and a sage warning “not to get attached to any obsolete ideas about who I am, what I represent, whom I belong to, or what function I may have once intended to serve.”
The post office and its non-committal response to a missing box of Gilbert’s books spawn a discussion of the “Protestant-Catholic divide” (76). Protestants will commit, feeling they are masters of their own destiny. Catholics will not, feeling they cannot know their fate as it is all in God’s hands.
Gilbert and her friend Sophie take a day trip to Naples—the city responsible for giving the world pizza and ice cream. Gilbert explains the unique Naples culture and describes her dinner at Pizzeria da Michele.
As Gilbert is getting healthier and happier in Italy, she finally decides she needs to finally and completely close and lock the door to the possibility of reunion with David (which, even though they had broken up, was neither locked nor even completely closed). She also gives a little insight into her parent’s marriage and the similarities between her adored father’s emotional withdrawals and David’s.
Catherine, Gilbert’s older, practical, uber-studious, organized, fearless sister, comes to visit her in Italy and shows her an entirely different side of Italy—explaining the architecture, history, facts and politics—the Encyclopedia Britannica side.
The presence of Catherine, stable, predictable, contented wife and mom, leads Gilbert to ponder again her repulsion to the idea of having kids. She has been carrying a lot of guilt about being selfish—choosing herself over kids she hadn’t even had yet (this was her husband’s accusation). She wrestles through reasons for having and not having children and ultimately agrees with “The Bhagavad Gita—that ancient Indian Yogic text—[which] says that it is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection.”
Finally feeling truly free to go where she wants, Gilbert spends six weeks travelling through Italy. In the midst of her spontaneous adventures, she is awakened from her sleep by the sound of her own laughter…a strange and wonderful realization for someone who has spent the last few years battling depression.
Gilbert travels to Venice with her friend Crazy Linda whom she met in Bali previously on a Yoga retreat. Gilbert knows she is truly getting better in terms of her depression when she is able to avoid absorbing the melancholy feel of Venice as her own.
Gilbert and a friend discuss the “single word that defines [the city, and] identifies most people who live there.” Rome is SEX. The Vatican is POWER (her Italian friend insists it is POWER and not FAITH). New York City is ACHIEVE (notably a verb). Los Angeles’ word is SUCCEED. Stockholm: CONFORM, Naples: FIGHT. And she wonders what her word is? SEEK? HIDE? DEVOTION? Though she isn’t sure, she is sure, and relieved, that it’s no longer DEPRESSION.
Thanksgiving falls on Luca Sphaghetti’s birthday (one of Gilbert’s friends) and he wants an American Thanksgiving feast to celebrate. While sharing things they are thankful for, Gilbert realizes she is thankful for being free from the depression that has haunted her for so many years.
Having gained twenty-three pounds in four months at Italy, Gilbert finally has to buy new pants from a sales clerk who apparently forgot her sense of humor.
In her last week in Italy, she travels to Sicily. The poverty stricken, war torn town makes her think about the meaning of beauty and her last few months of pleasure and leisure. “Is it maybe a little shallow to be thinking only about your next wonderful meal? Or is it perhaps the best you can do, given the harder realities?” she asks. She summarized Luigi Barzini’s thoughts from his book The Italians (1964: “in a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible. Pleasure cannot be bargained down. And sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real.” She said that “the appreciation of pleasure can be an anchor of one’s humanity” which is why she came to Italy—to find herself through the pursuit of pleasure. “I do know that I have collected myself of late—through the enjoyment of harmless pleasures—into somebody much more intact. The easiest…way to say it is that I have put on weight. I exist more now than I did four months ago. I will leave Italy noticeably bigger than when I arrived here. And I will leave with the hope that the expansion of one person—the magnification of one life—is indeed an act of worth in this world.”
BOOK TWO: INDIA (or Congratulations to Meet you or 36 Tales about the Pursuit of Devotion)
Gilbert arrives in India at the Ashram at 3:30 AM, just in time to join the morning prayers. They are singing what Gilbert calls “The Amazing Grace of Sanskrit”: “I adore the cause of the universe…I adore the one whose eyes are the sun, the moon and fire…you are everything to me, O god of gods… This is perfect, that is perfect, if you take the perfect from the perfect, the perfect remains.”
The purpose of Yoga, Gilbert explains, is not simply to become more externally flexible. Yoga means “to attach yourself to a task at hand with ox-like discipline. And the task at hand in Yoga is to find union—between mind and body, between the individual and her God, between our thoughts and the source of our thoughts, between teacher and student, and even between ourselves and our sometimes hard-to-bend neighbors…. Yoga can also mean trying to find God through meditation, through scholarly study, through the practice of silence, through devotional service or through mantra…Yoga is not synonymous with Hinduism, nor are all Hindus Yogis.”
Gilbert lists some of the different philosophical and religious answers to the question of why mankind is so discontented and flawed (imbalance, rebellion against God, etc.). She says the Yogis “say that human discontentment is a simple case of mistaken identify. 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.” Therefore, in Yoga, one attempts to find and experience that divinity within.
A Yogi is a person who “has achieved the permanent state of enlightened bliss” and a Guru “is a great Yogi who can actually pass that state on to others.”
Gilbert opens the chapter by saying that one of her “first roommates at the Ashram was a middle-aged African American devout Baptist and meditation instructor from South Carolina.” She then, almost as a side note, mentions other roommates: Argentinean dancer, Swiss homeopath…secretary, mother… etc. All from various countries and professions. As an editorial note, I question if she mentioned the Baptist meditation instructor first to suggest to conservatives and Christians that this Ashram’s practices are all-inclusive and are not in opposition to or offensive to any religion.
Going to the Ashram is more like going to a University than a vacation. In order to apply for acceptance/admittance, you have to show you are serious about this Yoga (and have been for some time), are willing to work hard and serve while you are there, are in mental and physical health (it’s not a place to escape your life), you have to write essays and collect references and prove you can afford it financially.
She also mentions her Guru was not present while she was at the Ashram, but that wasn’t a problem, because “sometimes you will find that it is easier to communicate with your teacher from within these private meditations than to push your way through crowds of eager students and get a word in edgewise in person.”
Gilbert describes her beautiful New Year’s night, spent chanting with the others at the Ashram. Chanting: “It’s a meditative practice—the effort is to hold your attention on the music’s progression and blend your voice together with your neighbor’s voice so that eventually all are singing as one.”
At the Ashram, everyone has a work chore to do—Gilbert’s is scrubbing the temple floors for hours a day. One of the teenage boys working with her tells her, “Remember—everything you do, you do for God. And everything God does, He do for you.”
Gilbert describes some of her challenges with meditation, namely keeping her mind focused. Additionally, she struggles with her mantra—she can’t focus on it and gets bored with it almost immediately.
Gilbert records a rather humorous play by play of her morning meditation as she tries unsuccessfully to wrangle her thoughts. Her failure at meditation makes her want to cry, but her Guru had once warned against allowing yourself to fall apart for fear it would become a habit.
Gilbert meets Richard from Texas, a new arrival at the Ashram whose opening line to her was, “Man, they got mosquitoes ‘round this place big enough to rape a chicken.”
Richard from Texas, fast becoming a close friend, nick-named Gilbert “Groceries” for her ability to consume large quantities of food. He counsels her about her meditation frustrations saying that, “If you sit down with the pure intention to meditate, whatever happens next is none of your business. So why are you judging your experience?” He tells her that her real problem is that her ego is hanging on for dear life, afraid that it is about to get “downsized”.
In light of Richard’s advice, Groceries tells her mind, “Listen—I understand you’re a little frightened. But I promise, I’m not trying to annihilate you. I’m just trying to give you a place to rest. I love you.” And she tries a different mantra: Ham-sa meaning “I am That.” This time she feels “soft blue electrical energy pulsing through [her] body, in waves. It’s a little alarming, but also amazing.”
Gilbert explains her experience in the meditation cave—a thing called kundalini shakti. She says every religion in the world has a group of devotees who have described similar experiences. For the Indian Yogic tradition, this experience is “depicted as a snake who lies coiled at the base of the spine until it is released by a master’s touch or by a miracle, and which then ascends up through seven chakras, or wheels (which you might also call the seven mansions of the soul), and finally through the head, exploding into union with God.” This union produces a blue light which radiates from the middle of their heads—called “the blue pearl.”
She also tells of a dream she had had when she first met her Guru. The dream is of her Guru’s master, a Yogi she calls “Swamiji”. He tells Groceries to stop the waves on the ocean from happening. She is intimidated by him and tries to figure how she might until she hears him laughing uncontrollably. “Tell me, dear one… Tell me if you would be so kind—how exactly were you planning on stopping that?”
Bad dreams keep waking Groceries up in the night, and her thoughts fly back to the past, mistakes, blame, guilt… so she tearfully returns to her written prayers, writing: “I NEED YOUR HELP.” And then she writes back (still wondering whose the voice is which answers) “I’m right here. It’s OK. I love you. I will never leave you…”
Groceries had a miserable morning meditation and is in a funk; compounded by which fact she is missing David. Richard from Texas counsels her to give it time. He tells her that love was just a small taste, encouraging her that someday she will find she has “the capacity to …love the whole world.” He tells her David’s purpose in her life was to get her out of her marriage (that she presumably had to leave), wake her up, reveal to her some of her issues, introduce her to her Guru and “make [her] so desperate and out of control” that she would have to change her life. Those things are done, so David’s purpose is done. He challenges her to “clear out all that space in [her] mind that [she’s] using to obsess about [David]” which will leave an “open spot—a doorway” which the universe “will in—God will rush in—and fill [her] with more love than [she] ever dreamed.”
Groceries discusses her ongoing struggles with mortality, the passing of time and finding contentment—a struggle that first began when she was turning ten, a double digit age, and knew that single digit years were behind her. She says, “I only know that I have been driven to find inner peace with methods that might seem a bit drastic for the general populace.”
This morning, in meditation, Groceries suddenly realizes how uninteresting and repetitive her thoughts really are. She says that, “these two [issues] of love and control undo us all, trip us up and cause war, grief and suffering. And both of them, unfortunately (or maybe obviously), are what I’m dealing with at this Ashram.” So, instead of feeling like a failure for her thoughts, she asks her heart to give her a “more generous perspective on [her] mind’s workings.” She refuses to judge herself for her thoughts, and in response to that, hears a voice like a lion, “roaring from within [her] chest” that said, “YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW STRONG MY LOVE IS!!!!!!!!” After which her taunting negative thoughts scatter and she is able to meditate.
Groceries describes her kundalini shakti experiences as if she turns completely inside out and the whole universe is inside her, both emotionally and physically. She says time and space get all confused and she experiences “every intensity of sensation: fire, cold, hatred, lust, fear…” and when it’s over she is “ravenously hungry, desperately thirsty.”
As difficult as meditation has been, it’s not nearly as difficult for Groceries as the daily Gurugita, or “The Geet,” a 182 verse long Sanskrit chant which takes about an hour and a half to chant. This is done before breakfast, but after they have already meditated an hour and chanted the first morning hymn.
The Geet is conversation between “the goddess Parvati and the almighty, all-encompassing god Shiva. Parvati and Shiva are the divine embodiment of creativity (the feminine) and consciousness (the masculine). She is the generative energy of the universe; he is its formless wisdom. Whatever Shiva imagines, Parvati brings to life. He dreams it she materializes it. Their dance, their union (their Yoga) is both the cause of the universe and its manifestation.”
Groceries not only doesn’t enjoy the Geet, she has an actual negative physical reaction to it. A monk tells her that this is part of the refining process; the Geet is burning away the ego and has a power she cannot understand.
Groceries tells the story of Swamiji (her Guru’s master). She mentions that Swamiji was so powerful that the Reverend Eugene Callender who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and is a Baptist preacher dropped to his knees in amazement when he met him.
She compares Swimiji to her Guru. Her Guru is feminine, savvy, professional, someone she could bring home for dinner. Swimiji was wild, strong, someone she was a bit afraid of. She was always drawn to her Guru and steered clear of Swamiji, but lately finds herself wanting only him. “He’s the master I need when I’m really struggling, because I can curse him and show him all my failures and flaws and all he does is laugh. Laugh and love me.”
Rather comically, Groceries overslept and then found herself locked in her room, about to miss the Geet. Desperate and determined to get there, she climbed out the two-story window, realizing along the way she must actually want to be at the Geet to go through so much trouble to get there.
The Geet is supposed to be a song of love, so Groceries decides it would help her if she could dedicate it to someone she felt pure love for: her eight-year-old nephew Nick. This revolutionized her experience with the Gurugita. It became her most treasured practice at the Ashram. Incidentally, Nick, who had always had trouble sleeping in the past, suddenly wasn’t having any trouble sleeping anymore.
Following the Geet, Groceries writes, “I walked to the front of the temple and bowed flat on my face in gratitude to my God, to the revolutionary power of love, to myself, to my Guru and to my nephew—briefly understanding on a molecular level (not an intellectual level) that there was no difference whatsoever between any of these words of any of these ideas of any of these people.”
After that revolutionary experience with the Gurugita, Groceries decided to extend her stay at the Ashram rather than sightseeing for the rest of her stay in India.
Still finding her thoughts were wayward, Groceries decides to try a new form of meditation—this is like the extreme sports version of meditation—called Vipassana. You sit perfectly still for several hours at a time, not allowed to shift or move or scratch…nothing for the duration. Furthermore, you don’t get a mantra to focus on, for that is considered cheating.
“Vipassana meditation teaches that grief and nuisance are inevitable in this life, but if you can plant yourself in stillness long enough, you will, in time, experience the truth that everything (both uncomfortable and lovely) does eventually pass.” “There isn’t even any talk about “God” in Vipassana, since the notion of God is considered by some Buddhists to be the final object of dependency, the ultimate fuzzy security blanket, the last thing to be abandoned on the path to pure detachment.”
Groceries doesn’t see this as the path for her ultimately, as she prefers to believe in God and has some reserves about detachment, feeling that “emotional disconnect from other human beings” is not a good thing. Nonetheless, she thinks she could learn some restraint from this practice which would aid her in her reactionary nature to people and circumstances. She was desperately tested in her attempt at self mastery in her meditation by a swarm of mosquitoes, and for the first time in her life, she didn’t react.
Groceries talks about faith. She says that you pursue God by prayer, self mastery, improving your virtues, etc. in the hopes that you will get something in return that is greater than what you sacrificed. There is no guarantee of return for your good (and hard) works, but that is faith. This unknowing is what makes humanity courageous. She writes that if we had guarantees about God and life we wouldn’t have faith but an insurance policy. “I’m not interested in the insurance industry. I’m tired of being a skeptic, I’m irritated by spiritual prudence and I feel bored and parched by empirical debate. I don’t want to hear it anymore. I couldn’t care less about evidence and proof and assurances. I just want God. I want God inside me. I want God to play in my bloodstream the way sunlight amuses itself on water.”
Prayer and destiny, Groceries feels, are both relationships. “Half of it you have no control over; half of it is absolutely in your hands, and your actions will show measurable consequence.” So she is learning to be better at the things she has control of. Praying more specifically and intentionally, responding to events more positively, choosing better input into her life (things she sees, reads, etc.) and choosing her thoughts.
A seventeen-year-old Indian girl named Tulsi talks to Groceries about her frustrations with the Indian customs of finding a mate and marriage which she’ll be forced to follow soon.
“I see marriage as an operation that sews two people together, and divorce is a kind of amputation that can take along time to heal” which, Groceries says, is why she still has so many “postamputation sensations” about her divorce. So several of her Ashram friends give her some advice on how to let go of and get past her divorce. One friend, the plumber/poet from New Zealand, took her to a rooftop with a list of ten “Instructions for Freedom” and told her not to come down until it was over (i.e. she had let go of all she had been hanging on to in regards to her marriage/divorce).
On the rooftop, Groceries felt that she and her ex desperately need to release each other, yet she knew they would never talk. So she prayed and asked God if there would be “some level upon which we could communicate? Some level on which we could forgive?” And the answer she got during meditation was, “You can finish the business yourself, from within yourself.” So, in her meditations she invited her ex-husband to “be kind enough to meet… [her]…for this farewell event,” which he did. “His presence was suddenly absolute and tangible.” Of this experience she writes, “I watched these two cool blue souls circle each other, merge, divide again and regard each other’s perfection and similarity…. They knew everything long ago and they will always know everything. They didn’t need to forgive each other; they were born forgiving each other. The lesson they were teaching me in their beautiful turning was, “Stay out of this, Liz. Your part of this relationship is over. Let us work things out from now on. You go on with your life.” And from that point forward, she was healed and the pain of her divorce was over.
Richard from Texas left the Ashram with a few sage words of advice for Groceries: “Keep cultivating gratitude. You’ll live longer. And, Groceries? Do me a favor? Move ahead with your life, will ya?…What I mean is—find somebody new to love someday. Take the time you need to heal, but don’t forget to eventually share your heart with someone. Don’t make your life a monument to David or to your ex-husband.”
Groceries realizes she has been talking constantly since she arrived at the Ashram and decides to spend the remainder of her time in the Ashram in silence, since Swamiji said that silence is “the only true religion.” In fact, she determines to be so silent “that it will make [her] famous.”
Ironically, the next day after her commitment to be famously silent, her work detail is changed. Her new job title is “Key Hostess”.
This job change causes Groceries to think about the pet statement of Swamiji and her Guru, “God dwells within you, as you.” Meaning that, “God dwells within you as yourself, exactly the way you are.” Gilbert realized she didn’t have to change her personality to be holy; rather she should become more fully who she really is—improving not altering her personality. “To know God, you need only to renounce one thing—your sense of division from God. Otherwise, just stay as you were made, within your natural character.”
Groceries loves her new job – she is perfect for it.
The turiya state is the fourth level of consciousness wherein you witness the other states (waking, reaming and deep dreamless sleep). “This is the pure consciousness, an intelligent awareness.” Because God is always observing the levels of human consciousness, if you can reach turiya, you can be present with God…and therefore in a constant state of bliss. Groceries is Key Hostess for a turiya retreat and finds herself carried along on the waves of the participants energy and devotion into turiya, God’s presence, herself.
Groceries attempts to describe her indescribable experience of turiya. “…I suddenly understood the workings of the universe completely. I left my body…I left the planet, I stepped through time and I entered the void…a place of limitless peace and wisdom…The void was God, which means that I was inside God…It wasn’t hallucinogenic, what I was feeling…It was heaven…It was the deepest love I’d ever experienced…” But she began to lose the state of turiya the moment she began to try to hold on to it, afraid it wouldn’t last. God’s last message to her as she left turiya was: “You may return here once you have fully come to understand that you are always here.”
A week later, after another turiya retreat, many of the participants told Groceries that she had appeared to them in their meditations as a “silent, gliding, ethereal presence” –ironic in that, “once [she] had learned to accept [her] loud, chatty, social nature and fully embrace [her] inner Key Hostess—only then could [she] become The Quiet Girl in the Back of the Temple.”
Groceries finally discovered her word – the one word which describes who she is: ANTEVASIN, meaning “one who lives at the border.” It was a term to describe “a person who had left the bustling center of worldly life to go live at the edge of the forest where the spiritual masters dwelled.” No longer a villager, not yet a transcendent, the antevasin was a border-dweller, an in-betweener, “in sight of both worlds, but [looking] toward the unknown.”
Groceries believes that all religions share a common goal to find a “transporting metaphor” or a way to reach God, though they have different means of reaching that goal. Her basic counsel, advice which she lives by, is to find that metaphor, that transporting method which works best for you by bringing you closest to God. She shares some of the differences in approach between Eastern and Western philosophy—but she believes that as long as you are sincere in your pursuit of God, any path will work. Therefore, she encourages people to cherry pick the religions of the world and find the best pieces of each in order to keep moving toward the light.
In support of her ideas that God is bigger than anyone religion ergo we should be open to whatever works, she cites a note which Pope Pius XI gave to Vatican delegates to Libya in 1954, “Do NOT think that you are going among Infidels. Muslims attain salvation, too. The ways of Providence are infinite.”
For her final night in India, Groceries decides to stay up all night in prayer. “I am not actively praying. I have become a prayer,” she writes, and remains all night.
Two poems written by Groceries, one written shortly after arrival and full of frustration and searching and noise, the other written her last morning in India and full of love and peace and quiet reflect the changes in her soul.
BOOK THREE: INDONESIA (or Even in My Underpants I Feel Different or 36 Tales about the Pursuit of Balance)
Arriving in Bali without a plan, wondering if the medicine man who invited her to come back will even remember her, Gilbert suddenly realizes that maybe she should have thought it through a little better.
Gilbert explains a little about Bali’s history, culture, and naming system: people are named based on birth order, First, Second, Third and Fourth—but in Balinese instead of English—(if you reach a fifth child, you start over First to the second power). You are then given nicknames to help distinguish which person named “First” you are referring to.
She decides to stay in Ubud, in the center of Bali. One of the hotel staff, nicknamed Mario due to his love of all things Italian (which explains a little why he and Gilbert become fast friends), knows of the medicine man Ketut Liyer whom she met before and takes her to see him.
Ketut Liyer doesn’t remember Gilbert—her worst fear. She relays their previous conversation, not ringing any bells, until she says she’s a writer—and then the lights go on inside his memory. He is ecstatic that she returned, sees a huge improvement in her spirit and her looks (due no doubt to her healthier mental state) and again offers to have her come and learn Balinese meditation in exchange for practicing English with him.
Gilbert goes more in depth into the history and culture of Bali and why they are masters at balance. Essentially, the Balinese have an elaborate grid-like system in which they orient themselves horizontally with mankind and vertically with the divine. They feel their balance and power is found when they are fully aware of where they are on that grid. This means they don’t wander and that marriage and family are not just preferable, but critical means of placing yourself within that grid.
The first three questions a stranger will ask you in Bali: “Where are you going?” “Where are you coming from?” and “Are you married?” The purpose of all those questions is to try “to insert you into the grid for the purposes of security and comfort.”
Having bought a bicycle to travel about with, Gilbert returns to Ketut Liyer’s to watch as he treats patients. He diagnoses that a teething baby is also troubled by a minor demon, prescribes a sacrifice and blesses the baby with a chant and holy water. He treats everyone who comes, and they all pay what they can. For “Liss,” as he calls Elizabeth Gilbert, he tells her to practice an easy meditation: “sit in silence and smile,” complaining that Yoga is too serious and hard. He says smiling will invite good energy.
Ketut Liyer’s life story: descended from nine generations of medicine men, he wanted to be a painter and resisted the family trade. After a severe accident painting late at night wherein his arm was burned (he was told he needed an amputation), he received a dream from his ancestors who told him how to heal it. His arm healed, he decided he had to go into the medicine man trade after all and began to study the medical notes of his ancestors, the plants on Bali, magic drawings, mantras, and even black magic to correct spells cast on people. He says, “Must help people or God is angry with me…I must do good character always in my life, or I will be in hell.
Gilbert moves in an artist’s house she found for rent and is so happy she cannot remember a time she was ever discontent.
Gilbert was under the false impression that Bali had no history of violence or bloodshed. She corrects herself and explains how they got the image of being “the world’s most peaceful and devotional and artistically expressive people” despite their bloody history.
Ketut explains to Liss that many people are “sick in the birthday,” i.e. born under the wrong star or sign. Additionally, there can be other bad omens and evil spirits accompanying a birth (or what have you) which need to be righted for a person to be brought back into balance (through sacrifice and offering).
He encourages Liss to keep up both methods of meditation, Balinese and Indian, because, “both different, but good in equal way. Same-same. I think about religion, most of it is same-same.” And he teaches her that man is made of the 5 elements of creation: water, fire, wind, sky and earth, and if she will focus on that during meditation, she’ll receive power from each of those forces.
Ketut’s wife had always been very skeptical of Gilbert, until Liss took Ketut’s disintegrating medical notebooks and made photocopies of them all, to protect and preserve the information. This act finally won over the heart of Nyomo, Ketut’s wife.
Gilbert tells the heartbreaking story of her new friend Yudhi. An Indonesian Christian who ended up marrying an American and living in the states when the twin towers were attacked. The resulting Patriot Act and tightened immigration laws were largely focused on Islamic nations, (which included Indonesia). He went to register, as he was told to do, and was promptly arrested and eventually sent back to Indonesia. Now he and his wife are forced to be separated and he doesn’t know where he belongs any more.
Ketut tells Liss about the Four Brothers. Balinese believe that every life has four invisible siblings with it in the womb. Those four invisible spirit brothers accompany that child throughout its life, protecting it and representing the four virtues it needs to be happy: intelligence, friendship, strength and poetry. Those four brothers can be called upon at any time to help you (remember, they are family and can be treated as such!), and they escort you to heaven when you die.
Despite her four protective brothers, Gilbert gets hit by a bus the next day. And it was because of an injury sustained that she went to a doctor (for some reason Ketut recommended she see a doctor, and didn’t volunteer to treat her himself)…Wayan.
Wayan Nuriyasih is a thirty-something woman Balinese healer with a little shop advertising medical aid and a “Multivitamin Lunch Special.” Wayan is also a divorcee (a definite point of bonding in a culture which doesn’t really have divorce). Gilbert explains some of the reasons why in Bali marriage is so central and divorce so unheard of, but the reality was that Wayan had to leave her abusive husband if she hoped to survive. She and her daughter have been barely surviving of her small medical practice.
Gilbert contemplates happiness. She says you have to “fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it…you have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings…It’s easy enough to pray when you’re in distress but continuing to pray even when your crisis has passed is like a sealing process, helping your soul hold tight to its good attainments.” So, in her prayers she asks God to help her hold on to the happiness and contentment. She calls this “Diligent Joy,” remembering that “the search for contentment is…not merely a self-preserving and self-benefitting act, but also a generous gift to the world.”
Ketut explains to Liss about two meditations he knows, one to take him up (to heaven) and the other takes him down (to hell). Hindus do not usually believe in heaven and hell, they believe in Karma, “that heaven and hell are only…found here on earth, where we have the capacity to create them.” But Ketut believed they were places, the same place, and both love. He said the universe is a circle…up and down all the same place, the only difference is the way you get there, “so better to be happy on journey,” he says.
Gilbert and the somewhat bawdy Wayan spend a lot of time together. Wayan is determined to find a man for Gilbert, though Liss insists she doesn’t need one right now. While they are debating this, a gorgeous Brazilian woman named Armenia walks into the shop, a friend of Wayans. She invites Gilbert to a party a Brazilian ex-patriot friend is throwing that night.
All dressed up, surrounded by charming men and slightly drunk, she met two men who particularly intrigued her: the “handsome older Brazilian man” who was hosting the party (Felipe) and the younger, good-looking Welsh percussionist (Ian).
The morning after Gilbert finds her thoughts in a whirl, fairly stressing about having men reintroduced into her life. She begins to imagine a romance with Ian then finds herself thinking about David again…and ends up thinking about Felipe.
Wayan finds out that the rent on her shop is about to be raised, which means she and Tutti (her daughter) and the two orphan girls Wayan has adopted are about to be homeless.
“Wayan once told me that sometimes when she’s healing her patients she becomes an open pipeline for God’s love, and she ceases even thinking about what needs to be done next. The intellect stops, the intuition rises and all she has to do is permit her God-ness to flow through her. She says it feels like a wind comes and takes my hands.” This is essentially what happens to Gilbert. Confronted with the problems Wayan and her girls were facing, she writes an email to all her friends asking for donations to buy Wayan a house in lieu of gifts for Gilbert’s fast approaching birthday. Within seven days, $18,000 was raised. Ironically, Tutti’s name means “everybody” in Italian. “So that’s the final lesson, isn’t it? When you set out in the world to help yourself, you inevitably end up helping…Tutti.”
Gilbert has dinner with Felipe, the handsome Brazilian, nearly every night of the week and spends the majority of the chapter commenting on things she likes about him: the way he listens, the fact that he was faithfully married for some twenty years, etc.
Ketut and Liss discuss romance, a new word for Ketut. But, as Ketut has only ever “made sex” with one woman (his now deceased first wife), they agree it’s not really his area of expertise.
Gilbert tells an ecstatic Wayan (and her girls) about the money that has been raised so that she can buy a house. They transfer the money to Wayan’s account so that Gilbert doesn’t have to deal with the complications of owning property in Bali.
Gilbert thinks about how in the olden days, a father would interview any suitors to ensure they were right for his daughter, good men, good providers, etc. While she doesn’t value the patriarchy, she does realize that without it, no one is really protecting her anymore—there was never a replacement system of protection. So, she decides that it needs to be her job to take on the role of being her own father in protecting herself from her own emotions. This is why, when Felipe (who she has continued to see) asks her, “Should we have an affair together, Liz? What do you think?”, after discussing their various reasons for and against the proposal, Liz holds out.
The following night, after dinner, despite her decisions to become her own protector and hold out, Gilbert and Felipe slept together.
The next morning, early, Gilbert left town with Yudhi (her deported friend) for an American-style road trip across Bali, complimented with an abundance of American slang such as, “Dude” and “Man” and “Yo mama” jokes. And mostly they talk about how much they love New York.
Upon returning to Ubud, Gilbert goes straight back to Felipe’s bed and hardly leaves his place for about a month solid.
The abundance of sex gives Gilbert an infection, which Wayan recognizes immediately and promptly (within two hours), heals. This leads to a conversation of some of Wayan’s more delicate healing services: the various ways in which she helps with sexual problems in the community.
Wayan has still not bought a house yet and Felipe encourages Gilbert from experience not to let the process drag on too long.
Gilbert celebrated her 35th birthday Balinese style.
Indonesian real estate practices are intricate, tricky and hard to figure out. Complicated by the volumes of superstitions that affect purchasing a property: each place has to have the right taksu or spirit about it, has to be in the right location (can’t be too near a river or anywhere else ghosts might live), etc. Not to mention, you have to have an auspicious dream and then ask a priest for an auspicious date to make the purchase. Needless to say, Wayan still hasn’t bought a house.
Felipe confesses his love for Gilbert, but asks for nothing in return. He says he feels it is his job to love her; she can respond any way she chooses. His biggest concern is what kind of life he can offer her in Bali.
After a wrestling with what she do about Felipe, Gilbert had two dreams, one from her Guru the other from Swamiji – both had essentially the same message: it’s time to go out into the world, life a happy life and enjoy.
Gilbert accompanies Ketut to a baby ceremony. Babies are considered gods for the first six months. They are never allowed to touch the ground. If a baby lives past six months, they have a ceremony to welcome him to the human race and allow it to touch the ground for the first time, “orienting this child at last onto the great Balinese grid, establishing who she was by establishing where she was.”
Wayan has finally found a property she likes, but the deal fell through. Wayan explains that the farmer doesn’t want to split his land, but will happily sell all of it…which means she can build a hotel… At this point, Gilbert finally feels like Wayan is using her. Felipe helps her gain some perspective, avoiding the extremes of thinking that all Balinese are out to rip off the Americans, or of being blinded and getting ripped off royally. He challenges her to get in control of the situation, helping Wayan understand that she is not a money-tree and if Wayan doesn’t get a house soon, all those people who donated will be very angry. So, Gilbert finally lays down the law with Wayan, threatening to take the money back if she doesn’t buy a house (even though she can’t really do that). Within four hours, Wayan has bought the property and construction is to start in a week, before Gilbert leaves.
Two years before, Gilbert had traveled to a little island called Gili Meno for ten days of solitude and silence. She was at her lowest point and was like a junkie going through detox as she battled with her demons there. She asked herself to reveal everything that was causing her sorrow and then, as things were revealed, she told each sorrow “It’s OK. I love you. I accept you. Come into my heart now. It’s over.” And she would “actually feel the sorrow (as if it were a living thing) enter [her] heart.” She did the same thing with her anger and her shame. And afterward, she said, “I saw that my heart was not even nearly full, not even after having taken in and tended to all those calamitous urchins of sorrow and anger and shame; my heart could easily have received and forgiven even more. Its love was infinite.” This experience showed her “that this is how God loves us all and receives us all, and that there is no such thing in this universe as hell, except maybe in our own terrified minds. Because if even one broken and limited human being could experience even one such episode of absolute forgiveness and acceptance of her own self, then imagine…what God, kin all His eternal compassion, con forgive and accept.” This was the place, Gili Meno, to which Gilbert brought Felipe.
Returning to Gili Meno cannot help but cause Gilbert to reflect on the changes in her over the past two years. Learning another language, finalizing her divorce, getting free from depression medications… and returning with a Latin Lover to boot. All very fairy-tale like, except that “[she] was not rescued by a prince; [she] was the administrator of [her] own rescue.”
Zen Buddhists believe that two forces are at work in the creation of an oak tree: the acorn (the obvious seed with the all the potential for life), and the future Oak tree which so desperately wants to live, it pulls itself forth from the acorn. Gilbert wonders, in light of this, if maybe that voice helping her through her hard years was possibly future, whole, healthy, mature version of herself, so desperately wanting to be in existence she was helping herself grow through it all.
Felipe poses a solution to their future: trying to divide time (based on their various business/personal needs) between Australia, America, Bali and Brazil. Liz replies, “Attraversiamo”—“Let’s cross over. “
FINAL RECOGNITION AND REASSURANCE
A few months later, Gilbert returns to Indonesia to find all her friends doing well, and most notably Wayan and her family happily situated in a new home. She also thanks all who contributed funds for that house as well as her Aunt and Uncle for all the technical assistance they provided Gilbert during her travels.