Eat, Pray, Love | Study Guide

Elizabeth Gilbert

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Eat, Pray, Love | Context



Elizabeth Gilbert's frame of mind at the time of her first divorce reflects her depression, a condition she references repeatedly during Eat, Pray, Love. Depression was one impetus for her desire to take a year to travel in order to find herself spiritually and try to regain her sense of mental balance. It rears its ugly head at various points of her journey, especially during her early weeks in Italy.

The symptoms of depression Gilbert displays include lessened interest in the normal pleasures of life, a constant "down" mood, lack of appetite and resulting weight loss, feelings of worthlessness and helplessness, an inappropriate level of guilt, and difficulty making decisions. Depression can also include other symptoms, but according to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, a diagnosis of major depression will be made when a person experiences five of these symptoms for two consecutive weeks, as long as one of the five is either of the first two symptoms listed above.

Patients diagnosed with depression are usually treated with prescription medications, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. Gilbert refers to both methods in Eat, Pray, Love, but although she takes medications at first, she works to get off them as quickly as possible.

Siddha Yoga

Although Gilbert never names her guru or the ashram she stays in during her months in India, speculation suggests her guru was a woman known as Gurumayi (real name Malti Shetty), a controversial figure who emerged in the yoga movement in the early 1990s and heads an international organization known as Siddha Yoga.

An exposé in the New Yorker in 1994 revealed some troubling accounts of people's experiences at the Siddha Yoga headquarters in upstate New York. However, the article also included many people's stories of positive experiences associated with their following of Gurumayi. If she is Gilbert's guru, Gurumayi is viewed in a positive way by the author. Gilbert credits much of her restored balance to the yoga and meditation practices she experiences at the ashram and has nothing negative to say about her guru.

Gilbert gives plenty of helpful background information about the type of yoga she practices: it is based on Vedanta, the pillar of Hindu beliefs, stemming from the ancient, sacred Indian scriptures called the Vedas. The essence of the spiritual search of those following Vedanta is to work toward full realization of their own divine nature. Love of God (no matter which religious tradition one comes from), discernment of what is real, selfless work, and meditation can all help followers achieve this state of enlightenment.

Bali Bombings

Gilbert makes several references in Book 3 of Eat, Pray, Love to bombings taking place in Bali not too long before her visit there. Two major terrorist attacks took place on the island about three years apart. Both attacks took place in the resort town of Kuta. The first attack—the bombing of two nightclubs—occurred on October 12, 2002 and killed 202 people. The second attack took place on October 1, 2005 in central Kuta and in a seaside area known as Jimbaran. Twenty people were killed.

The terrorists involved were linked to Al-Qaeda, the notoriously violent network of Islamic extremists led by Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States that resulted in the deaths of 2,996 people. Apparently, the Bali bombings in 2002 were originally designed to occur on the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, but the bombs were not ready. Bali was chosen because so many Americans enjoy vacationing there. In actuality, more Australians and Indonesians died in the blasts than Americans, and Indonesians continued to suffer as frightened travelers chose other destinations, taking away a large chunk of the tourist-based economy. Gilbert's medicine man on Bali (named Ketut Liyer in Eat, Pray, Love) repeatedly laments his loss of income as a result of the bombings.

Balinese Balians

Gilbert refers to the important elderly man who teaches her during her months in Bali as her "medicine man." However, the proper title for the ancient healers Ketut Liyer represents is balian. These healers fall into two categories: balian taksu and balian ketakson. Both types support the Hindu goal of achieving balance. A balian taksu works with native plants and "holy water" to create healing medicines blessed by the spirits. A balian ketakson diagnoses and treats people according to what the spirits advise him or her to do, often falling into a trance while discerning the proper course to take. Ketut Liyer embraces both types of approaches, as does the woman healer Gilbert befriends, Wayan Nuriyasih.

Balians are found throughout Bali and outnumber traditional medical doctors by about four to one. They treat physical ailments, emotional illness, and even personal problems such as the inability to find a mate. As interest has increased in holistic approaches to healing in modern times, tourists have flocked to Bali in search of balians. The village of Ubud has become the center for balians; this is where Gilbert first meets Ketut Liyer. Eat, Pray, Love has had a huge impact on the village's subsequent development as an alternative healing mecca.

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