Monday, July 12, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love and the Limits of Feel-Good Spirituality

Prepare yourself. A tidal wave of Eat, Pray, Love merchandising is about to crash over America, from sea to shining sea.

Even if you have zero interest in eating mind-blowing food in Italy, experiencing enlightenment in India, or finding true love in Bali, you’d have to have been living in a cave for the past four years to be unaware of this book, which has more than five million copies in print and was on the New York Times bestseller list for over 155 weeks.

But if you did somehow manage to miss it, you’ll have many opportunities to learn about Eat, Pray, Love in the very near future. As the Huffington Post recently reported:

Eat, Pray, Love has a soundtrack, a home furnishings line, a clothing line, a jewelry line, a tour package that follows author Elizabeth Gilbert's itinerary across Italy, India, and Indonesia, a fragrance, a tea, and, for its piece de marketing resistance, an unprecedented three-day selling orgy on the Home Shopping Network, beginning Aug. 6, a week before the movie opens, of ‘more than 400 items across a variety of categories, including beauty, electronics, home decor, travel, cooking, jewelry, accessories, and ready-to-wear,’ including, as Variety reported this week, a line of lip glosses from Lancome, for whom Julia Roberts, star of the movie, is a spokesperson.

Wow. Even in America, that’s a marketing blitz of impressively ginormous proportions.

Still, it would be pretty unremarkable – just another Lion King or Batman-style movie-food-tchotchke-and-every-other-tie-imaginable marketing campaign – were it not for the fact that Eat Pray Love dovetails so neatly with the larger culture of American “feel-good spirituality” that we may be tempted to take its message of finding-one’s-true-self-through-adventurous-travel-in-exotic-lands seriously.

That is, instead of seeing it as a feel-good fantasy spiced with a generous sprinkling of “spirituality lite,” we might accept it as the story of genuine spiritual journey, an inspiring quest to find authentic meaning in life.

And that would be a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not attacking Elizabeth Gilbert. She never presented herself as a spiritual teacher or pretended to be someone who she’s not. She’s a talented writer who expertly crafted a breakout bestseller, and deserves to reap the rewards of her work. Plus, I like Julia Roberts.

The problem is not with Eat, Pray, Love itself, but with the larger culture. America traffics in so much ersatz, feel-good “spirituality” that it can be confusing, even damaging. Because the more that we buy into the belief that there’s easy answers to life’s most challenging questions, the more our strength to grapple with the multi-dimensionality of life – its joy as well as its inevitable pain – is diminished.

In her 2006 review, Jennifer Egan nicely captured the qualities that made Eat, Pray, Love so popular – and so remote from real life.
Lacking a ballast of gravitas or grit, the book lists into the realm of magical thinking: nothing Gilbert touches seems to turn out wrong; not a single wish goes unfulfilled. What's missing are the textures and confusion and unfinished business of real life, as if Gilbert were pushing these out of sight so as not to come off as dull or equivocal or downbeat. When, after too much lovemaking, she is stricken with a urinary tract infection, she forgoes antibiotics and allows her friend, a Balinese healer, to treat the infection with noxious herbs. ‘I suffered it down,’ Gilbert writes. ‘Well, we all know how the story ends. In less than two hours I was fine, totally healed.’
Again, it’s not that Gilbert is to be faulted for telling a story in which every dilemma is quickly resolved with a nice, happy ending. The problem is that American culture encourages us to take this sort of magical thinking seriously. To believe that if we just think positively enough, become self-empowered enough, pray to Jesus enough, do yoga enough, eat organic enough, or do whatever the quick-fix that’s being sold to us today dictates enough, we’ll pretty quickly find ourselves healthy, happy, safe, fulfilled, beautiful, peaceful, and good. More or less forever.

And it’s just not true. There’s no quick-fix that will protect us from the painful dimensions of life. Even more importantly, spiritual practice is not meant to protect us from them.


On the contrary, it’s designed to give us the strength to open our hearts so fully to pain that they break open, allowing the light of compassion to flood in.

In this sense, pain and joy, darkness and light, suffering and spiritual growth are inextricably connected.

In a recent interview, Tricycle magazine asked the Buddhist teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, “If scientists could manipulate brain chemistry or use genetic engineering to increase happiness, would that be beneficial?”

“Maybe not so beneficial,” he replied. “Because suffering is the cause of happiness.” 

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote:
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
Of course, some Eat Pray Love fans will counter that this is precisely what that story is about. But I don’t buy it. (Although I do plan to see the movie, which looks really fun.) It just makes it all sound way too easy.

But of course, the story of a spiritual journey that explores the gut-wrenching dimensions of real life won’t work to sell perfume, home furnishings, and lip gloss.

In fact, if we spent more time learning from such stories, we wouldn’t feel the need to buy so much junk.

Feel-good spirituality all too easily merges into feel-good consumerism. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that neither will keep us feeling good for very long.

16 comments:

  1. The book is self-indulgent tripe if you ask me. I actually don't think Gilbert is even that great of a writer - not a bad one, but definitely not one who will be read generations from now as an example of what good memoir is about.

    Your assessment of feel good spirituality, and how so many people love it, is spot on. It's so much easier than actually facing the way life is, which is sometimes wonderful, sometimes miserable, and often neither extreme.

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  2. When I think of genuine spirituality I look to the great spiritual teachers like The Buddha and Jesus simply because they are the ones I am most familiar with. They certainly did not have easy lives. So when someone presents a version of spirituality that is all fruition and feel good, I'm a little suspicious.

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  3. One of the proofs of a Great Prophet is their suffering. It is suffering the depths of which most people can not imagine, and then out of that suffering comes not resentment or struggle, but acceptance, compassion and the exhortation to peace and love. Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Mohammad, Baha'u'llah, Krishna... all of them suffered greatly and by their example and their teachings we learn how to deal with suffering ourselves.

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  4. Thanks so much, Nathan, Bob, and Mishkin for your comments. I must say that I find it interesting that a post on EPL, the ultimate chick-lit (and now chick-flick) sensation, drew comments from 3 men and no women. Of course, I'm a new blogger and don't get many comments anyway, but still . . . interesting.

    Nathan, there's a few reasons that I don't want to come down too hard on EPL. One, I know that many people (and they're probably all female) truly love it, and I want to be respectful. Two, I think that Elizabeth Gilbert is unpretentious and good at her craft, which is being a popular writer. Finally, I'm American enough to think that yes, life is hard, so why not sometimes enjoy some escape, fun, fantasy, and entertainment? EPL provides all that (at least to millions of women). In some cases, it may provide more, by inspiring fans to do positive things like explore meditation. So up to a certain point, it all seems fine enough and maybe even good.

    Of course, the catch is that if people (again read: women) do find EPL inspirational (and I believe that many do), they are being setup for profound disappointment unless they draw a bright line between pursuing something like meditation and the fantasy of happily-ever-after that EPL represents.

    I don't know if it's possible to parse out EPL like this without alienating fans. I'm not sure how to talk about how spiritual growth can arise out of pain - and how deeply hopeful and inspiring this truly is - without turning most people off. As a yoga teacher who'd like to meet people where they are but also encourage them to explore the deeper dimensions of the practice, this is a very practical questions for me - which right now I don't have a great answer to.

    Thanks again for your comments.

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  5. New to your blog. I read EPL and enjoyed it immensely. However, it seems that Gilbert is truly unaware how her young(ish), attractive, American, white woman privilege -- vs. merely her ability to make friends -- played into her "luck." But, that's what privilege is about, isn't it? Total lack of awareness -- because you're so friggin' free to be unaware, la, la, LAAAAA!

    Because she seemed so amazingly hyper-aware and self-reflective everywhere BUT here? I dismissed her "larger" points or more "spiritual" perspective and reclassified her tome as a jokey fantasy travelogue.

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  6. Lever, thanks for reading and commenting. You may enjoy "Eat, Pray, Spend," recently published in the online Bitch Magazine (http://bitchmagazine.org/article/eat-pray-spend). It looks at EPL as a prime example of what it calls "priv-lit," a larger phenom with exactly the same problems that you've pointed out. (Thanks to Angela D. for that reference.)

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  7. Carol, amen and hallelujah for your work, insight, and bravery. Remind me to tell you my story about Liz. I brought her back a bag of Balinese herbs from Wayan. Let's be in touch, I think our experiences can inform each others work. Love and light, goddess. xo

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  8. Carol, did you see EG speak at the Auditorium Theater last year? She basically said, don't look at me as your role model because I don't meditate anymore and I don't speak Italian anymore and I live in New Jersey.

    I think EPL resonates with certain people at a certain time of their lives. Maybe it resonates with certain women who are looking for a fantasy way out of their mundane suburban lives (no offense to suburban women, I live in white bread suburbia -- and it IS mundane.)

    Maybe I would have liked EPL more 10 years ago, who knows? But I did what she did at the ripe and juicy age of 51, going to India alone without the support of my husband, without a book advance, doing things MY way, and having never been overseas in my life.

    I closed my eyes, held my nose, and jumped right in. THAT'S livin'!

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  9. Thanks, Holly! Loved discovering your blogs today - great work. Will follow up via e-mail - we have a lot of common interests, I think!

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  10. Linda - Had no idea that EG spoke in Chicago recently - interesting.

    Her comment captures the weirdness of the EPL dynamic. She says, "don't look at me as a role model" - & I admire her for her forthrightness. But the reason she needs to say it is because so many women do.

    I'm all for escapist fantasy - e.g., I'm a HUGE Harry Potter fan. But there's this twistedness in how EPL gets confused with reality. (And then, with all the products, is starting to create its own, new material reality - EPL furnishings, really? Weird.)

    So when's Linda's Yoga Journey to India: Part I coming out??? I'd rather read that than EPL any day . . . :)

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  11. you can just read my blog, Carol, starting in 2005, that's when I first went...but my India blog is here....http://lindiasindia.net/

    haven't kept it up tho, but do have some of my India stories....

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  12. Thx. Didn't know you had a second blog. Will definitely check it out!

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  13. As a yoga teacher/training who's opening a studio here in Ubud, Bali, where I live, I'm quite interested. I appreciate all the comments so far. My observation an experience certainly tells me that authentic happiness has something to do with the depth one has mined to cultivate it. I know the people that are in EPL (at least in the L part) and my perception is certainly different than what's presented in the book. I look forward to a fun watch too.

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  14. Daniel, thanks for your comment. I think that you might also enjoying reading Holly's post on EPL & her experience visiting Bali over at her blog; Namaste, Bitches (http://namaste-bitches.blogspot.com/2010/07/gilbert-and-god.html#comments).

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  15. Carol, you said it all here:
    "But of course, the story of a spiritual journey that explores the gut-wrenching dimensions of real life won’t work to sell perfume, home furnishings, and lip gloss.

    "In fact, if we spent more time learning from such stories, we wouldn’t feel the need to buy so much junk."

    I was shocked, walking into Cost Plus World Market last week to find all sorts of incredibly cheaply made/expensively priced Indianesque gew-gaws as tie-ins to EPL. Then, at the gym yesterday, saw that HSL is doing a three-day EPL extravaganza. Gut reaction to all this is yechhhh. Didn't quite know why, but you nailed it.

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  16. I don't understand why so many people have a bad reaction to it - it's just a book, just a story. A lovely story at that. The fact that it will now be packaged and there will be retreats and the like . . . So what?
    It sounds like that many of us are dissatisfied with the way people might get their EPL experience. "They are not doing right. They should suffer more, like me." Or Elizabeth,
    "She didn't do it right. She was privileged. She had an advance. I didn't. She can't kick a UTI that easily - she should have suffered before being healed. It's such a fantasy." She just told a story. Maybe she told it slanted one direction. Maybe earlier versions were grittier and the editors forced her to sweeten it up to make it have better appeal. maybe it just happened that way.
    Whether she is a role model or not, her story might inspire someone to seek something beyond what they see now. Just as Oprah's commercial promotion of Ekhart Tolle inspired thousands to read his work and maybe - just maybe, changed one or two of them.

    The commercialism is simply present. It exists; period. The more we fight against it the stronger it becomes. Looking forward to the film!

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