Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why Eat, Pray, Love Might Be Valuable Inspite of Itself

Trevor from The Big Old Oak Tree published parts of a really cool discussion he and some friends had on Facebook. At the center of it was the book and now movie Eat, Pray, Love. I have to say I find Gilbert's writing pretty self-absorbed, and also littered with unexamined privilege, spiritual materialism, and exoticizing (oh, those lovely, spiritual Asian people) kind of crap.

And yet, at the same time, beyond this, there is that appeal of the spiritual journey being documented which is worth considering. Gilbert is, like the rest of us, just trying to figure things out.

Both of these view points appear in the discussion Trevor and friends had. Just behind them, though, is really an effort to consider what it means to practice in the middle of a capitalist, material driven society.

On the one hand, you have this:

Koji Rick Dreher
i came to buddhism through punk rock, i have a different angle than most of my peers and teachers in dharma. this leaves me feeling pretty isolated and sometimes i want to scream from the rooftops to see if there's an echo. michaela echoes, robert aitken echoed, david loy echoes, gudo uchiyama echoed, ajahn amaro echoes. to me, the robe is 100% save all beings, 100% fuck capitalism, and 100% fuck self-interest. i'm gonna have to bum some people out if i'm gonna say what i think. i'm against mainstream, secularized, self-indulgent yoga culture, i'm against the omega institute, i'm against esalen, i'm against cafe gratitude, i'm against work, and i'm against the economy. i'm coming out! chant down babylon!

A lot of this echoes for me as well, but the "100%" and "against" spirit doesn't quite work in my opinion. It feels too dramatic, and also too much like all these other groups throughout history that have been reactions against, rather than responses to, a dominant culture. Do you understand the difference? Reactions against are stuck in duality, whereas responses to can include what's present, but transcend the limitations of what's present (and also what's absent).

On the other side of Koji's statement is this:

Maybe one day, some of you here will be in the position to offer practice discussion. And maybe one day a 'rich, white, skinny lady' will come to you and sit down in front of you and fold her yoga-clothes clad legs and speak to you about suffering. How will you respond? Hopefully not with the contempt and judgement I hear in some of these posts. I hope, for your sake as well as hers, you will respond with compassion. Now I know compassion can look a lot of ways and can even include a slap and a shout, but I don't feel that's the kind of slapping and shouting that's happening here. It's contempt and judgement, plain and simple, and it's just as toxic as spiritual materialism. So please be careful.

Koji -- That "nuerotic self-obsessed rich lady on the vacation of a lifetime" is caught in a cycle of suffering and while you say that this doesn't have anything to do with genuine spiritual practice, nothing could be further from the truth. Those yoga clothes have the first noble truth written all over them. Our vow is to meet the person behind the clothes and help them.

Y'all are raising excellent, important points about spiritual materialism and I'm glad you're doing this. I hope you never stop using your sharp wits and critical thinking to ferret out hypocrisy and I hope you will always raise your voice against what's lurking in the shadows. But I also hope you can find a way to keep doing that without using them as a weapon against your fellow human beings.

The last two sentences seem to be the crux of dealing with a lot of life. How to renounce being nasty towards others without also going soft, and being "nice" in the process. I do bristle as the comment "Our vow is to meet the person behind the clothes and help them." Maybe it's just the word "help," which I also use a lot, but feel is sloppy at best, and at worst, creates a mental power imbalance that often translates into an actual power imbalance when working with others. The old director at my workplace used to say "We don't help people, we walk with them." This is closer to what I feel the vows I took were talking about.

Without the success of Gilbert's book, these kinds of discussions might not be happening. So, even though I have a load of reservations about the actual product and the syrupy-sweet reception many people are giving it, I'm thankful that the book and now movie have given people an opportunity to really consider what they are doing with their lives, and how "the spiritual life" might occur in these challenging times.


arniejosephbell said...

About help. We have weird ideas about help, helping, helpful. The only possible helpfullness seems to be in seeing what is and responding to it in a 'skillful' way. Skillful way means demonstrating enlightenment in the moment. We can know we are not being skillful when we have attached to the event any emotion which is not pure joy. by joy I do not mean jump up and down excitment, but just the moment to moment awareness of and apprehension of the mysterious universe. To domonstrate enlgihtenment is the only helpfulness, sometimes it is quiet, sometimes loud, bu always compassionatley appropriate to the event.

So, watching people judge and shout is just watching people suffer. Demonstating compassion (helping)is not judging and shouting in reply to their suffering.

Mystic Meandering said...

Hello Nathan ~ I love your new look :) (Haven't dropped by in a while, so it may not be "new") I don't usually comment either, but today a comment arose, which is:

"How do we meet people behind the clothes...?" - behind the facades that we all wear btw? - with Respect. With *seeing* who they *really* are without judgment about *how* one expresses, or how one travels this "path"; seeing others as *real* - and not entities of a system - who "suffer" - with pain and drama. Remembering that we too irritate someone with our ways of doing things. We meet them like the Dalai Lama does - with the Heart...

With respect :) Christine

hadv said...

I found the book Eat, Pray, Love entertaining, witty and fun. I found it to belong to the Julie and Julia genre. No suffering there except for the self-made ones.

Do people like Gilbert deserve compassion? Anyone trapped in samsara does. Whatever the form of the suffering.

Sara said...

Hi Nathan,

I was in Ubud last year, where I read Eat, Pray, Love. (Ubud is the town in Bali where Elizabeth stayed).

I was fully prepared to love the book - I'm a woman, I'm into meditation, and I love travelling - but I absoutely hated it.

I picked it up and threw it down after a few pages about a hundred time (eventually managing to make it to the end!)

I just found it so self-absorbed, and couldn't work out why it resonated with so many people.

I just don't get it! LOL.
(I am realising I have absolutely nothing meaningful or profound to say about EPL except, 'what the?!')


Brikoleur said...

Are these times all that challenging, I wonder?

Historically, the vast majority of humanity were engaged in subsistence farming. They had neither leisure nor access to learning. The only way they could live a spiritual life was to become a monk, which was not an option for most either – and teaching at most monasteries was nothing special either.

Nowadays any middle-class person in the industrial world, even in workaholic societies like the US, has more leisure than even most "contemplatives" historically, and at least some of us have the option of "downshifting" and dedicating even more of our time to leisure. The one critical requirement for pursuing a spiritual path is leisure. There must be time for practice and study. Most of us in the West have that time, or can make that time, if we only want to.

From where I'm at, that's not challenging at all – it's more like the Western paradise where practice is easy!

Nathan said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. And Christine, glad you enjoy the new look. It was time for something different.


I'm inclined to agree with you except the very things that are working in favor of middle class and upper class folks at least (leisure time, education, technologies, vocational opportunities, etc), are also the same things providing hindrances.
This "horn of plenty" brings a ton of distractions, much more than people in the past experienced. Today, even in materially poor nations, most people have more things to distract them due to the spread of technology. And few education systems are really holistic enough in what they offer to aid people in discerning, contemplating, and being creative about their lives. You see small groups of people breaking off in countries like Mexico and Kenya, for example, desiring and developing alternative learning projects for people want something much different from the regular school system.

So, I think it's actually pretty challenging, in spite of opportunities.

hadv said "I found the book Eat, Pray, Love entertaining, witty and fun. I found it to belong to the Julie and Julia genre. No suffering there except for the self-made ones."

I think that's a good summary. Would be a good blurb for the back of Gilbert's book :)

Robyn said...

I found "Eat, Pray, Love" (the book) far better than expected. I was ready with a bucketful of contempt to unload but was pleasantly surprised at how she managed to convey some worthwhile insights into a piece of entertainment. (On the other hand, I hated Julie and Julia, so go figure!)

But I can't help but wonder if there isn't a layer of sexism in the comments from the other blog. If the main character had been a man on this quest, would we be so critical and so quick to dismiss him as mere fluff? I really wonder.

I am reminded of your post about Eckhart Tolle and the value of his work. I think there are lots of similar points to made here.

Nathan said...


I think you bring up a fair point. It does seem like female writers and spiritual thinkers get labeled as "fluff" more often than men do - from what I have seen.

Tolle would be an interesting comparison, given how popular he is. He's definitely been dismissed pretty handily by a lot of folks, including some of the Buddhist bloggers I regularly read. Maybe it's the method of dismissal that's different based on gender stereotypes - it would be interesting to look deeper into this.

Honestly, I do wonder how many of those talking on the other blog post had actually read anything Gilbert wrote. I do feel like she's making an effort to discover deep truths about this life, and does offer some worthwhile insights in the writing I have read of hers. It's just so buried - in my view - in self-absorbed comments, and feel good narratives, that I'm not compelled to pick up anything else she's written.

kevin said...

It's good to hear some discussion from some spiritually "grounded" people about this book.

I was interested in reading it after hearing an interview with Gilbert on (walking into a stereotype) NPR, but after reading the back of the book had doubts.

Now with credits to burn on, I'm considering it, but don't want to feel like I'm jumping on the bandwagon. When I saw that it was being made into a movie, I really felt like I'd missed my opportunity.

Thanks for the info and I, too, enjoy the new look. It's always so hard to find one that fits.

Unknown said...

can't agree more with Robin (and with you Nathan). We have a wealth of books about men who go on spiritual journeys and travel about on various adventures. So this would be regarded with suspicion. I was prepared to dislike the book, but there was such a weird vulnerability to the woman - I couldn't help but say to myself, yes, I am just as weird and trying in the same self concious ways.

Also I have a friend who read it who was stuck in a very bad relationship. For her this book was also about the liberation of finding your own path without being in a relationship - maybe this is something many women (people?) find. So that was a resonant point for me too.

Anonymous said...

Hello, i'm the fellow koji that made the initial post over a week ago on my own facebook wall. in all there were 38 replies, many my own responses to various other critics and supporters. what we have above is a fraction of it, even what trevor posted on the big old oak tree blog isn't all of it. there was a lot said after this and a lot said before this.

i want to address the topic of sexism that was brought up. the problem i have with not only the book, but the whole oprah, yoga journal, follow your bliss movement is that it repackages the same basic message on what women need in order to feel ok. i see it as cosmo and redbook 2.0. i used eat pray love as an example, but i was really making a critique of the whole cultural phenomenon of marketed women's spiritual well-being. pick up a yoga magazine, and try to see whats really being communicated. is it a challenge to our materialist, sexist culture or not? you get clothing tips, beauty tips, food tips. all presented by young, skinny, shaven ladies. it's the same cultural conditioning dressed up a bit differently. our wisdom traditions are being co-opted and used to support capitalism, materialism, and to keep women petite, hairless, and image obsessed. it fills me with sadness. i think it's a mistake to get excited when anything counter cultural goes mainstream on the mainstream's terms. it's like the early catholic clergy getting excited about post-constantine rome integrating christianity into the empire. the desert hermits knew which one would destroy which.

for more on feminism and eat pray love, dig this:

and on class/race/privilage:

Nathan said...

Thanks for coming on and providing a few additional comments Koji.

I think you're hitting on something important when speaking about the packaging of spirituality to women. I've said similar things before about Oprah, especially in her connections with Eckhart Tolle.

And that Colorlines article gets at some of the other issues that are really problematic about Gilbert's book.

But I think Robyn's point is also worth considering here because these same issues - exoticizing, unexamined class privilege, materialistic spirituality, and flat out racism appear in works by white male authors going on spiritual quests as well. And I simply can't recall the level of criticism being raised on Gilbert appearing with a memoir by a male author.

A lot of issues intersecting here in my view.

Unknown said...

these are great thoughts, koji. I want to think that over here in Australia things are not that way - but I am sure they are. I always struggle with that idea of spirituality being a consumerist thing. You have given me a lot to think about - thankyou!

AJ and Lulu said...

Great discussion. I don't have much new to add except to reiterate that suffering is such a pronounced part of life and practice. But everyone's suffering looks different. To say that the author was on the vacation of a lifetime is to dismiss her suffering. In vowing to save all beings I think we vow to meet them at their place of suffering. The only honest and honorable way to do this is to accept their suffering as it is. Radical acceptance (maybe even a slap and a shout), without telling them how their suffering should look or feel given how we judge their life; deciding whether they are justified in feeling the pain they are trying to bear.

The other thing I wanted to say is simply what a bummer it is that the word yoga has become synonymous with shallow, materialistic, self-indulgence. It didn't have to be this way! There is so much more! The yogic teachings and the yogic life share so much with Zen and other practices but it has been overshadowed by the mainstream exploitation of one small physical activity. -Lulu (These comments in no way reflect all of those involved with this blog, ie AJ.)

Koji Dreher said...

Hi. Koji here. When I search my own name on google (you know you do it too) this blog post is like number 4 on the list of results which is a shame because it contains things I said when I was just at the tail end of my "idiot" period. So if anyone is looking me up because I'm leading a retreat or something and you see this...It's no longer an accurate reflection of my attitude, I was 28 and super grumpy. I actually saw the movie at direct TV at my parents house and it wasn't so bad. It's better than "man vs food," but not quite as good as "heroes of cosplay" or "storage wars"

Careful what you say on the internet, kids. This stuff is from my own facebook wall, and now I have no control over who can see it. Good thing my vegan straight edge punk lyrics from 1998 came and went before blogging took off. Sucks having your ignorance immortalized.

Nathan said...

Koji, I sincerely hope that moving past the "idiot period" (as you call it) did not weaken or eliminate the general message of your original comments. In my view, the world is direly in need of more fierce voices speaking out on all the ways the capitalist beast we've created is infiltrating everything, including our spiritual lives.