It wasn’t until recently in the Western World that a woman
could go through life and not be married, or could own her own
property. Even in Eat Pray Love, when you left your conventional
life to find what your heart called you to, in many ways, it is
only even marginally collectively more accepted for women to
do something like this.
I like that you used the word collectively because that is an
important caveat. You can find individual examples throughout
history of women who have led extraordinarily unconventional
lives. The biography I have charted out for Alma is not based on
any one person; she is an amalgam of the women whom I have
read from the 18th and 19th centuries -- scientists or botanists who
made remarkable contributions and often went on bold and insane
journeys. They were not the norm; I think that you are right that
we live in a moment when this is only now becoming collectively
possible. Even now, it is not universally possible. I don’t think I will
be satisfied until it is.
I know that Eat Pray Love received a lot of criticism from people
who thought it was an elite white person's journey, but it has been
gratifying to go out into the world and interact with people who are
not of my background -- who did not grow up in Connecticut, didn't
go to college, didn't have a lot of the random good fortune that I was
given, yet have done unbelievable things with their lives, and have
made brave choices. I was at an event in Atlanta, and an African
American woman came up to me and said, “I finished the last page
of Eat Pray Love, shut the book, stood up, and literally walked out
of the house that I had lived in for ten years in a physically abusive
relationship and never went back.”
That is an example of the kind of journey that people can do that
doesn't take privilege. There are ways that we can decide to go on
bold quests from wherever we are. It doesn't mean that it is easy, but
I do think it is possible.
You wrote about your spiritual journey in Eat Pray Love. How
does your spiritual practice influence your writing now?
I think of my writing practice as my spiritual practice. It took me a
long time to say that out loud because I had always felt that way,
but I didn’t think that I had permission to put words to it. This
is the work that I chose when I was a teenager and I chose it like
a holy calling. I’ve always had devotion toward it whether it is a
good day or a bad day, or whether there are good reviews or bad
reviews, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, whether I am failing or
There is a steadfastness that I have been able to apply to writing
because of the immediate reward of what I get out of it and the
lifetime reward of saying: This is the work that gives me meaning,
this is also my seva, my selfless service. This is my offering, this
is what I give back because I don't know how to do anything else
beautifully. I can do things clumsily, but this is the only thing that
comes through me that is beautiful in a way that I want it to be.
Writing is done sitting, so it’s meditating in a way. You are trying
to clear out obstacles; you are trying to get out of your own way.
I believe that you cannot bring to your writing practice any of the
stuff that you cannot bring to your yoga practice. You can't do it
drunk or angry and you can't do it thinking heavily. All that stuff
has to be emptied and cleared. It took me years to realize that is
what I have been doing my whole life; I just didn't know that it was
It is also a communion between you and the mystery, which is what I
think spirituality is. Human creativity is that communion between a
human being's efforts and that weird divine thing that you can't put
a name on that sometimes shows up to help you with your work and
sometimes doesn't. You wait upon it as much as you can and have
to have faith in it even though you can't see it.
Is there anything that you do to prepare for writing to help you
cultivate that level of presence?
The lessons that I learned living in an ashram have helped me be
a better writer. There was an adage there that if you are going to
meditate in the morning, you start preparing for it the afternoon
before— what you eat, the time you go to sleep, and the people
that you are interacting with -- so that by the time you sit down at
five or six the next morning, you have a good chance of success.
If you stayed up until 4 a.m. drinking and eating chicken calzone,
meditation may not go very well at five in the morning.
This is cross-training for writing. You don't make the decision to
write on the day that you are going to write; you make the decision
to write the day before you are going to write. When you are taking
on a novel like the one I just took on, you make that decision years
before you sit down to write. For me, that much preparation goes
into it before I can even sit down to write.
As people, we respond emotionally to stories. Stories help us
navigate those questions in life.
Our consciousness is nothing more than a story that we tell
ourselves. The world as we see it is nothing more than a story that
we tell ourselves.
Travel itself in your current novels is a spiritual experience, just
as travel has been part of your own spiritual experience.
There are two ways to go on a journey: You stay home or you go out
into the world. They say in India that there are only two questions
you have to ask and you can choose which one to ask: Who am I?
and Who is God?
But it doesn’t matter which one. It is the micro and the macro;
they are both going to take you to the same place. You follow that
question and you are going to end up in the same location.
In the same way, there are two kinds of spiritual journeys. There is
the one where you become cloistered: You focus on a candle, leaf, or
a petal, you get to know one place intimately, and you don't leave
your cave. The other is to be this wandering yogi: You set yourself
adrift in the world so that you learn how to deal with every single
thing and person that you encounter.
I don't think that one is better than the other. But you should choose
the one that fits the type of personality you have. I am always going
to be looking for grace and transformation out there and then
pulling it in and weaving it into my DNA.
Follow Elizabeth Gilbert’s search for grace and
transformation at: elizabethgilbert.com
Felicia Tomasko is the Editor-in-Chief of LA Yoga and Find Bliss LA Magazines.
THEY SAY IN INDIA THAT THERE ARE
ONLY TWO QUESTIONS YOU HAVE TO ASK
AND YOU CAN CHOOSE WHICH ONE TO
ASK: WHO AM I? AND WHO IS GOD?
ARTIST SPOTLIGHT [elizabeth gilbert]