I finished the second part of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love today, and while it’s quite different from the first (which I wrote about here), I enjoyed it very much. In this section, instead of seeking pleasure in Italy, Gilbert is seeking God in India. The section has a completely different feel to it; now, instead of practicing Italian and eating pasta all day, she scrubs floors, chants, and meditates in an Indian ashram. She intends to stay at this ashram only 6 weeks and then to travel around India for the next couple months, but after the first 6 weeks are up, she finds herself wanting to stay, so she does.
The section describes her spiritual explorations, her struggle with meditation, first, and then her extreme dislike of the ashram’s practice of chanting the Gurugita every morning. The Gurugita is 182 verses long, and it takes 1 1/2 hours to chant. People get up at 3:00 a.m. and get breakfast only after a session of meditation and then the chanting. Gilbert struggles and struggles with the discipline necessary to do all of this, and with her mind’s unwillingness to settle itself. This is how she describes her struggle with the Gurugita:
When I try to go to the chant, all it does it agitate me. I mean, physically I don’t feel like I’m singing it so much as being dragged behind it. It makes me sweat … Everyone else sits in the chant huddled in wool blankets and hats to stay warm, and I’m peeling layers off myself as the hymn drones on, foaming like an overworked farm horse. I come out of the temple after the Gurugita and the sweat rises off my skin in the cold morning air like fog — like horrible, green, stinky fog. The physical reaction is mild compared to the hot waves of emotion that rock me as I try to sing the thing. And I can’t even sing it. I can only croak it. Resentfully.
But she does learn to sing it. One morning she wakes up to find her roommate has padlocked her into her room and that she is about to miss the chant. Before she realizes what she’s doing, she finds herself jumping two stories out her window so she can join the others. There was something in her that didn’t want to miss it, that insisted she be there. When she arrives she tries to think of a way to make the chanting meaningful, and she decides to dedicate it to her nephew Nick, and this makes all the difference. The chant now becomes one of the most important parts of her time in India.
Gilbert describes a number of spiritual “breakthroughs” she experiences, times when she feels her mind finally quieting down, when she enters new levels of consciousness, when she has dreams and visions. All of this interests me very much, although I find myself, not suspicious or disbelieving of it, but distanced from it somehow. I am very interested in spirituality, but I don’t seem to be able to stick with any kind of spiritual practice long enough to experience anything similar. I’m not sure I’m the kind of person who can. But then again, I don’t know, and I wonder if I’m missing out on something wonderful.
I’m a little uncertain about giving meditation (or any other spiritual practice, for that matter) a serious try partly because, I think, I went through many years as a child of trying to participate in worship and prayer at my parents’ church and not succeeding very well. I grew up thinking I should be feeling God’s presence in church or in prayer on my own and sometimes thinking that I did, but then doubting myself almost immediately afterward. I spent a lot of time feeling like a spiritual failure, and one of the best things that happened to me was growing up and coming to believe that I was actually okay with being a spiritual failure, and that a life without believing in God or feeling God’s presence was quite all right with me.
So I remain intrigued by stories of people’s spiritual journeys, particularly those stories from outside the Christian tradition, and I also feel a bit wistful. There’s something in me that responds to these stories and that feels curious about them, and that also thinks I could learn a lot and benefit from picking up with my own journey. And there’s another part that would prefer to stay far away.
At any rate, Gilbert is now on her way to Indonesia for the last part of the book, which is supposed to be about finding pleasure and devotion both. I’m sure to post on it when I’ve finished.