gluttony, asceticism, goddess-worship

I just finished this book, and I couldn’t wait to write about it.

I. Facts

Elizabeth Gilbert writes a best-selling novel, or in the words on her own web site:


#1 on the NYT Paperback Nonfiction List for over a year!

American Booksellers Association Acclaimed Best Seller

#1 on the Booksense Paperback Nonfiction List for over a year!

However, she still still expect readers of her book to go along with anonymity on one of the main aspects of her book: her Guru, who is spoken about at length throughout.

Anyone who has read the book can find out what “Richard from Texas” “Ketut Liyer” or “Sofie” looks like by going to her web site. If you want to visit any of the “other” healers, you are given directions to their practices in the very pages of the book. Gilbert is more than forthcoming about the address to Pizzeria da Michele, helpfully throwing in the exact order — “double mozzarella pizza”. It’s only fair, though she is strangely and unexplainably secretive about it, that anyone who wants to, should as easily be able to find out who her Guru is, what is the form of yoga she practices, where is the Ashram she went to. Consistency, people!

[ Fairness remark: she has a note at the beginning of her book explaining the anonymity, because she cannot speak for her Guru, and she wants to spare the Ashram unwanted publicity. I don’t buy either. There are diplomatic ways around it, without teasing your readership the way she does.]

The name of the female guru is Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. “Swamji” in the book is Swami Muktananda who founded the Ashram and wandered India in search for a Guru himself.

The type of yoga that Elizabeth Gilbert practices is called Siddha Yoga, and the Ashram she visited is Gurudev Siddha Peeth, about 3 hours out of Mumbai, in a location called Ganeshpuri in the Tansa Valley of Maharashtra, in the Thane district. It’s pretty much impossible to find on a map. The site I linked to has information that dates to 2001 but at least the location and corollary information is probably correct.

Here is Elizabeth Gilbert’s own FAQ page from Eat, Pray, Love where you can see all the pictures I mention above.

My reactions to this book were unfolding, varied, and somewhat contradictory.

I was really impressed with the first two pages of the book, where Gilbert explains the structure of her book starting with the history of prayer beads, the ancestors of rosaries, japa malas, 108 beads, a three-digit multiple of threes, like her three-part book of 36 stories each, each in a country starting with I (Italy, India, Indonesia) in her search for balance, etc.

I responded very strongly to her…I guess you could call it a “mid-thirties freakout” that I can relate to, as well as I’m sure other women in their thirties. You’re either married, or you’re not, and whether you accept it, know it or not, your ovaries are old. Ageing. Dying, if I wanted to be dramatic. You’re getting your first wrinkles. It’s just what being a woman is about. If you’re single, you start thinking about your countdown to be able to have kids. If you’re married, you are probably thinking about it too, if you’re not getting ready to have (or raising) your first (or second) child.

I liked reading about the Freakout, because I kind of freaked out too, albeit imperceptibly, when I turned 30. The big three-oh. A “multiple of three” if you will.

I was looking forward to the structure, only to realize that it only appeared once in the first page of the book never to appear again. The rest of the book, although neatly divided in three (more or less equal) parts of 36 vignettes each, is rather quite messy. You don’t really see any structure in any of the individual sections. I’m not being nit-picky, I’m just saying…if you announce a perfect, cosmic structure to your book, your readers are going to be keeping their eyes peeled.

Focusing on pleasure (Italy = Eat), mysticism, or spirituality (India = Pray) and balance between the two (Indonesia = Love) worked for Gilbert, as she was basically starting from scratch after her divorce, and re-surfacing her life, starting from the bottom up. You probably would have to go through that kind of destruction to be able to understand, but from where I was coming from, I can’t imagine, for one minute, eating that much pasta and gelato for four months, praying for 5 hours a day in total silence, and having so much sex that you get violently ill from it.

Far from a search for balance that just strikes me as a race towards a happy medium of excesses. I didn’t relate to a lot of the extremism. The foodi-ness, the mysticism, the one-sidedness (of at least the retelling in the book ) of her relationship with Felipe. Felipe is her fantastic, caring, and according to her web site, current, lover. She meets him in Bali, he’s a divorced, older, Brazilian businessman, father of two, he’s just…perfect, I guess. From Gilbert’s description, he is a monolithically kind, loving, emotionally mature, affirming, caring, nurturing, passionate companion, a fantastic cook, an attentive lover, a patient and understanding man, a good listener, an interesting conversationalist, and (she says herself this is a huge plus) he’s had a vasectomy–how romantic. He worships the ground she walks on, and you get pages and pages of descriptions of their relationship, you can form a mental image of their lovemaking (in retrospect, I think she should have called the book, Eat, Pray, Sex). It was just retold in a very one-way direction, which, at the end of a book of excesses, was tiring.

The other excess I’ll mention is that she pines for David (the ex-boyfriend who introduced her to the Guru) and laments the pain of her divorce endlessly, describing in more agonizing detail the levels of suffering she has endured. It’s hard to relate to if you’ve never been divorced. I don’t even think a broken heart will get you to relate. It’s out there. It’s like…the end of the world, AND September 11, AND the Tsunamis, and a broken heart, and the death of your childhood pet. Multiplied by ten.

On for the things I did like.

I loved the characters. Particularly the Balinese. Every single last one of them had the most fascinating story, with details that go on for pages, that I simply relish
ed. The medicine man, the woman healer, the unsung musical genius who was deported from the US, the Brazilian goddess who used to work for UNHCR.

I loved learning about so many things I’d never heard of: yogic history, life in an Ashram, the history of rosaries and prayer beads, Hindu scripture, the meanings of chants, descriptions of transcendence and meditation, Italian addresses for food delicacies, Balinese lore and mythology.

I loved the fact the book actually got me meditating and looking forward to prayer.

That was priceless.


One thought on “gluttony, asceticism, goddess-worship

  1. i look forward to reading this book when i get back. i seem to remember it being in the Top Ten shelf at the barnes and noble? despite the exhaustion and the devastation of the rest of it, the prayer and the meditation part does indeed seem worth any price.

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