At Scripps, “Eat, Pray, Love” Author Reflects on Life’s Journeys

During the course of her year-long travels across Italy, India, and Indonesia—a physical, emotional, and spiritual journey chronicled in her best-selling book, Eat, Pray, Love—author Elizabeth Gilbert received a lot of advice. Gilbert’s favorite piece of wisdom was from a man identified in her book only as “Richard from Texas,” whose most powerful words were, “you gotta stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone ought to be.”Gilbert spoke to a packed audience at Scripps’s Garrison Theater Sep. 23. She proceeded through a fluid series of intertwined anecdotes, philosophies, notions, and pieces of socio-historical research to address Scripps’ theme for this year, “The Genius of Women.” Gilbert spoke of the mystic genius it takes for women to be at peace with themselves in today’s world of overabundant choices.“Any era of history that requires that you be a mystic to be happy is a challenging era in which to live,” Gilbert said. She proceeded to describe this difficulty as a “grand social experiment [set up to see] what happens if you give women choices that they have never had.”Gilbert does not believe that choice is in and of itself bad for women—quite the contrary!—but that the lack of female role models can turn a gift into a challenge. Like rats in a maze, there will be a learning curve—a time during which women will go down many dead-ends and waste many hours second-guessing their choices—before the maze of choices will cease being a threat to women.Students are especially affected by this challenge because of the sheer number of choices, big and small, that must be made in college.Gilbert described “life not so much as a journey, but a series of final exams, where each one isworth the entirety of your grade.” Given this sense (regardless of its truth) of the immense importance of their every decision, Gilbert said, it is no wonder that women are “haunted by the ghosts of all those selves” they could have been. Gilbert separates the women of the world into four categories: those who choose career over family, those who choose family over career, the superwomen that attempt to do both (to varying degrees of success), and, finally, mystics—women that may belong to any of the above groups, who also believe in themselves and let go of regrets.Gilbert did not want to sugarcoat the spiritual journey. “Transformation is arduous,” she warned. “[It] comes incrementally and with a huge amount of effort.” Knowing this, the author is patient with readers who believe Gilbert can fix all of their problems. It is only natural, Gilbert said, at some point or other to wish for someone else to take control, armed with instant solutions.“People think I am that person, that I have my life together and not only that, that I can put theirs together,” Gilbert said, immediately following up with adamant statements of her place in the midst of a spiritual journey nowhere near the end.The spiritual elements of Eat, Pray, Love encompass very different approaches to—and understandings of—divinity. When asked why she describes divinity in so many different ways, Gilbert replied, “I feel like it’s too big to narrow down. I don’t feel qualified to define God in a simple direct sentence and am suspicious of people who do feel that qualified.” The description of her conversations with God and her inner self, she added, were “accurate representations of what it felt like to be asking those questions.”Elaborating on her “path into divinity,” Gilbert described the similarities between meditation and writing. “Everything that I learned in the process of becoming a writer was very useful in the process of becoming a meditator,” she said. The two activities come from “the same energy source: creativity and the divine. I get the same feeling from reading great literature: awestruck and amazed and silenced by it.”Gilbert’s advice to writers in the audience was to “never even sit down to begin writing unless you know who you’re writing to.” This method, she said, is the “only way to open up your natural voice,” and to keep that voice consistent throughout the piece of writing.In addition to the writer’s craft, Gilbert is uniquely qualified to offer advice on how to get the most out of inter-cultural experiences. “The best thing,” she advises, “is to go to one place and stay there. Stay there long enough that you have to learn where the grocery store is…[long enough that] you feel you came to know a place. Eat everything. Read everything. Look at everything. Talk to everybody.”Gilbert’s new book arrives on shelves in January. Entitled Committed, the book is an exploration of marriage from personal as well as socio-historical perspectives. The author, describing her new work, said, “Its tone is to Eat, Pray, Love as the tone of marriage is to romance.”

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