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.