The similarities and differences between my travels in India and Eat, Pray, Love and why I appreciate Elizabeth Gilbert
BECAUSE I TRAVEL in India and write about it, many people ask me if I was influenced by the book Eat, Pray, Love, and they try and compare me to author Elizabeth Gilbert. The book (and movie) about Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest to find “everything” in Italy, India and Bali was a publishing phenomenon: it was an international bestseller with more than 10 million copies sold worldwide. But the year it was published I was already in India, so it didn’t influence me; I read it after returning home from my first trip.
I can’t honestly say that I LOVED the book — there are better books about westerners in India (see my post 10 books about India that are better than Shantaram). But I appreciate it for several reasons. It tapped into the zeitgeist and found an enormous audience for the kind of writing I do (personal narrative / spiritual quest / travelogue); it gave voice to a discontent and a yearning that I know well; and it validated the idea of the personal quest, the hero’s journey, for women.
Perhaps more influential, to me, than the book itself are these words I found on her website in answer to the question: What was the biggest surprise about your journey?
Elizabeth Gilbert: “How well it worked. I found exactly what I was looking for during that year of traveling. In fact, I found more than I’d dared to hope for. Looking back on it now, though, I think that this amazing result was sort of inevitable. I’ve come to believe that there exists in the universe something I call The Physics of The Quest – a force of nature governed by laws as real as the laws gravity or momentum. And the rule of Quest Physics maybe goes like this: If you are brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting (which can be anything from your house to your bitter old resentments) and set out on a truth-seeking journey (either externally or internally), and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue, and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher, and if you are prepared – most of all – to face (and forgive) some very difficult realities about yourself….then truth will not be withheld from you. Or so I’ve come to believe. I can’t help but believe it, given my experience.”
Joseph Campbell said essentially the same thing more succinctly in his famous dictum: “Follow your bliss.” I did it, and it worked: it changed my life.
So though there are similarities between out stories, here are the five key differences between my story and Gilbert’s, below.
1. I did not have a hefty book advance to subsidize my trip.
With all respect to Elizabeth Gilbert, she travelled with a book advance and contract, which means her trip could be classified as a research trip. Yes, it was a very personal journey, but to my mind it cannot be called a spiritual quest as there was an objective and an outcome planned in advance, and not a lot of risk involved. Gilbert herself calls EPL a memoir, which I think is more accurate.
My trip to India was not research for a book, and I had to subsidize it myself out of my meager resources. I sold 1/3 of my possessions, gave up my apartment, moved into a small room and scrimped and saved for a year. After I returned, and realized how much I’d changed, I went through a lot of financial instability. The whole experience was a spiritual quest in the sense that I threw myself into it without any attachment to outcome. A big part of my journey was about throwing myself off the cliff to find out IF a net would appear.
2. I did not go to India because of EPL.
I was already in India when the book was published so it didn’t influence me. For the record, seekers and travelers have been going to India for many generations. Steve Jobs went to India. The Beatles went to India. Mark Twain went to India. There’s even some evidence that Jesus went to India.
I went to India originally, in 2005, because of two reasons, carrot and stick. The carrot was that I always wanted to go; that virtually since childhood I have been drawn to the “mysterious east” — I painted Maharaja Palaces on my walls, practised Indian dancing, mooned over photos of The Beatles in Rishikesh (especially George) with marigolds around their necks, went out for Hallowe’en in flowing harem pants and a sequined top, etc.
The stick was that over the course of a few short years, I experienced a series of losses — both my parents died and my fiance and I broke up — and I fell into a lengthy and profound depression. I needed to do something to shake up my life, and at the age of 45, decided to go to India for six months to travel, volunteer and study yoga. I wrote about this in My Story: Why I write about travel in India.
3. Gilbert went to three countries; I only went to India.
My version could be called Pray, Pray, Pray because I only went to India; I didn’t go anywhere else. And my spiritual journey was a big part of my trip.
Part of the reason I went to India, and one of the things that drew me there, was yoga. But I have to say, I learned as much about yoga just by traveling in India as I did by studying at an ashram. In order to deal with the crowds, chaos, delays, I learned how to:
- go with the flow,
- find inner stillness,
- trust in the universe.
In other words, I learned many of the teachings of yoga, and found my spiritual home, Aurovalley Ashram.
Blog posts about Aurovalley Ashram
- How one day of silence can change your life
- One day at a yoga ashram in India
- A haven of peace and conscious living
- What life is like in a yoga ashram
- Help a soul to grow at Aurovalley
- Conscious eating at an ashram in India
4. This is not a love story.
EPL ends with Gilbert meeting the love of her life, Philipe. I actually did meet a man in India, and became part of his big, fat Indian family, but that wasn’t the point, it wasn’t the ultimate gift of that trip.
I gained so much from that trip, and my subsequent four more trips to India, that I could write a book about it (hey, I did!), but here is the top 3:
- I gained a completely new awareness of the world and my place in it. Traveling in India was really the first time I have ever left my “middle class bubble” and stepped out of my comfort zone. It gave me a completely new perspective on life and on myself as a global citizen.
- I gained a new career. I started travel blogging and now I publish Breathedreamgo, write travel stories for magazines and newspapers, and I published a book, Song of India.
- I gained a new spiritual awareness that includes recognizing the power each of us has to manifest our dreams and remake our reality. We have more control over our minds than we think we do, and less over the circumstances of our life. So the other big spiritual awareness for me was around realizing that I am part of a much bigger consciousness, that we’re all connected, and that everything turns out the way it’s supposed to.
5. Going, going, gone.
Gilbert came back from Italy, India and Bali, married her man, and wrote a book about commitment. I never really came back from India. I’ve traveled to India on
four seven lengthy trips since my first trip, and have a career that is largely based around writing about India. Part of my journey has been to open up to another culture in a very profound way, and it has given me so much in terms of meaningful adventure. In fact, in India I discovered my soul culture, and parts of myself that I never knew existed.
My top travel tip
If you really want to travel, and be a traveler, not a tourist, consider going alone; or if not alone, then make every effort to open yourself up to the experience and let it affect you, let it change you. Let it shatter your biases. Let it provoke your compassion. Let it change you. I call this respectful travel — and it really means not only respecting the culture you are traveling in, but also respecting yourself too.
IMPORTANT NOTE: In the wake of the conviction of yet another so-called “Godman” in India — Ram Rahim to 20 years in prison for raping two of his followers — I feel it’s important to warn women seeking spiritual guidance in India to be very careful. Unfortunately, these incidents are more common than we would like to believe. Spiritual teachings are powerful, worthwhile, and rewarding. However, spiritual teachers are just people. In the end, I believe we each have to be our own Guru.
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