Sunday, June 20, 2010

Theme Party Based on Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

On Saturday, June 19, from 12 noon to 4 p.m., I gave a theme party based on the book Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert. I was inspired to give this theme party by the fact that a movie based on Elizabeth Gilbert's book is coming out in mid-August - but I decided to have the party early, on Summer Solstice weekend. This post will describe the party. It will be a long post.

First, a word about Elizabeth Gilbert's book. Eat, Pray, Love is the result of Elizabeth Gilbert's re-grouping efforts during the year following her painful divorce. To facilitate her inner healing, Elizabeth decided to put herself into a completely different environment - in fact, three completely different environments. She spent four months eating in Italy, four months praying in India, and four months loving in Indonesia.

Now, here is how the party unfolded. We had eight participants:

Amina Rae
Karen Ashley (me)

We began the party by considering Elizabeth Gilbert's over-all goal in her travels. She had expressed this goal during an earlier trip to Indonesia, where she had met a Bali medicine man named Ketut Liyer. I read aloud Elizabeth's description of her interaction with Ketut on pages 26-27.

So when the old man asked me in person what I really wanted, I found other, truer words.

"I want to have a lasting experience of God," I told him. "Sometimes I feel like I understand the divinity of this world, but then I lose it because I get distracted by my petty desires and fears. I want to be with God all the time. But I don't want to be a monk, or give up worldly pleasures. I guess what I want to learn is how to live in this world and enjoy its delights, but also devote myself to God."

Ketut said he could answer my question with a picture. He showed me a sketch he'd drawn once during meditation. It was an androgynous human figure, standing up, hands clasped in prayer. But this figure had four legs, and no head. Where the head should have been, there was only a wild foliage of ferns and flowers. There was a small, smiling face drawn over the heart.

"To find the balance you want," Ketut spoke through his translator, "this is what you must become. You must keep your feet grounded so firmly on the earth that it's like you have four legs, instead of two. That way, you can stay in the world. But you must stop looking at the world through your head. You must look through your heart, instead. That way, you will know God."

And that is how Elizabeth focused her year, immersing herself both in worldly pleasures and in God, living in such a way that she both grounded herself firmly on earth and looked at the world through her heart.

Having absorbed this over-all goal, we then entered the three main segments of the party. For each segment, I had a special gift for each participant. The three segments unfolded in this order:



Our first segment was PRAY. For the PRAY segment, each participant received a prayer stone. These were simply stones that I had gathered on my morning neighborhood walks. I had blessed the stones and placed one at each participant's place. I also had extra stones in case anyone felt that a different stone was a better fit for him or her.

To begin the PRAY segment, we recalled that Elizabeth Gilbert had spent the second four months of her travel year in India, praying and meditating at a rural ashram. Meditation did not come easily for Elizabeth, but she persisted and eventually reaped the benefits. I read aloud Elizabeth's description of the purpose of meditation on page 207.

Sean, my Yogic Irish dairy farmer, explained it to me this way: "Imagine that the universe is a great spinning engine," he said. "You want to stay near the core of the thing - right in the hub of the wheel - not out at the edges where all the wild whirling takes place, where you can get frayed and crazy. So stop looking for answers in the world. Just keep coming back to that center and you'll always find peace."

This is what we do in meditation: we spend time at the quiet and still center of the wheel, away from the frenzy of the edges of life. We renew and refresh ourselves there. We stop doing, and for a time we just be. We don't try to accomplish anything - certainly we don't try to accomplish "being free from distractions" or "reaching nirvana." We let happen whatever happens.

Since our group consisted of people with a regular meditation practice as well as people who felt uncomfortable with the idea of meditation, I decided to provide some tangible ways to focus one's attention. I suggested these possibilities:

  • Noticing one's thoughts
  • Experiencing one's breath
  • Repeating slowly a word or mantra
  • Floating on the music of "Lotus Reflection," the piece I played softly on Eric Berglund's CD Harp of the Healing Waters
  • Gazing at a mandala, provided to each person
  • Feeling the tactile sensation of a prayer stone, also provided
  • Allowing an orange slice, also provided, to melt slowly in one's mouth

I then ascertained that everyone was comfortable and ready, and I put on the CD Harp of the Healing Waters by Eric Berglund. Our meditation time lasted for the duration of Eric Berglund's piece "Lotus Reflection" - about twelve minutes.

We didn't discuss the meditation, but simply moved to the next segment of the party.


For this segment, each participant received an ear of corn to symbolize EAT.

To begin the EAT segment, we recalled that Elizabeth Gilbert had spent the first four months of her travel year eating in Italy. As Elizabeth thought about what she wanted to do during those first four months, she realized that all she wanted was to eat delicious Italian food and to speak the beautiful Italian language. Eating Italian food and speaking Italian gave her immense pleasure. Elizabeth based herself in Rome but also traveled throughout Italy - to Bologna, Florence, Naples, Sardinia, Sicily, and Venice - eating and speaking Italian.

I read aloud Elizabeth's description of a perfect meal on page 64.

I walked home to my apartment and soft-boiled a pair of fresh brown eggs for my lunch. I peeled the eggs and arranged them on a plate beside the seven stalks of the asparagus (which were so slim and snappy they didn't need to be cooked at all). I put some olives on the plate, too, and the four knobs of goat cheese I'd picked up yesterday from the formaggeria down the street, and two slices of pink, oily salmon. For dessert - a lovely peach which the woman at the market had given to me for free and which was still warm from the Roman sunlight. For the longest time I couldn't even touch this food because it was such a masterpiece of lunch, a true expression of the art of making something out of nothing. Finally, when I had fully absorbed the prettiness of my meal, I went and sat in a patch of sunbeam on my clean wooden floor and ate every bite of it, with my fingers, while reading my daily newspaper article in Italian. Happiness inhabited my every molecule.

I then served this lunch menu:

  • Spinach-cheese-egg casserole
  • Turkey meat loaf
  • Salad - lettuce, spinach, squash, tomato
  • Cornbread
  • Cheese - brie, pepper boursin, lowfat cheddar - with crackers
  • Fruit - apples, oranges, cherries (cherries provided by Amina Rae)
  • Dark chocolate squares
  • Iced tea - peach, blueberry
  • Mango lemonade (provided by Amina Rae)

I think I can say that I fulfilled my promise of a delicious lunch!

During lunch, between the main meal and the dessert, I asked everyone to write down on a piece of paper (to be folded and placed in a bowl) his or her idea of New Orleans' word. In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert speaks about the idea that every city has a word that characterizes it. The city's word encapsulates what is constantly occupying the mind of every person in that city. If you don't jive with a city's word, you won't feel comfortable living there, though you may enjoy visiting. Below are several cities with the word that Elizabeth Gilbert believes characterizes each.

ROME . . . . . . . . . . . . . . SEX
VATICAN . . . . . . . . . . . POWER
NAPLES . . . . . . . . . . . . FIGHT
NEW YORK . . . . . . . . . ACHIEVE

Below are the suggestions we came up with for New Orleans' word. (Three people gave two suggestions each. Five people gave one suggestion each.)

EAT (3)


Each participant received a very special gift for the LOVE segment - a beautiful EAT, PRAY, LOVE mandala created especially for us by my artist friend Annie. Annie's mandala embodies the essence of EAT, PRAY, LOVE in visual form. The mandala is on the front of a card, and inside the card is the quote from pages 26-27 of Eat, Pray, Love about Elizabeth Gilbert's desire to immerse herself both in worldly pleasures and in God, along with Ketut's reply that Elizabeth would need to live by both grounding herself firmly on earth and looking at the world through her heart.

Besides the EAT-PRAY-LOVE mandala and its accompanying quote from Elizabeth Gilbert's book, I also displayed six additional mandalas by Annie on my living room walls during our party. Their titles are below.

Blueberry Dreaming
Merry Mardi Gras
Owl in Pine
Pachyderm Pentagon
Ten-Foot Buddha

Truly, Annie was present with us in spirit! Annie and her husband have been living in Virginia since Hurricane Katrina, but Annie's heart remains in New Orleans.

To begin the LOVE segment of our party, we recalled that Elizabeth Gilbert had spent her final four months loving in Indonesia, specifically in Bali. Elizabeth had come to Bali to learn about balance and love. There she met the man who has now become her husband.

I read aloud a long passage from pages 327-328. Here Elizabeth describes how, two years previously, when she was beginning the most painful throes of her divorce, she had engaged in a silent personal retreat on the Indonesian island of Gili Meno. On the ninth day of her retreat, Elizabeth decided to accept everything she had previously found unacceptable about herself - every sorrow, every anger, even every shame. She reviewed her entire life - re-experiencing each instance of sorrow, then each instance of anger, and finally each instance of shame. She opened her heart to each one, saying, "It's OK. I love you. I accept you. Come into my heart now. It's over." And she would feel each instance of sorrow, anger, or shame enter her heart and would feel herself embrace it with love.

Elizabeth saw that, after accepting all her sorrow, anger, and shame into her heart, her heart was not nearly full but could easily have taken in more, and she realized that this is the way God loves us. She also knew that her sorrow, anger, and shame would rear their heads again and that she would have to renew her love for them many times - but she also knew that she could and would do this. One powerful way that Elizabeth did this was through writing. Here is what she says.

I found an empty notebook, opened it up to the first page - and only then did I open my mouth and speak those words into the air, letting them free. I let those words break my silence and then I allowed my pencil to document their colossal statement onto the page:

"I love you, I will never leave you, I will always take care of you."

Those were the first words I ever wrote in that private notebook of mine, which I would carry with me from that moment forth, turning back to it many times over the next two years, always asking for help - and always finding it, even when I was most deadly sad or afraid. And that notebook, steeped through with that promise of love, was quite simply the only reason I survived the next years of my life.

For the LOVE segment of our party, we engaged in a philosophical discussion on this question: WHAT IS LOVE? Our discussion was facilitated by David, who also holds free weekly philosophy cafes in New Orleans coffeehouses as part of his educational work as founder and director of the New Orleans Lyceum. David is a philosopher, psychologist, and artist.

For our philosophical discussion, we drew upon ideas presented in The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis and in The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm, as well as our own ideas.

I won't attempt to cover our entire discussion, but will mention one interesting area. David and Merry were largely the two who hashed this out in our discussion - and here is where I wind up, having listened to them. I see two ways of looking at love: love based on object and love based on subject. This distinction is also made by Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving.

Love based on object depends on the object of love. This kind of love springs from attraction - to a family member, to a friend, to a spouse or lover, to an animal. We enjoy being with that person, we seek out that person's company, we share intimately with that person, we want to give that person joy. We can do this with only a limited number of people. We normally don't do it with people whom it is our job to serve - our students, clients, patients, parishioners.

Love based on subject depends on our stance in life. We adopt a loving stance to whomever we are interacting with at the moment. We take a loving attitude and exhibit loving behavior toward that other person. We can do this with people whom we invite closely into our lives as well as with people with whom we have a bounded relationship of student/teacher, client/provider, patient/doctor, or priest/parishioner. We can do this with people whom we will see only once and never again, such as an attendant on an airplane on a clerk in a check-out line. With the clerk, for instance, our loving behavior may consist solely of giving a smile and exchanging some light but friendly words. Some people may prefer not to use the word "love" for this, but perhaps a word like "kindness" or "compassion." We adopt an attitude of kindness or compassion in our dealings with others.

So - we are kind, compassionate (loving, if you will) to all - to our intimate friends, to our acquaintances, to those we deal with professionally, to those we encounter only once. This depends on us, on the stance we take in life. We develop close relationships with only a few people. This depends on the other, on sensing an affinity with a particular other.

Three participants had to leave a bit early: Barbara, Elaine, and Merry. The rest of us - Amina Rae, Carmen, David, Ellen, and I - stayed for about another hour and continued our discussion. In this part of the discussion, the importance of authenticity and honesty struck me. Two ways that people get into trouble in their relationships are in imposing unspoken expectations on the other for how they want to be loved and in not accepting the other's way of showing love. For example, rather than a wife getting angry and saying accusingly to her husband, "You don't love me - you don't listen to me when I'm upset - you just jump in and erase the problem with a solution," the wife might calmly and respectfully explain that, when she is upset, she often simply wants a listening ear and a validation of her feelings. The husband may be very willing to provide this once he knows his wife's wishes. Also, rather than rejecting the way a husband offers love through problem solving, the wife might learn to hear this as an expression of love and to appreciate it. After all, thinking through possible solutions to a problem is useful, and someone who takes the time and effort to do this is showing love.

I am very happy to have given this theme party - and I intend to give more such parties on other themes!


  1. Karen, You are so gifted in giving details and recreating the experience, thoughts, format...not an easy task. Especially since you are acting out an author's book and interacting with it. Meal sounds delish.

    I'm a big fan of Eric Fromm's book, esp. the idea that it's not the object that makes us loving. It's our internal development and decision to love that matters most. Thus, we can love anyone...warts and all. Walking in love and unselfishness is the greatest freedom and fulfillment, I feel. Love you, Kathy