Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Gelato, Mala Beads & Joint Lubrication

Good things come in threes, the trinities of hedonism. Like the three subjects of this blog. And like the three themes of Elizabeth Gilbert's captivating memoir, Eat, Pray, Love (which could almost be an alternate title for this blog). Given my druthers, I'd choose love (and sex) as the higher power in this triumverate, but there is nothing shabby about the other choices.

Gilbert subtitles her book (which was recommended by friends who took the recent pilgrimage to India with me), "One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia," three exotic lands that begin with the letter "I." At the start of the book, she is depressed and vaguely suicidal following a divorce and rebound love affair. A successful novelist and freelance writer, Gilbert is able to snag a contract to write about her travels for a year in search of healing and balance. The tale is structured like the traditional japa mala beads, with an episode for each of the 108 beads (108 being an auspicious and mystical number in the East), divided into three groups of 36, one for each country. "I wanted to explore one aspect of myself set against the backdrop of each country, in a place that has traditionally done that one thing very well," she explains. "I wanted to explore the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India and, in Indonesia, the art of balancing the two." The journey and the book finish in Bali where the author's self-imposed vow of celibacy comes to an end. "I was not rescued by a prince," Gilbert claims, despite what she concedes is a "ludicrously fairy-tale ending" to her story, but rather "I was the administrator of my own rescue."

That rescue results from Italian lessons and fabulous food (she gained 23 pounds) in Rome, an extended mediation retreat at a yoga ashram near Bombay, and encounters with two healers in a village on Bali. And a Brazilian gentleman named Felipe. Gilbert's writing about her adventures is entertaining, funny, and deadly serious when she talks about the search for God, a rare combination. On a weekend excursion, she describes Messina, Italy, as "a scary and suspicious Sicilian port town that seems to howl from behind barricaded doors, 'It's not my fault that I'm ugly! I've been earthquaked and carpet-bombed and raped by the Mafia, too!'" In Bali she sees a mother "balancing on her head a three-tiered basket filled with fruit and flowers, and a roasted duck -- a headgear so magnificent and impressive that Carmen Miranda would have bowed down in humility before it."

There is a light-heartedness about her experiences in Italy and Bali that is missing from the center section on India, despite amusing anecdotes about her friend Richard from Texas who nicknames Gilbert "Groceries" after noticing her large appetite. Enlightenment is very serious business. Although Gilbert is secretive about details, it is possible to read between the lines (in the book and on her website) to discover that she is a follower of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, the young female successor to Swami Muktananda, founder of Siddha Yoga, who died in 1982 (her brother was appointed with her by Muktananda but later mysteriously resigned). The ashram Gilbert visited, therefore, is Gurudev Siddha Peeth where Muktananda is buried. There she struggles with mosquitoes, with the daily 182-verse Sanskrit pre-dawn chanting, and with meditation, beautifully describing the "monkey mind" of her thoughts:
I was wondering where I should live once this year of traveling has ended..If I lived somewhere cheaper than New York, maybe I could afford an extra bedroom and then I could have a special meditation room! That'd be nice. I could paint it gold. Or maybe a rich blue. No, gold. No, blue...Finally noticing this train of thought, I was aghast. I thought:...How about this, you spastic fool -- how about you try to meditate right here, right now right where you actually are?
Anyone who has tried to sit and calm their thoughts will recognize this scenario.

Now I have a few issues with the late Muktananda. Many former members of Siddha Yoga have described it as being a cult. And the leader was accused in several articles after his death of trading wisdom for sex with his female followers, some of them quite young. I don't know if this is true. But I do know that a number of gurus in America apparently succumbed to the lure of power. I've always appreciated the saying, "If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him!" (from a book by Sheldon Kopp). Be suspicious of all those who claim to have wisdom.

But during a week-long retreat at Muktananda's ashram on the theme of turiya, the fourth level of consciousness, something happens to Gilbert: "I am suddenly transported through the portal of the universe and taken to the center of God's palm...It was the deepest love I'd ever experienced, beyond anything I could have previously imagined." She wonders, "Why have I been chasing happiness my whole life when bliss was here the whole time?"

Gilbert tells of a friend who warned her not to "go cherry-picking a religion." I appreciate her response which affirms my appreciation for interspirituality, the mixing and matching of practices and disciplines from the Delicatessen of Divinity.
I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God. I think you are free to search for any metaphor whatsoever which will take you across the worldly divide whenever you need to be transported or comforted. It's nothing to be embarrassed about. It's the history of mankind's search for holiness. If humanity never evolved in its exploration of the divine, a lot of us would still be worshipping golden Egyptian statues of cats. And this evolution of religious thinking does involve a fair bit of cherry-picking. You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.
Gilbert's experience of bliss in the ashram apparently allows her to love again. And when Wayan, a young woman healer in Bali, examines her infected knee, the doctor deduces that Gilbert has not had sex in a very long time, because "the cartilage. Very dry. Hormones from sex lubricate the joints." Wayan promises to help her find a good man to lubricate her joints.

Which, in fact, happens. This is a book with many happy endings, almost enough to strain credibility. But Gilbert leaves this reader with the feeling that yes, I, too, can have it all, all the Italian gelato I want to eat, an encounter with God in the cave of my heart, and, most blessed of all, lubricated knees.

Coming Soon: What does Don Juan (Mozart's Don Giovanni) have to do with all this?


Unknown said...

if you are really intersted in facts please visit web http://agasthiaherbal.tripod.com
thanks and let god be with you always,
narasimha INDIA

Brigitte said...

Just finished "Eat Pray Love" and enjoyed the humor as well as her forays into the "divine." Been poking around the internet for other comments on the book and found your website. I love Bangkok (been there twice) and your comments from there as well as your photos from India and other places. Old age doesn't hold you back from the searching for spiritual peace. I think that is great. Do you wear your T-shirt that says "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" in Bangkok?
Greetings from Vallejo, California

India said...
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India said...

Siddha Yoga is an extremely pure path of devotion. I met Swami Muktananda when I was a small girl and the path has brought me nothing but deeper to my own inner divinity. I question those who merely read things on the internet and believe them and then spread them without any evidence.

The message from the Siddha Yoga gurus (both Muktananda and Gurumayi) has always been to meditate on your own Self.

Muktananda also used to say to choose a path, whatever path is right for you and to dive as deep as you can into the practices. Do not be a religion sampler for that will only result in wading in waters that run deep.

India said...
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