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February 15, 2015

Without shame or hesitation, I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. The privilege and whiteness of the memoir is well-noted and appreciated; however, though I am both privileged and white, the book spoke to me on levels more fundamental than race or class. It spoke to me as a woman, as an adventure-seeker, as a truth-seeker, as a food-lover, as someone with an ex (or rather, exes), as a question-asker, as an amateur. Part of why I loved the book, to be sure, is that I read it while I myself was traveling. The people and stories Gilbert collected in her year of world travel proved just as significant, salient and necessary to me as they were to her character in the book.

Though one in particular stands out. The following is borrowed from an interview that NPR All Things Considered’s Melissa Block did with Gilbert in 2006):

“That evening I tried something new. I’d recently been reading about Vipassana meditation, an ultra Orthodox, intensive Buddhist technique. Vipassana is the extreme sports version of transcendence. You just sit for hours and watch your thoughts without even the comfort of a mantra to repeat. If you feel emotional or physical discomfort, then you’re suppose to meditate upon that discomfort, witnessing the effect. In our real lives we constantly flop about, trying to evade the reality of grief and nuisance. Vipassana meditation teaches that grief and nuisance are inevitable, but will eventually pass, so hold your peace in the moment.

So that evening I found a quiet bench in a garden and decided to just sit for an hour, Vipassana style. No movement, no agitation, just pure regarding of whatever comes up. Unfortunately I’d forgotten what comes up at dusk in India, mosquitoes. As soon as I sat down the mosquitoes started dive-bombing me. I thought, this is a bad time of day to practice Vipassana meditation.

On the other hand, when is it a good time to sit in detached stillness? When isn’t something stinging and biting? Therefore I decided not to move. In a beginners attempt at self-mastery I just watched the mosquitoes eat me. The itch was maddening at first but eventually melted into a general heat of pure sensation, neither good nor bad, just intense. And that intensity lifted me out of myself and into perfect meditation where I sat in real stillness for the first time in my life.

Two hours later I stood up and assessed the damage. I counted 20 mosquito bites, but not much later all the bites had diminished because truly it all does pass away in the end, and truly there is peace to be learned from that.”

In Gilbert’s quest to confront the realities of her life in all its honesty and ugliness, she remains still in this moment. And the reason why she remains still was, and still is, for me the most significant moment in Eat, Pray, Love.

The scene brought up a few key questions that I am pretty sure I will be wrestling with for the rest of my days:

1. How often do I sit and be still with my thoughts? Subquestion: Do I have the (lady)balls to do it for an entire hour?
2. What are the mosquitos in my life? What are those small things, with minute and temporary consequences, about which I panic and over which I unsettle whatever I am doing to address?
3. Why am I so quick to swat away anything and everything at the first sign of discomfort? Subquestion: How does this manifest and spread ripples into other areas of my life?

“Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable” is a mantra I repeat over and over to my athletes. Especially as freshman, these young women are overwhelmed with the transitions, the work, the pressure, classes, new social circles – nearly everything in their lives is uprooted, and the discomfort is palpable.

And here’s the funny thing: even as seniors, it doesn’t get any easier. Yes, you begin to know what to expect and that of course gives you an advantage. But, as Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France, says, “It doesn’t get any easier, you just get faster.” The work is still the work, but the classes are tougher, the pressure is greater, expectations are higher. The greatest difference between freshmen and seniors: seniors have practiced over and over the act self-discipline and -mastery about which Gilbert wrote…

1. To be still of mind and relentless in body to persevere in the midst of great discomfort
2. To be mindful of what your brain, with all its good/evolution-tested intentions, is trying to do when it tells you to STOP: to keep you safe, maintain stasis and not allow you to venture into ‘the unknown’
3. To gain a sense of agency over your capacities and potential, to know what it feels like to test your limits, and to wake up the latent best of yourself through action

“Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.”

Perhaps I am writing this as advice to myself as I know I need to more often practice the mantra of which I speak. We live in a (Western) world in which we are growing increasingly averse to even the smallest discomfort: we have thermostats in our homes so we don’t feel the chill of winter; we have cars so we don’t have to feel the ache of walking our commutes to work; we have TV so we don’t have to sit alone with our thoughts when we come home at night. For every progress we make in technology, there is something lost that we used to do with our hands and minds. With every new medium of entertainment, there’s something that no longer holds our attention. So often, the things that get left behind are those things we have deem most uncomfortable. But so often, it is those things that are most uncomfortable that from which we find the greatest growth, satisfaction and inspiration.

The fourth and final question that came to mind when reading and wrapping my head around Gilbert’s mosquito scene:

4. So, Cal, what are you gonna do about it?

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