08/12/2010 08:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Eat, Pray, Love: How to Take a Spiritual Journey

Eat, Pray, Love, the Julia Roberts movie based on Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling book, opens this weekend. Nobody can deny the excitement millions of people are feeling, but it makes me wonder why the story causes many people to feel that they need exotic travel to stimulate their spiritual journeys. Do they?

One can take a spiritual journey without ever leaving home. And the notion that anyone who travels "leaves everything behind" is actually laughable. Wherever we go, we bring ourselves -- we bring all of the past experiences that make us us. So, to borrow a Hebrew adage, while changing our location may change our destiny, the journey to transform ourselves begins with a journey inward, not outward. That's an insight as old as the Genesis story of Abraham.

Abraham is instructed to set forth on a journey which demands that he leave his country, his homeland, and his father's house. Clearly, the ability to journey physically is not entirely disconnected from the ability to journey spiritually. But to make it a necessity is to make spiritual journey a subset of travel and leisure, available to the wealthy or to those willing to live a beggar's life. That is why Abraham's spiritual journey, like all of ours, begins not with a journey outward, but with a journey inward.

"Go to yourself" (lekh lekha in Hebrew) is the command that launches Abraham's journey, one that he will spend the rest of his life trying to fulfill. Unlike Adam and Eve's journey out of the Garden of Eden -- a journey compelled by their landlord, the Lord -- the successful spiritual journey is not a forced exit.

The successful spiritual journey is a natural outgrowth of asking ourselves where we need to be, where we are most likely to fulfill whatever it is we understand to be our life's purpose. It's not so much about what we must drop as what we are willing to take on. It can happen sitting at home, in the desserts of the Middle East, or on the road to Italy, India and Indonesia, as it does in Eat, Pray, Love.

But the successful spiritual journey is not only about our inner lives, or even limited to ourselves, at least not if we are following in the footsteps of Abraham. Abraham is promised that his journey, if taken well, will bring him great things -- he will be blessed. But that is not all. He is also told that if he journeys well, he will be a source of blessing to others.

Success on our spiritual journeys, wherever they may take us, is measured not only by the personal fulfillment which they bring us. The successful spiritual journey will also bring goodness to those around us. In fact, one could argue that the best gauge of the success of our journeys is how they serve those who are not with us on the journey. That awareness of others is what separates a genuine spiritual journey from a more new-age fantasy of personal fulfillment disconnected from anyone or anything else.

A great spiritual journey may be facilitated by a physical one, but physical travel is surely not a prerequisite of spiritual growth. For that, one simply needs a mirror and a window. The mirror is for looking in every day and asking ourselves, "How am I doing?" The window is for looking out at those around us, those who may not be taking the journey with us, and asking them the same questions. When the response from all queried is generally positive, then we are not only doing the spiritual journey, we are doing it well.

So why are so many people so excited about Eat, Pray, Love? Perhaps it's not due to the allure of travel. Perhaps the millions who adore this story react to something far deeper, something suggested by the title itself.

To eat, pray and love is to celebrate the body, the spirit and the human need for relationships. Could there be three things more fundamental? In fact, one could probably summarize all of life in those three moves.

We do not need to eat gourmet food in Italy, we do not necessarily need to pray to any god or gods, and we do not need to go as far as Indonesia to find love. But we do need to honor and nourish our bodies. We do need to pray -- to focus, at least occasionally, on that for which we yearn and that for which we are deeply grateful. And we all need to love, both to give it and to get it.

We may not need either the book or the film version of Eat, Pray, Love, and we certainly don't need to buy into its notion that spiritual journeys require exotic travel. But we could all use a good meal, a bit more awareness, and a little more love. That is the stuff of genuine spirituality, wherever and however we may find it.