It's about a 34-year-old writer who gets divorced and decides she wants to take a year out to go on a quest for 'herself'. After some thought and few (what she considers) 'signs', she decides to spend 4 months each in Italy, India and Indonesia: Italy because she likes the language and the food, India because she's into yoga and meditation, and Indonesia because a 'medicine man' in Bali once told her that she'd go back there one day. Also, she liked that all the countries start with 'I'.
Can I just say, alarm bells started going off for me at once. Right, who is this chick? What has her life got to do with me? She spends the first quarter of the book talking about how her ex-husband takes her personal fortune, which she keeps reminding us is not inconsiderable. She keeps mentioning her successful plays and books, her New York apartment, her this that and the other. And what makes her think that eating her way through Italy, then locking herself in a meditation cave in India, then moving on to 'experiencing' the curious ways of the Balinese is a way to enlightenment? (Or as Ace Ventura says, 'to achieve spiritual creaminess, and avoid the chewy chunks of degradation'. Ha) What's more, what makes her think we're interested in her privileged version of personal existential angst and discovery? Even though I have spent many times myself lying sobbing on my bathroom floor, when I read about her doing it, my main response was, am I supposed to care about you now? I am not sure how I can have so many feelings in common with someone and still come away as ambivalent toward her as I felt.
So...not a good start, then. Still, I kept reading, even though I could see right away that I would find this Liz Gilbert annoying and intimidating if I met her in person. (She talks a lot about being tall, blonde and slim, and having a life-of-the-party, outgoing personality. Great. Rich, beautiful, at ease with others, successful--but unhappy. Poor Liz.) BUT people had recommended this book to me, they said I'd like it! So, on I read.
In Italy, Liz eats A LOT, learns Italian, and spends a lot of time admiring the 'dark-eyed beauty' of Italian men. Well, I couldn't relate, preferring wholesome vegetarian fare and pale, lanky Englishmen. I couldn't understand what these 4 months were supposed to be teaching her, and by extension, me. From what I could gather, she drank a lot of wine, wandered around 'experiencing' Italy and gained 23 pounds. So basically, she needed an extended vacation. I guess there's nothing wrong with that, if you can afford it. But what does it have to do with anything? She kept saying she wanted to find a balance between pleasure and devotion, then declares that she put her yoga mat in her suitcase and did not meditate once the entire time she was in Italy. Nice balance.
I got through the Italy segment because the India segment was supposed to be the part that I would like, so I was told. In India, Liz goes and lives in an ashram for 4 months, to study a yoga taught by a particular guru who she wouldn't name because she didn't want the ashram to be overburdened as a result of the book. (Okay, then. Expecting overwhelming success, are we?) Of the three segments, this one was my favourite, but that is faint praise. In the ashram, Liz complains of the vegetarian food but packs away enough of it that one of the other participants nicknames her 'Groceries', and spends most of her time either scrubbing the temple floor or trying to tame her monkey mind.
There were some good sentiments in this section:
So I've started being vigilant about watching my thoughts all day, and monitoring them. I repeat this vow about 700 times a day: 'I will not harbor unhealthy thoughts anymore.' Every time a diminishing though arises, I repeat the vow. I WILL NOT HARBOR UNHEALTHY THOUGHTS ANYMORE. The first time I heard myself say this, my inner ear perked up at the word 'harbor,' which is a noun as well as a verb. A harbor, of course, is a place of refuge, a port of entry. I pictured the harbor of my mind--a little beat-up, perhaps, a little storm-worn, but will situated and with a nice depth...
You may not come here anymore with your hard and abusive thoughts, with your plague ships of thoughts, with your slave ships of thoughts, with your warships of thoughts--all these will be turned away. Likewise, any thoughts that are filled with antry or starving exiles, with malcontents and pamphleteers, with mutineers and violent assassins, desperate prostitutes, pimps and seditious stowaways--you may not come here anymore, either. Cannibalistic thoughts, for obvious reasons, will no longer be received. Even missionaries will be screened carefully, for sincerity. This is a peaceful harbor, the entryway to a fine and proud island that is only now begining to cultivate tranquillity. If you can abide by these new laws, my dear thoughts, then you are welcome in my mind--otherwise, I shall turn you back toward the sea from whence you came.
That is my mission, and it will never end.
Here are a couple more good quotes:
You should never give yourself a chance to fall apart, because when you do, it becomes a tendency and it happens over and over again.
I need this message!
God dwells within you, as you.
God dwells within you as yourself, exactly the way you are. God isn't interested in watching you enact a performance of personality in order to comply with some crackpot notion you have of how a spiritual person looks and behaves...
To know God, you only have to renounce one thing--your sense of division from God. Otherwise, just stay as you were made, in your natural character.
This one pops up when she decides she wants to become 'the quiet girl in the back of the temple' and realises that as Miss Suzy Cream Cheese it isn't going to happen. Well, speaking as the quiet girl in the back of the temple who has always put pressure on myself to try to be more outgoing, I can relate to having the toxic notion that what I am is not what I'm supposed to be. So I need this message, too!
On the other hand, there are things about the India segment that I don't like. I am not comfortable with her interpretation of some of the concepts she aspires to share. She talks a lot about God. Her version of what 'God' means does not sit well with me. I was also put off by her opinion of zazen (called 'vipasanna' in yoga)--the practice of just sitting. Just sitting dead still, no thoughts, no chants, no mantras, no God talk. It is an austere practice, but I give the girl credit for trying it out at dusk in India, sitting dead still while being lunched on by mosquitoes. As she says, that is certainly a strong lesson in the concept of impermanence--that no thought, no discomfort, no pain, no joy lasts forever.
That lesson was only half a page, though. The rest of the time she seems intent on seeing a 'God' as being in control of her life in a way I can't share, and in a way that I feel doesn't line up entirely with yogic or Buddhist concepts. I guess I just have to say, I identify with her need to still her mind and feel loving acceptance of herself, but that's about all she and I seem to agree on.
Another thing that frankly bothered me about this India section was all these breakthroughs she purports to have had there. It's not enough that she's learn to accept herself and to sit still. Oh no, she's seen a 'pounding blue energy' that felt like it was twisting her head off and leaves her 'literally panting'. She's heard a voice roaring out to her 'YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW STRONG MY LOVE IS!!!!', after which she emerges from the meditation cave 'like a warrior queen'. She sits on a roof and has a vision of her and her ex-husband's 'two cool blue souls circle each other, merge, divide again and regard each other's perfection and similarity.'
I mean, come on. Give me a break. My teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, whom I would consider a bit more enlightened than Liz Gilbert (!) aspires to nothing more than to be able to sit quietly, in perfect awareness that he is in this moment and no other, that his butt's sat on the floor and his breath is going in and out. Perfect awareness of the present moment. I would prefer one second of that to what Liz Gilbert describes. Perhaps she really did see and feel those things and is not embellishing, as writers are wont to do. But I fail to see the benefit or the point of such experiences, even if she had them. Surely calm and ease, a sense of 'of course'--the sort of thing described by Eckhart Tolle for example, is preferable to all this blue thunder and lionine voices.
Anyway, Liz then jets off to Bali to live with that medicine man. She meets up with another healer called Wayan and finally takes up with a Brazilian man called Felipe, with whom she finds 'love'. I'll spare you the details, other than to say that the medicine man and Wayan adore her, Felipe tells her she's beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, she gets a bladder infection from having too much sex with Felipe and the book ends with Wayan buying a house with money donated by Liz and her many friends around the world.
Read it if you want, and please add your thoughts in the comments here. I'd to love to hear your opinion, especially if you managed to get more out of it than I did!