The gods smiled on Eat Pray Love: seven million copies sold, translated into thirty languages, championed by Oprah, adapted into a $200 million grossing Julia Roberts movie. Meanwhile Bitch magazine gave it a good slap, calling it “priv lit”, and 144 commenters agreed, wondering how anyone could like such a piece of narcissistic rich white lady trash. I have intelligent, well read friends who love it, and intelligent, well read friends who hate it. What interests me is the prominent place spirituality holds in it, for such a monumental best-seller, especially coming from an author who certainly didn’t come out of nowhere, but kind of came out of nowhere.
In his book One Taste Ken Wilber describes Aldous Huxley as “the last author who could write intensely, deeply and philosophically about mystical and transcendental topics... and be taken seriously by the intelligentsia, the media, the Manhattan Inc. crowd, the liberal insiders, the avant-garde - the last author who could write about transcendental topics and have it considered hip, hot, happening.” I’m not saying Elizabeth Gilbert is the new Huxley, and the book scored more with the Oprah set than with the intelligentsia and the Manhattan Inc crowd, but that makes her presentation of mystical and transcendental topics all the more remarkable. It certainly doesn’t hurt that those themes are considerately sandwiched between 120 pages of eating pasta in Italy and 120 pages of romance with a hunky Brazilian in Bali.
Ah, but what kind of spirituality are we talking about? Again, in One Taste, Wilber describes two functions of religion. One gives practitioners the tools to reinforce the ego, the other gives tools to transcend it. He names these functions translative and transformative, respectively. Here it is from Wilber:
With translation, the self is simply given a new way to think or feel about reality. The self is given a new belief - perhaps holistic instead of atomistic, perhaps forgiveness instead of blame, perhaps relational instead of analytic. The self then learns to translate its world and its being in the terms of this new belief or new language or new paradigm, and this new and enchanting translation acts, at least temporarily, to alleviate or diminish the terror inherent in the heart of the separate self.
But with transformation, the very process of translation itself is challenged, witnessed, undermined, and eventually dismantled. With typical translation, the self (or subject) is given a new way to think about the world (or objects); but with radical transformation, the self itself is inquired into, looked into, grabbed by its throat and literally throttled to death.
The distinction between those two forms of spirituality is subtle, and certainly outside the bounds of the traditional religion most of us grew up with, so I'll try to restate the difference. Translative spirituality helps you see things in a new way, it encourages you to do good deeds, or treat yourself and others better, but it allows you to stay fully identified with your ego. You are your gender, your nationality, your profession, your elaborate set of likes and dislikes, abilities and deficiencies. You can be a better version of those things, but that's who you are. And you'll still be those things in the afterlife. Transformative spirituality says fuck that. Identifying with any of these transitory things is like mistaking a few rain drops for the ocean. Get past thinking of yourself as a person with these preferences, these skills, these describable attributes. Reach for that eternal something that lies deeper than our surface consciousness. Realize that you are and always have been part of the ocean.
The New Age spirituality movement is largely, if not entirely, translative. It's an easier sell: You can manifest wealth and love in your life if you send nothing but positive energy into the universe. You can beat cancer. You can achieve inner peace. You can change the world. You can see how your destiny is guided by the stars and planets. That's right - you! The cosmos knows and cares about who you personally. By the way, buy more of my books. Attend my workshops. Listen to my CDs.
So which is Eat Pray Love? Translative seems the likelier candidate, given the book’s roaring popularity, á la The Secret. Is that the kind of spirituality Gilbert presents? Well, decide for yourself. Here’s an excerpt from a conversation she has with a fellow student at the Indian ashram where the book’s middle section (“Pray”) is set:
“All I seem to do is argue with myself when I try to meditate.”
“That’s just your ego, trying to make sure it stays in charge. This is what your ego does. It keeps you feeling separate, keeps you with a sense of duality, tries to convince you that you’re flawed and broken and alone instead of whole.”
“But how does that serve me?”
“It doesn’t serve you. Your ego’s job isn’t to serve you. Its only job is to keep itself in power. And right now, your ego’s scared to death cuz it’s about to get downsized. You keep up this spiritual path, baby, and that bad boy’s days are numbered. Pretty soon your ego will be out of work, and your heart’ll be making all the decisions. So your ego’s fighting for its life, playing with your mind, trying to assert its authority, trying to keep you cornered off in a holding pen away from the rest of the universe. Don’t listen to it.”
“How do you not listen to it?”
“Ever try to take a toy away from a toddler? They don’t like that, do they? They start kicking and screaming. Best way to take a toy away from a toddler is distract the kid, give him something else to play with. Divert his attention. Instead of trying to forcefully take thoughts out of your mind, give your mind something better to play with. Something healthier.”
“Like love. Like pure divine love.”
Gilbert emphasizes how hard the spiritual path is. She repeatedly relates her great difficulties quieting her monkey mind. She gets frustrated. She despairs. She wonders if she’s doing the right thing. But she persists, and uses her continuing struggle as an opportunity to explore more aspects of her search with the reader:
I’m trying a different mantra, too. It’s one I’ve had luck with in the past. It’s simple, just two syllables:
In Sanskrit it means “I am That.”
The Yogis say that Ham-sa is the most natural mantra, the one we are all given by God before birth. It is the sound of our own breath. Ham on the inhale, sa on the exhale. ... As long as we live, every time we breathe in or out, we are repeating this mantra. I am That. I am divine, I am with God, I am an expression of God, I am not separate, I am not alone, I am not this limited illusion of an individual. I’ve always found Ham-sa easy and relaxing. Easier to meditate with than Om Namah Shivaya, the - how would you say this - “official” mantra of this Yoga. But I was talking to this monk the other day and he told me to go ahead and use Ham-sa if it helped my meditation. He said, “Meditate on whatever causes a revolution in your mind.”
So I’ll sit with it here today.
I am That.
Thoughts come, but I don’t pay much attention to them, other than to say to them in an almost motherly manner, “Oh, I know you jokers... go outside and play now... Mommy’s listening to God.”
I am That.
A note on the phrase "I am That" - check out Br. Chris' piece about the Spirit, lest the phrase seem like an identification of the ego itself with that Bigger Something. And a note on her use of the term “God” - early in the book she makes it clear she isn’t talking about Yahweh, or any other personal deity. It’s shorthand for a transcendent indescribability “and ‘God’ is the name that feels the most warm to me, so that’s what I use.” She later describes how mystics and meditators of all cultures describe the same experience, showing the reader the common ground shared by Sufis, Kabbalists, Buddhists and Saint Teresa of Avila.
Gilbert also eases the reader through the difference between the gross and subtle body, anticipating the scientific materialist objection as well:
My friend Bob, who is both a student of Yoga and a neuroscientist, told me that he was always agitated by this idea of the chakras, that he wanted to actually see them in a dissected human body in order to believe they existed. But after a particularly transcendent meditative experience he came away with a new understanding of it. He said, “Just as there exists in writing a literal truth and a poetic truth, there also exists in a human being a literal anatomy and a poetic anatomy. One, you can see; one, you cannot. One is made of bones and teeth and flesh; the other is made of energy and memory and light. But they are both equally true.”
Despite her desperate desire to be taken beyond herself, Gilbert’s persistence in meditation practice leaves her more and more frustrated. She vows silence, and is, ironically, assigned a duty at the ashram as a hostess to new students. She laughs at the up-ending of her intentions, and goes with it. And then has a peak experience. She describes it in detail:
Simply put, I got pulled through the wormhole of the Absolute, and in that rush I suddenly understood the workings of the universe completely. I left my body, I left the room, I left the planet, I stepped through time and I entered the void. I was inside the void, but I also was void and I was looking at the void, all at the same time. The void was a place of limitless peace and wisdom. The void was conscious and it was intelligent. The void was God, which means that I was inside God. But not in a gross, physical way - not like I was Liz Gilbert stuck inside a chunk of God’s thigh muscle. I just was part of God. In addition to being God. I was both a tiny piece of the universe and exactly the same size as the universe. (“All know that the drop merges into the ocean, but few know that the ocean merges into the drop,” wrote the sage Kabir - and I can personally attest now that this is true.)
It wasn’t hallucinogenic, what I was feeling. It was the most basic of events. It was heaven, yes. It was the deepest love I’d ever experienced, beyond anything I could have previously imagined, but it wasn’t euphoric. It wasn’t exciting. There wasn’t enough ego or passion left in me to create euphoria and excitement. It was just obvious. Like when you’ve been looking at an optical illusion for a long time, straining your eyes to decode the trick, and suddenly your cognizance shifts and there - now you can clearly see it! - the two vases are actually two faces. And once you’ve seen through the optical illusion, you can never not see it again.
Compare this with Wilber’s description of One Taste (in, yet again, One Taste), and note his use of the words “just this”. He repeats those words in various places in the book, repeatedly emphasizing the simplicity of the experience, along with its profundity:
There is no time in this estate, though time passes through it. Clouds float by in the sky, thoughts float by in the mind, waves float by in the ocean, and I am all of that. I am looking at none of it, for there is no center around which perception is organized. It is simply that everything is arising, moment to moment, and I am all of that. I do not see the sky, I am the sky, which sees itself. I do not feel the ocean, I am the ocean, which feels itself. I do not hear the birds, I am the birds, which hear themselves. There is nothing outside of me, there is nothing inside of me, because there is not me - there is simply all of this, and it has always been so. Nothing pushes me, nothing pulls me, because there is not me - there is simply all of this, and it has always been so.
My ankle hurts from dancing last night, so there is pain, but the pain doesn’t hurt me, for there is no me. There is simply pain, and it is arising just like everything else - birds, waves, clouds, thoughts. I am none of them, I am all of them, it’s all the same One Taste. This is not a trance, or a lessening of consciousness, but rather an intensification of it - not subconscious but superconscious, not infra-rational but supra-rational. There is a crystal-clear awareness of everything that is arising, moment-to-moment, it’s just not happening to anybody. This is not an out-of-the-body experience; I am not above looking down; I am not looking at all; and I am not above or below anything - I am everything. There is simply all of this, and I am that.
Most of all, One Taste is utter simplicity. With mystical experiences in the subtle and causal, there is often a sense of grandeur, of ominous awesomeness, of numinous overwhelmingness, of light and bliss and beatitude, of gratefulness and tears of joy. But not with One Taste, which is extraordinarily ordinary, and perfectly simple: just this.
Gilbert does seem to have retained her goal to transcend her ego. In a recent TED talk (embedded at the end of this piece), she recommends reviving the ancient Greek and Roman notion of “genius” - not as something within a person, but a sort of god or fairy who lives in the walls, capriciously bestowing orwithholding its gifts as the imperfect human toils away. The genius shares responsibility for a work’s failure or success. The human is the vessel, humble and not in control, waiting and ready to express something bigger than herself. In Northern Africa onlookers would shout “Allah! Allah!” when they recognized that spark of the divine in the motions of a dancer - a tradition that carries on in Spain (thanks to the Moorish invasion) as people still call out a differently pronounced version of the same call: “Ole!” while watching the sublime movements of a bullfighter or flamenco dancer. As Gilbert writes now, she tells herself “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cock-eyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then Ole. And if not, do your dance anyhow. And Ole to you nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”
With regard to the charge of Eat Pray Love being “priv lit” - in which a wealthy white lady splurges incredible (and to the majority of us, unattainable) resources in her quest for narcissistic personal fulfillment: balls. Her year of travel was admittedly bankrolled by her publisher in the form of a fat advance, but she’s a writer. She wasn’t born published. She grew up on a farm, the child of a chemical engineer and a nurse. She wrote and submitted her stuff to editors, supporting herself working shitty jobs. She got published in Spin, GQ, the New York Times Review and other magazines. Her book The Last American Man got nominated for the National Book Award for non-fiction while she was still in her twenties. She earned her advance in the same way a doctor or lawyer earns her fees. She’s no more guilty of living off the bubble of Western privilege than any successful professional.
So how many of Eat Pray Love’s nine million readers are devotedly following the path to enlightenment now? Very few, I’d guess. Doubtless, many readers skimmed or skipped the middle (read: spiritual) section of the book. Others snapped it shut at the horrifying implication that there’s anything beyond the mythic Christian religion they grew up with and still do lip service to. Others still read it and thought it sure would be nice to feel that good, and then let the notion slip into the vague set of impressions most of us have of a book we’ve read and then stuck on the shelf.
But the significance of the book’s success becomes clearer when set against the backdrop of the other books of similar sales and popularity. I was recently apartment hunting, and couldn’t help but scan the books on the shelf of a place I walked through, noting Eat Pray Love sitting there comfortably with four Dan Browns and a dozen Grishams.
Eat Pray Love might inspire some of its readers to meditate, or re-examine their relationship with their egos, or look into the mystical traditions of their’s and other faiths. But even if it doesn’t, a book with those themes creates an upward push on the centre of gravity, in the culture at large and on a given person’s bookshelf. It introduces challenging spiritual ideas in a clearly written, accessible way, digestible by any reader, and written with verve, humour and feeling - and in the context of a story. It might pave the way for mainstream acceptance of other books of that kind. And maybe the next book will inspire someone to transcend their ego, or the one after that, or the twentieth. Or maybe none will, but the culture’s understanding and acceptance of transformative spirituality will have made the tiniest advance. And tiny advances have a way of accumulating.
A quick post-script, from Br. Chris in editing this piece: because of The One Taste reality, no person needs go to India or Italy or another exotic place for such realization. You don't have to be a rich white chick to be spiritual. Though of course having some recourse to money that allows a person to take a little time off work is relatively helpful. But that they can come into this experience in the midst of daily life, however challenging and non-exotic or Hollywood spiritual.