Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything
Across Italy, India, and Indonesia
New York: Penguin Books ©2006
As someone who writes for a living, I'm always interested in words, especially verbs. Action verbs, to be more precise. Because action verbs don't wimp out when the going gets tough. They move the story along. They tell you — and show you — what you need to know. They sizzle, spin, encourage, sparkle. They even laugh, occasionally, at us and with us, as we struggle to juggle all the parts of our lives.
So, what better action verbs for any story than Eat, Pray, Love?
And although the subtitle says this is "one woman's search," there are plenty of men involved, some of whom are also searchers. Which means anyone and everyone can enjoy this trip to discover "everything" in three very different parts of the world.
From the get-go, Gilbert's writing draws us in with a conversational, contemporary style. Part travelogue, part confessional, part bon vivant, part cultural commentator, she plumbs her own depths and connects to both current society and ancient wisdom traditions. It's a heady and hopeful mix.
With her signature wit, Gilbert introduces us to the three-part structure of her book by linking it to the strings of beads (japa mala) used by Hindus and Buddhists to stay focused in prayer (and brought to Europe as rosary by medieval Crusaders).
"The traditional japa mala is strung with 108 beads," writes Gilbert. "Amid the more esoteric circles of Eastern philosophers, the number 108 is held to be most auspicious, a perfect three-digit multiple of three, its components adding up to nine, which is three threes. And three, of course, is the number representing supreme balance, as anyone who has ever studied either the Holy Trinity or a simple barstool can plainly see." The triad structure supports the point of her book, which is to find balance. And it opens with the triplet admonition to "tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth."
But what triggered this year of world travel and inner exploration? In her early thirties, married, with beautiful homes and successful career, Gilbert came off the rails at the prospect of having a baby. Although encouraged by family and social conditioning to think that's what she wanted, she didn't — and then found she didn't want to be married, either. A spiritual crisis soon followed, as well as the realization of divorce and all the change such an upheaval brings.
In the confusion of her life, Gilbert began to find quiet spaces during sporadic solitary times to ask herself, "What do you want to do, Liz?" And then to just let the answers bubble up, no matter how peculiar they seemed to be. One answer that always appeared was, "I want to learn to speak Italian." At the same time, Gilbert encountered a fellow whose spiritual teacher was an Indian guru — and Gilbert realized she also wanted a spiritual teacher. Then, a magazine writing assignment took Gilbert on a trip to Indonesia, specifically Bali, to write a story about yoga vacations. While in Bali, she was taken to meet an Indonesian medicine man, who told her she would return, spend time there, and teach him English.
Gilbert recognized the apparent clash of desires and, after acknowledging the value of focus, asked herself, "But what about the benefits of living harmoniously amid extremes? What if you could somehow create an expansive enough life that you could synchronize seemingly incongruous opposites into a worldview that excludes nothing? My truth was exactly what I'd said to the medicine man in Bali — I wanted to experience both. I wanted worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence — the dual glories of human life. I wanted what the Greeks called kalos kai agathos, the singular balance of the good and the beautiful. I'd been missing both during these last hard years, because both pleasure and devotion require a stress-free space in which to flourish and I'd been living in a giant trash compactor of nonstop anxiety. As for how to balance the urge for pleasure against the longing for devotion... well, surely there was a way to learn that trick. And it seemed to me, just from my short stay in Bali, that I maybe could learn this from the Balinese. Maybe from the medicine man himself."
"So," Gilbert writes, "I stopped trying to choose — Italy? India? or Indonesia? — and eventually just admitted that I wanted to travel to all of them. Four months in each place. A year in total.... And I knew that I wanted to write about it." Not to explore the countries themselves (that's been done), but "it was more that I wanted to thoroughly explore one aspect of myself set against the backdrop of each country, in a place that had traditionally done that one thing very well. I wanted to explore the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India, and, in Indonesia, the art of balancing the two. It was only later, after admitting this dream, that I noticed the happy coincidence that all these countries begin with the letter I. A fairly auspicious sign, it seemed, on a voyage of self-discovery."
It would be another two years before Gilbert made it back to Bali, but return she did. The multi-layered story of her trip there, the adventures (both worldly and spiritual) leading to it, and eventually, to her truth and balance, is not only an enjoyable read. It resonates on many levels and illuminates hope for us all.