"The guru always said that pain is a gift." I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a farmhouse in upstate New York, the main house of an ashram I'd frequented for years. It was a familiar place: the dim lights, the incensed air, the walls lined with framed and garlanded photos of brown-skinned men with penetrating eyes.
"Pain is the greatest teacher because it makes you go inside," the teacher said. She was a beautiful older woman with a remarkably gentle demeanor, soft skin, soft eyes, buttery voice. She was talking about the role of emotional pain and trauma on the spiritual path. It wasn't lost on me: how an event or events that seemingly bring you to your knees could ultimately lead you to your heart. How a life-shattering event could actually become a life-altering event, how suffering can make us seek a little harder, look a little deeper.
"First there is the book, then there is the movie," she added. "The book has already been written, but you don't have to make the movie." Now she was talking about trauma, how the initial hit from a hurtful childhood event can be reactivated by a parallel occurrence later in life. How trauma can repeat on you like bad greasy food, how we don't have to let it.
I listened to her carefully. I felt traumatized. One might say that the preceding two years had been the worst of my life. I could go into a litany of all that had happened in those years, but I'll resist, because it really doesn't matter. Death, illness, injury, betrayal, the end of a relationship: in other words, the usual, the usual things that happen. All I knew was that I was reeling in pain and like many people many times before me all I felt like I wanted to do was: GO.
"Eat, Pray, Love." First there was the book and then there was the movie. You've already read the book. You really don't have to watch the movie. The former is actually a touching and often insightful, heartfelt rendition of a woman's journey out of her pain, the later a vapid Hollywood spectacle.
"Eat, Pray, Love." First there was the book and then there was the sensation. But why such a sensation? Which of our inner longings does it speak to, which of our myths does it replicate, which of our dreams does it seem to promise to fulfill?
The plot of "Eat, Pray, Love" is simple: woman leaves bad marriage, has painful rebound relationship, goes on trip to heal from her depression and finds new and improved relationship. In between, she eats a lot of pasta in Italy, has some sincere heart opening experiences at an ashram in India, helps buy a home for a poor medicine woman in Bali. She learns that she can feel happiness in solitude (at least for a period of time), but finds her ultimate contentment in an intimate relationship with a man. And it all happens so easily. She goes from pain to perfection in 10 easy steps. She goes out into the world looking for her happiness and she finds it. She makes it all sound so facile, like one ritual on an ashram rooftop that wipes it all away, a "karmic" bankruptcy filing.
There is a zeitgeist in our culture that has permeated everything from religious (spiritual) culture to corporate culture. Whether called "the power of positive thinking" or "the law of attraction," it's a belief that through controlling our thoughts we can control our reality. It's not mystical thinking, because mystical thinking is actually working on thought beyond thought, or more precisely letting go of thought. It's mystical thinking's charlatan doppelganger, magical thinking. It's become so pervasive in our culture that we almost don't notice the way it's invaded our basic belief system.
As the author Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her brilliant critique of this cultural phenomenon, "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America," it's responsible not only for a sort of "new age" spiritual laziness, but even the failure of our banking system. As she says, "This is optimism, and it's not the same as hope. Hope is an emotion, a yearning, the experience of which is not entirely in our control. Optimism is a cognitive stance." In other words, it has little to do with the heart; the heart is mysterious, deep and somewhat inexplicable. And opening the heart does not hold any promise of reward, other than that you will feel.
Now I actually think Elizabeth Gilbert knows this. I think she knows this because she describes some pretty profound heart opening experiences at the ashram she visits in India. She relates a monk telling her, "The resting place of the mind is the heart ... the only place the mind will ever find peace is inside the silence of the heart." She goes on to describe devotion and faith as the relinquishment of expectation. "The devout of this world perform their rituals without any guarantee that anything good will ever come of it." Yet at the end of the book, she seems to throw it all away, all the hard-earned wisdom she's accrued. Though she's obviously reveling in the dopamine-addled bliss of a new love, she neither attributes her happiness to the fact that she's having four orgasms a day with a sexy Brazilian guy nor to the fate, fortune, chance that brought him to her. She somewhat hubristically, and I believe rather dishonestly, credits her new found contentment to herself, her will, her desire to bring it all about. "I was not rescued by a prince," she says, "I was the administrator of my own rescue."
Now I don't begrudge Liz her happiness. Yet it seems like Liz is an extremely fortunate person. As the medicine man tells her at the beginning of the book, "You have more good luck than anyone I've ever met." But what if she weren't a lucky person? What if things hadn't wrapped up so nicely? What if Elizabeth set out to have pleasure, to learn how to meditate, to find balance and had actually done all these things then not met the man of her dreams or met another man who hurt her, had another failed relationship, got very sick, or had a call to come home quickly because a parent was dying or a friend had just had a horrible accident? What if she just had heartache piled on her heartache? Then what? Well, then Liz would be me (and many of the rest of us) and her book wouldn't have sold millions of copies or have been turned into a movie staring Julia Roberts.
I wasn't going to write this piece. I feared it would come off like sour grapes. Everyone loves a winner and no one loves a whiner. But maybe we should reexamine why we don't like whiners. Could it be that whiners "R" us? That as a culture we prefer to see ourselves reflected in the most flattering of mirrors than to see ourselves as we really are? That we shun the truth of our own lives and the way those lives can contain as well as a great deal of joy and success, a lot of pain, failure, grief and disappointment? Is this the reason why we are an antidepressant-addicted culture? That we don't know how to deal with anything other than "positive" emotion? There are the residues of antidepressants in our water supply. All of America is pissing antidepressants.
But back to my story: what happened to me was that after these two years of heartache upon heartache, of pissing antidepressants, I set out in my little car to drive around America. Like Liz, I was going to write a book about it. Unlike Liz, I didn't have a book deal and was doing it on my own dime. Like Liz, I had dreams of finding happiness, restoring balance to my life, finding out who I really was. We were both running from depression, we were both extremely optimistic about what we would find. Unlike Liz I didn't have a plan other than to go where the road took me, to follow my heart and let my inner wisdom guide me. I wanted to see what would happen if I let go of my former life and drove out into the unknown. Was this magical thinking? Perhaps. There was an ultimate faith that if I flung myself out in the world that I would land, not only where I was supposed to land, but happily on my feet.
At first it seemed that my prayers for healing were answered remarkably swiftly. My second stop, and one of my only planned destinations, was a little town in the mountains of North Carolina. When I entered it, driving my car alongside the cliffs that abut the river, I felt transported into a dream. I gave a reading in an old church that friends of mine from New York had bought and turned into a cultural center and I was incredibly well-received. The good company, the good food, the awe-inspiring mountain vistas began to work their magic on me. After two and half years of feeling like a deflated inner tube, I began to fill with air. I realized how nature, silence and solitude are much more effective than any pharmaceutical prescription for me. My heart slowed down; I could hear it and its inner longings. So when my friends left to go back to New York, I decided to stay on for a little bit in their house.
Then as if my joy at recovering my sense of balance wasn't enough, I met a wonderful man. Like Liz, I had been reluctant to get romantically involved; I wanted to take time to bask in myself, to feel the joy of being Ester again. But not only was there the kind of spark that feels difficult to resist, he seemed really caring and compassionate. I understood him to be a good man who had found himself in a tough spot: divorced with a small child he had not planned for, but whom he loved and was doing his best to care for. I felt that he'd been hurt, was somewhat bemused by the position he found himself in his life and I identified with his feelings. And since I believed so fully that the universe, after two and half years of beating me down somewhat relentlessly was now going to make up for it, I relaxed my rule that I shouldn't get involved and took him as my lover. And lordy, what a lover. We had that kind of chemistry which just doesn't come along often in life, the kind of chemistry that makes you feel as if there is something deep behind it. And although I realized it was a complicated situation (with the ex-wife and the child), it didn't seem like an impossible situation. He told me that he was open to whatever happened between us and that things have a way of working out. So deciding to take a chance on love, I shifted gears: what was going to be a network of roads across America became a single solitary road. It was a dirt and gravel road that led to a cabin in the woods that became, not only my writer's retreat, but our love nest.
So what happened? Did my prince and I live happily ever after like Liz and Felipe? No, not exactly. After two and half months of seeing this man and allowing myself to open up and fall in love, he precipitously cut me off without a word. I went back to New York in a state of panic and then returned to the mountains only to find out six months later that he was living with his wife whom I had believed was his ex-wife. Not only had they never been divorced, he had apparently gone back to her, of course explaining why he had suddenly dropped me like a stash of drugs at a state trooper road block.
Did I feel pain? You better believe it. Did I wretch and scream, ask over and over again, "Why me?" Uh, huh. Did I cry myself to sleep with a bottle, and I'm not talking about warm milk? You betcha. Was I thrown into some kind of existential crisis? Fer real. Did I ask for answers? Yes. Did I get any answers? No, but I am still asking.
"Eat, Pray, Love." First there is the book then there is the movie. Real life. First is the shit, then there is the shingle. Nearly a year has past and I feel that I need a healing journey to recover from my healing journey. Or more precisely, I've learned that a healing journey is a lifetime effort. It's not something that can easily fit into a book about a year or a Hollywood movie. And the ultimate destination is, as the ashram teacher suggested, somewhere inside. I don't know why I met this man or why I met him at this time in my life when I felt particularly hopeful and when I had flung myself at the mercy of the universe asking for healing, but I have a sense of destiny about our meeting. Maybe, as Richard from Texas tells Liz in the book, there are certain people who come into our lives to reveal uncomfortable truths, to rip us open and then, having done their duty, leave. In any event, knowing nothing, I've chosen to submit to the fact that I don't see the big picture, or it simply hasn't been shown to me yet.
In the meantime, my year-long healing journey hasn't been a total bust. I've met a lot of wonderful people, made a few life-long friends, had some powerful experiences, learned more clearly who I am. But it just feels like the entrance ramp to the highway. And knowing that I'm still on the entrance ramp, I'm unsure if I have easy wisdom or insight for anyone. Life is strange. Don't have expectations. Love can be cruel. Nature is exquisite and possibly indifferent. Our minds are full of garbage. Most people do not want to hurt you, but they may anyway. You cannot make things go your way by willing them or believing in them. It's good to laugh, but sometimes there is nothing better and more appropriate than crying. Good things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to good people. You will sometimes not understand what people do, but it is best for your own heart to forgive them. Real friends are rare and precious. The only "sin" would be to not use your gifts. The only other "sin" would be to shut down your heart. And now that the book has been written, it may finally be time to stop going to the movies.