The author of the best-selling spiritual memoir talks about keeping the flame lit and what's up with the sexy Brazilian.
Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir, "Eat, Pray, Love" has clearly touched a chord with millions--it's been on the New York Times best-seller list for the last eight months. Her tale begins with Gilbert sobbing on her bathroom floor, praying for answers to her unhappy marriage. A godlike voice speaks to her, delivering a simple, soothing command: "Go to bed, Liz."
From there we follow this likable, suffering, seeking everywoman on a pilgrimage for internal peace and resolution through three countries. There's the gustatory passions of Italy (eat), four months meditating at an ashram in India (pray), and Bali, where she meets a shaman and a sexy Brazilian man (love).
Recently Gilbert spoke to Beliefnet from the antiques store she now owns with her husband in New Jersey. As lucid, warm, and funny in person as on paper, she talked about her spiritual practices, what can mend a miserable heart, and how she feels about possibly being portrayed by Julia Roberts.
Is Hollywood interested in your book? "I’m 38 years old, and like many people of my generation, Julia is the face of our age, we’ve laughed and cried with her. She’s so iconic, it’s a tremendous honor."
'I Married My Own Life First'
So, did you get the guy? "I think sometimes you have to not look for it to find it. I had kind of given up on love but hadn't given up on myself."
How has the success of the book changed your life?
The success of it has probably been the biggest surprise. You have to understand that the book came out of the darkest, worst, most horrible, obnoxious time of my life. I mean, the book and my journey begins with me, in my bathroom, four o'clock in the morning, sobbing on the floor one inch away from the bathroom tiles.
And then, suddenly, it turned into something that people are using and wanting and enjoying and at the very least, finding entertaining, it's just impossible to have imagined that something like that could have come out of such a dark place. So it's a surprise and an honor and a joy and a little bit surreal, a little strange.
'The book came out of the most horrible, obnoxious time in my life.'
How are you different after "Eat, Pray, Love"?
I still have the same interests. I'm still a writer. I'm still creative. I still have the same sense of humor. I still have the same way of relating to people.
But internally, it's a totally different landscape. And I think the main difference is this relationship that I forged with myself in all those months spent alone, particularly in India, in those long, tedious, difficult, emotionally painful hours in the meditation chamber sitting—as my friend Richard from Texas said—on my lily white ass and trying to find some sort of center in all that maelstrom of thought and confusion and worry and anxiety and resentment and that whole soup that I was bathed in before I left.
And to watch the evolution over time, over those months and see myself go from somebody who quite literally could not spend five minutes in silence in her own company without crying out of her own skin to somebody who could sit for four or five consecutive hours and be undisturbed by my own existence on earth—it seems like a simple thing but isn't.
In that silence and stillness, I met this other voice that I never had before, which is this older part of me, this calm, sedate, affectionate, forgiving, wise soul that watches my comings and goings and my spastic fears and desires and anger and all the stuff that pulls on me and intercepts me before I get dragged too far away from myself.
And she just says, very sweetly and with a kind of amusement, do you really want to go through this again? Because if you do, I'll do it with you. But, maybe we don't want to do this again. Maybe we want to actually remember what we learned and do a different thing. That's the central miracle of my entire life, I would say, is meeting that voice. I think that's the highest attainment of my life. And hopefully, that's mine to keep. But, I don't take it for granted. And I know how easy it is to be swept away from that. That's what spiritual practice is for. It's to solidify that channel and to make sure that you get to have it.
How did you integrate what you learned from your trips into your daily life?
Madness would follow anybody who tried to keep the schedule of an Indian ashram in their normal life living in New Jersey. First of all, you would become an obnoxious human being if you were trying to do that. And secondly, it's impossible.
The whole point of spiritual retreat is that everything else is stripped away and you are only focusing on your soul and your soul's journey and you're surrounded by fellow pilgrims and everybody's in this current and they're helping each other and they're pulling each other along. At the ashram I saw a lot of people who had been living in spiritual communities for 20 or 30 years. And while with some of them, I felt like they were meant to be contemplatives, with other people, I got the sensation that you're kind of hiding out. And I didn't want to do that.
For me, all the spiritual lessons that I learned would mean nothing if they didn’t have a practical application. So I was eager, after my four months in the ashram, to come back home and put it into practice. I mostly use it in trying to arrange my life so that it is as unstressful as possible. I push every day against forces that say you have to go faster, be more effective, be more productive, you have to constantly outdo yourself, you have to constantly outdo your neighbor—all of the stuff that creates an incredibly productive society, but also a very neurotic one.
I have these new policies toward my life, like I will not accelerate when I see the yellow light. I'll say no to things that I used to instinctively say yes to, invitations that are wonderful but I know will actually make me more tired the next day, more stressed. It's like protecting this wonderful little match that I lit in India. And I feel my job now is to cup my hand around it and make sure that the shearing winds of, you know, capitalism and industrialism and competition don't blow it out and that my own anxiety doesn't blow it out.
'I would love to tell you that I meditate and then do an hour of yoga and calisthenics and charity work for the rest of the day. I don't.'
What are your spiritual practices?
I would love to tell you that I meditate every day and then I get up and do an hour of yoga and then I do some calisthenics and then I do charity work for the rest of the day. I don't.
But I try to meditate more days than I don't. My writing practice taught me the important thing is steadfastness. It's not necessarily discipline. Discipline can become a prison. When your spiritual practices become another thing for you to be anxious about, they've lost their usefulness. I try to be limber with it and soft with it. But, if I catch a week going by where I don't sit even for ten minutes in silence and do what I call taking a bath in the self, then I'll say, Okay, something's gone a little too off here. Something else has to be cut because this is essential.
I've also started to keep a diary. I've found that I only keep a journal when I'm miserable. And I'm in a really happy place in my life right now. I thought, Well, what if you keep a contentment journal where every day you write down the best moment of the day and you remember those moments and you charted them just as much as you charted your miserable moments? You know, why at the end of your life should you assemble thousands of pages of "Why am I so sad, why am I so depressed?" Instead, assemble thousands of pages of why you're so content.
And it's been surprising to see what it is. It's simple. Walking out to get the mail and it's a sunny day and you see your neighbor's cat and you just realize that you're alive— that's enough. It seldom happens behind the wheel of a car. Seldom happens in a big crowd. It tends to be solitary moments, quiet moments, outdoors. So you build on that, learn from that.
Given what you've been through, what is God for you today?
Gee, that's an easy question. What is God? [Laughter.] But, actually, I sort of do have an easy answer for it. It's something from the Gnostics who said that God is the perfection which absorbs. I think that's the loveliest and simplest and least politically controversial possible definition of divinity—that we are not perfect, as humans, and yet, we have access to a perfection that's beyond us that we can become absorbed in, sometimes just for five minutes, sometimes for a whole year, sometimes, if you're really a blessed saint, forever.
Sartre used to say, exits are everywhere. And I like to think entrances are everywhere. Entrances to that perfection can be found in prison, can be found in a harried mother who's at her last nerve and suddenly, there's just this crack of a doorway into that divine perfection where you remember for a minute that you're more than this.
I had this great moment in the ashram one day when this young Indian girl came out of one of the meditation chambers and she was radiant, you know. And she just looked at me with this radiant face. And I said, "Wow, what just happened to you?"
She said, "I just realized, I'm not my thoughts. I'm not my thoughts." She's like, "Wow, like my life has changed. I'm not my thoughts. I'm more than that, you know. There's something else that's beyond it."
And that's available to you at the supermarket. It's available to you in commuter traffic. It's available to you at home. It's available to you in a hospital. It's available to you when there's a fly on your face. It's available to you always. It's your right to find that and it's your right to shape your life as much as you can to where you can access that as much as possible.
In the book, you wrote about being intensely unhappy after your divorce. What advice would you give someone in desperate straits?
The only thing I can say is, I have a feeling that you know already what you need to do, but you haven't found it yet. I bet if you take a diary and sit down every single day and ask yourself, What should I do, and you start writing and you do it every day and you write the answer, even if the answer is, I have no idea, I don't know, I don't know—ask again the next day. Ask again. You have to keep asking.
The two biggest things are be as gentle as you can because doubt and fear and the feeling of failure can lead to a real self-violence, which I have experienced personally. I mean, I have scars on my knuckles from hitting the walls in anger at my inability to resolve my own life. You have to treat yourself like you are your own child and be very, very loving.
And the second thing is to make sure that you find some way to create a little tiny corner of space in your daily life where you have a tiny bit of time to sit in stillness and be present with yourself because that's the only way you'll hear the answer when it comes. It might be closer than you think. But you're so distracted by the chaos of your life that you can't get near it. It won't be withheld from you, but you might have to listen more closely, and you might have to make some sacrifices that are painful.
'I said, 'I'm going to marry my own life'... And because the universe loves to be ironic, I found the intimacy that everybody wants...'
Do you mean literally sit in silence?
I have a friend who's an artist and she made this beautiful print that said, "There are voices deep within me that I can't hear when I speak too much to others. They seem to like the sea."
She realized that so much of our energy goes into speech and listening, it takes you far away from your core. If you look at any religion, there's a prescription for silent contemplation. The fundamental beginning of divinity is to shut out other voices. I think that's essential. And the problem is, when you're in despair, it's a horrible experience to sit in stillness because all you do is replay the scenes of your own anguish again and again.
But part of what needs to be resolved is that you have to find a big enough, stadium-sized space in yourself to accept that those chaotic, disturbed, childlike, fearful, anxious voices are also part of you, are also perfect, are also blessed, and also need to be embraced. And once you can bring those voices in and say, Okay, even you have a home in my soul, even you belong here, then you're a lot closer to the peace that you're seeking.
People want to know what's changed in your life—so what happened to the sexy Brazilian from the book?
It's very funny because I go to readings and I talk about God, transformation, and the journey. And then, afterwards, I take questions and there's usually one woman who shoots her hand up in the air like a rocket. Before I even call on her, I say, "Yes, I'm still with the Brazilian. Actually, we got married." That's the first thing that people want to know. Like, "Forget about the divinity. Did you keep the guy?"
We've built a lovely life together and managed to take our international love affair and give it a zip code and settle down into one place together, which has been wonderful—a bonus and certainly not something that I was seeking. I think sometimes you have to not look for it to find it. I had kind of given up on love but hadn't given up on myself. That's what I did on this journey—I said, I'm going to marry my own life and make that wonderful, even if it means that I don't have this experience of intimacy that everybody wants. And of course, because the universe loves to be ironic, I found the intimacy that everybody wants. So whatever the lesson is that comes from that—if it brings hope, let there be hope.
There's going to be a movie based on the book. Is it true that Julia Roberts is going to be playing you?
Yes, it's true. But there's a long distance between a book being optioned and a movie premiere. There's a lot that has to happen. But it is true that there's a movie in the works and it is true that Julia Roberts wants to play me, which is something I have not even begun to wrap my mind around. It's a tremendous honor. And I hope it does happen. I'm not sure if it will. But I give it my full blessing.
How can a broken heart lead to a fuller heart?
There's a line from Leonard Cohen, and he has this wonderful song that says, "There's a crack in everything—that's where the light gets in." And I think that's the probably best encapsulation of how a broken heart can lead to a bigger heart. The light causes the expansion.
There's also this wonderful adage that says you can't push out darkness. You can only bring in light. If you're in a closet and it's black, there's no way to sweep darkness out. The only thing you can do is ignite, illuminate somehow. And the only way to get into a darkened miserable heart is to break it.