Eat, Pray, Love, III

I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love a while ago, but I haven’t written about the last part yet. I suppose I won’t say a lot about it, so I can let those of you who are planning to read it discover it on your own. But I will say that while the middle section in India was my favorite, I liked the last section too; it’s set in Bali where Gilbert goes to try to find a balance between pleasure and prayer.

She visited Bali a few years earlier and met a medicine man who told her she would return, and that when she does, she should seek him out and study with him. She takes him at his word, and although she goes through a few scary moments when he doesn’t seem to recognize her, eventually she says the right thing to remind him of who she is, and he welcomes her and invites her to spend big chunks of her day with him. I very much admire Gilbert’s courage here — her ability to take risks, her willingness to tolerate not knowing exactly what she will do and who she will stay with and if the medicine man will remember who she is or even if he meant what he said or if he was just putting her on. Gilbert’s method of traveling is simply to show up somewhere and to see what happens. If I were a traveler, I might do it that way too — I’d get myself into all kinds of problems and have adventures, and I’d love it.

Anyway, there’s lots more stuff that goes on in this chapter — it’s got more action and is less philosophical than the India section. I did want to give you a few of the more meditative passages in the chapter, however; Gilbert reflects on happiness in one section, describing a lesson she has learned from a spiritual teacher:

Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it. If you don’t, you will leak away your innate contentment. 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.

Now, I don’t know about you, but makes me feel exhausted. I kind of get what she’s saying — we can’t just expect happiness to fall into our laps, right? — but I shy away from any philosophy or form of spirituality requiring me to put in that much effort. Maybe I’m lazy, but I think it’s more likely that this is a hold-over from my younger days when I felt like I had to strive for perfection and could never, ever quite make it. I’m still exhausted from feeling that way. I used to think that I had to constantly guard my soul against sin, that I was in danger of messing up at any moment, that I needed to be forever vigilant against making a mistake. I’m not opposed to putting effort into a spiritual practice, not at all, but it’s got to come from an inner motivation, not from somebody else telling me what to do. And I tend to think that happiness actually does fall into our laps, that when we strive for it, it becomes elusive, and when we are focused on other things, it appears.

I liked this passage about happiness better:

I also keep remembering a simple idea my friend Darcey told me once — that all the sorrow and trouble of this world is caused by unhappy people. Not only in the big global Hitler-‘n’-Stalin picture, but also on the smallest personal level. Even in my own life, I can see exactly where my episodes of unhappiness have brought suffering or distress or (at the very least) inconvenience to those around me. The search for contement is, therefore, not merely a self-preserving and self-benefiting act, but also a generous gift to the world. Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way. You cease being an obstacle, not only to yourself but to anyone else. Only then are you free to serve and enjoy other people.

I like that idea — that being happy means you are out of the way. You are less likely to trip other people up. I think this is a very freeing idea — wanting to be happy isn’t a selfish thing at all; finding happiness is a way of helping to make the people around you happy.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

11 responses to “Eat, Pray, Love, III

  1. Gilbert seems like a likeable person throughout the book. I wonder if she is the same in person–I suspect she is–her personality really comes through in the book. I am looking forward to the movie.

  2. Dorothy, I love what you have to say about happiness here. If you have to work that hard to create it, and grip that tightly to preserve it, I cannot help but feel that the happiness will be entirely tainted with the strain of effort and anxiety. There has to be a letting go, a gentleness and an acceptance in true happiness, I think. And yes, I love that second quote also.

  3. Gee, I don’t work anywhere near that hard for sadness, and it falls in my lap all the time. I don’t know why happiness would be any different. I agree: it sounds exhausting, and, as Litlove says, anxiety-inducing. I do understand, though, her thoughts on how it’s easy to pray when things are bad but hard to do so when things are going well. And I very much like the second quote about unhappy people getting in others’ way. That’s definitely something to think about. So, looks like I need to make a trip to Border’s…

  4. What is disconcerting about happiness is how it is related to one’s way of life. I always feel guilty when I even question my happiness, based on my way of life compared with many people in the world. Here I sit with a full stomach, drinking coffee and browsing the Internet in a climate-controlled home. It seems ludicrous that “happiness” would even be in question. If only it were that easy… it probably should be.

  5. Dorothy, so interesting to me, all that you are saying about the book, and about happiness in general.
    I am [now] a firm believer in the idea that if our pursuit of spiritual progress is bringing unhappiness into our lives, at any point, it is something that I personally lose interest in.
    Someone else, someone who has attained guru status in their chosen field, may caution me on that and say, “Oh, but my son. Where is the discipline? You must strive… you must climb the tree… you must deny your…” I would cut in right about here and say, “You must also talk to someone else about this, Swami, for you have lost me with all of your mustiness…”
    See, I have been there. I have been a licensed minister, I know every mantra.
    The only sort of spiritual mantra that makes sense to me nowadays, is that of Joseph Campbell, which says, “Follow your bliss.”
    Spirituality that is not liberating is debilitating.
    I think of the hymn that I used to sing, and encourage others to sing, one line of which was:
    “Would you be free of your passion and pride? There’s power in the blood. Power in the blood.”
    What?
    Be FREE of my “passion”?
    My passions are the best thing about me!
    What is the song saying? That we would be better people if we were passionless?
    I’ve got on too long here, but you’ve struck a chord, I guess.
    Great blog.

  6. The book sounds like an interesting read and Gilbert seems to have some interesting things to say especially about happiness. I like the second quaote best. I bristled a bit at the first quote, but then I thought about it a little and maybe the words she has chosen are inadequate or too forceful, because happiness does take some work. There are moments of happiness that fall into our laps, but a continuous and sustained happiness takes some doing, I don’t think it happens on its own. I think it requires we pay attention and be present and make choices–provide fuel for the happiness fire to keep burning so to speak.

  7. Oh, I’d forgotten there’s a movie of Gilbert’s book coming out — thanks for reminding me, Danielle. I’ll definitely have to see it — I wonder who’s playing Gilbert??

    I like your point about letting go, Litlove — that makes a lot of sense to me, that happiness involves a letting go and acceptance of what comes. Although maybe there is some effort involved in learning how to let go? Perhaps, as Stefanie points out, Gilbert’s wording is overheated here, and I wouldn’t have reacted as badly if she’d toned it down a bit.

    Emily, yeah, I know what she’s talking about too, when she says the hard part is praying or practicing whatever it is you practice when times are hard. I find it difficult to do all the things that are good for me right when I most need them. I think I need to find a balance between trying to do those things that are good for me, and not pushing myself too hard or punishing myself.

    Good point, Brad. Perhaps a little more awareness of how hard life can often be would help. But it doesn’t always work that way, does it?

    That’s exactly it, Cipriano — I’ve tried hard enough already and I’m not doing it anymore! I like your idea that if the practice isn’t working, we should give it up. I think your comment also points out that our attitude toward striving is shaped by our experiences — perhaps people who have different spiritual backgrounds wouldn’t be as turned off by this advice.

    Stefanie, good point about her wording. I’m not entirely against effort or striving, but I think I have to do it on my own terms entirely and not somebody else’s. There are also different ways of striving, aren’t there? You can do it by berating yourself for failure or you can do it in a self-forgiving, patient but persistant way.

  8. I heard Julia Roberts is playing Elizabeth Gilbert for the movie adaptation.

    Odd, my last comment did not seem to get through.

  9. Sorry about that Dark Orpheus! I think wordpress may have been having some troubles. Hmmm … we’ll have to see about Julia Roberts in that part …

  10. I agree that the first quote does make happiness sound too
    exhausting but at the same time happiness is an inner
    struggle and doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes we must
    force ourselves to have that inner dialogue in which
    we strive towards being content and happy and away from
    our own wallowing.

  11. What Liz says about happiness being work resonates with me. I think it is very much about diligent, purposeful action towards maintaining a positive attitude, not back braking, knee cracking labor. I’m a single mom of two small girls. I work full time. My life is sometimes so busy that I can’t remember the last time I sat down. But, I could very easily fall into a pit of despair and bemoan my current state of affairs and my lack of free time and spendable income, but I just CHOOSE not to. Rather, I focus my mind and my energy on the good things about my life, on the fact that my children are both healthy and smart, that I am paid well enough to make a decent home for all of us and keep the lights on even if we can’t go mall rummaging every other day, but who really needs that anyway and what would that teach my children about living without excess? Even at this moment, when I could be ranting about all manner of daily drama, I choose instead to savor this great cup of coffee and marvel at finding yet another blog discussing my favorite book of the moment (which I actually listened to as it was read by the author-the best way to go-and just sitting there waiting for me at the local library!)

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