Excerpts from Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
P.46 The Italian we speak today, therefore, is not Roman or Venetian…nor even really entirely Florentine. Essentially, it is Dantean. No other European language has such an artistic pedigree. And perhaps no language was ever more perfectly ordained to express human emotions than this fourteenth century Florentine Ialian, as embellished by one of Western Civilizations greatest poets. Dante wrote his Divine Comedy in terza rima, triple rhyme, a chain of rhymes with each rhyme repeating three times every five lines, giving his pretty Florentine vernacular what scholars call “a cascading rhythm” – a rhythm which still lives in the tumbling, poetic cadences spoken by Italian cabdrivers and butchers and government administrators even today. The last line of the Divine Comedy, in which Dante is faced with the vision of God himself, is a sentiment that is easily understood by anyone familiar with so-called modern Italian. Dante writes that God is not merely a blinding vision of glorious light, but that He is, most of all, l’amour che move il sole e l’altre stelle…
“The love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
So it’s no wonder really that I want so desperately to learn this language.
Americans don’t know how to do nothing. This is the cause of that great sad American stereotype – the overstressed executive who goes on vacation but who cannot relax.
I once asked Luca Spaghetti if Italians on vacation have that same problem. He laughed so hard he almost drove his motorbike into a fountain.
“Oh no!” he said. “We are masters of il bel far niente.”
This is a sweet expression. Il bel far niente means “the beauty of doing nothing.” Now listen – Italians have traditionally always been hard workers, especially those long-suffering laborers known as braccianti (so called because they ahd nothing but the brute strength of their arms – braccie – to help them survive in the world). But even against that backdrop of hard work, il bel far niente has always been a cherished Italian ideal. The beauty of doing nothing is the goal of all your work, the final accomplishment for which you are most highly congratulated. The more exquisitely and delightfully you can do nothing, the higher your life’s achievement. You don’t necessarily need to be rich in order to experience this, either. There’s another wonderful Italian expression: l’arte d’arrangiarsi – the art of making something out of nothing. The art of turning a few simple ingredients into a feast, or a few gathered friends into a festival. Anyone with a talent for happiness can do this, not only the rich.
Giovanni and I have such a good time teaching each other idioms in English and Italian. We were talking the other evening about the phrases one uses to comfort someone who is in distress. I told him that in English we sometimes say “I’ve been there.” This was unclear to him at first – I’ve been where? But I explained that deep grief sometimes is almost like a specific location, a coordinate on a map of time. When you are standing in that forest of sorrow, you cannot imagine that you could ever find your way to a better place. But if someone can assure you that they themselves have stood in that same place, and now have moved on, this will bring hope.
“So sadness is a place?” Giovanni asked.
“Sometimes people live there for years, “ I said.
In return, Giovanni told me that empathizing Italians say L’ho provato sulla mia pelle, which means “I have experienced this on my own skin.” Meaning I have also been burned or scarred in this way, and I know exactly what you are going through.
So far though, my favorite thing to say in all of Italian is a simple, common word:
It means, “Let’s cross over.” Friends say it to each other constantly when they’re walking down the sidewalk and have decided that it’s time to switch to the other side of the street. Which is to say, this is literally a pedestrian word. Nothing special about it. Still, for some reason, it goes right through me….
Giovanni’s favorite word in English is half-assed.
Luca Spaghetti’s is surrender.
“Big deal. So you fell in love with someone. Don’t you see what happened? This guy touched a place in your heart deeper than you thought you were capable of reaching, I mean you got zapped, kiddo. But that love you felt, that’s just the beginning. You just got a taste of love. That’s just limited little rinky-dink mortal love. Wait til you see how much more deeply you can love than that. Heck Groceries – you have the capacity to someday love the whole world. It’s your destiny. Don’t laugh.”
“I’m not laughing.” I was actually crying. “And please don’t laugh at me now, but I think the reason its so hard for me to get over this guy is because I seriously believed David was my soul mate.”
“He probably was. Your problem is you don’t understand what that word means. People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that’s holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life. A true soul mate is probably the most important person you’ll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you and then they leave. And thank God for it. Your problem is, you just can’t let this one go. It’s over, Groceries. David’s purpose was to shake you up, drive you out of that marriage that you needed to leave, tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light could get in, make you so desperate and out of control that you had to transform your life, then introduce you to your spiritual master and beat it. That was his job and he did great but now it’s over…”
“The world is afflicted with death and decay, therefore the wise do not grieve, knowing the terms of the world”, says an old Buddhist teaching. In other words: Get used to it.
I don’t think Vipassana is necessarily the path for me. It’s far too austere for my notions of devotional practice, which generally revolve around compassion and love and butterflies and bliss and a friendly God (what my friend Darcey calls “Slumber Party Theology). There isn’t even any talk about “God” in Vipassana, since the notion of God is considered by some Buddhists to be the final object of dependency, the ultimate fuzzy security blanket, the last thing to be abandoned on the path to pure detachment. Now I have my own personal issues with the very word detachment, having met spiritual seekers who already seem to live in a state of complete emotional disconnect from other human beings and who, when they talk about the sacred pursuit of detachment, make me want to shake them and holler, “Buddy, that is the Last thing you need to practice!”
Devo farmi le ossa is how they say it in Italian. “I need to make my bones.”
So I’ve started being vigilant about watching my thoughts all day, monitoring them. I repeat this vow about 700 times a day: “I will not harbor unhealthy thoughts anymore.” Every time a diminishing thought arises, I repeat the vow. I will not harbor unhealthy thoughts anymore. The first time I heard myself say this, my inner ear perked up at the word “harbor”, which is a noun as well as a verb. A harbor, of course, is a place of refuge, a port of entry. I pictured the harbor of my mind – a little beat-up perhaps, a little storm-worn, but well situated and with a nice depth. The harbor of my mind is an open bay, the only access to the island of my Self (which is a young and volcanic island, yes, but fertile and promising). This island has been through some wars, it is true, but is now committed to peace, under a new leader (me) who has instituted new policies to protect the place. And now – let the word go out across the seven seas – there are much, much stricter laws on the books about who may enter this harbor.
You may not come here anymore with your hard and abusive thoughts, with your plague ships of thoughts, with your slave ships of thoughts, with your warships of thoughts – all these will be turned away. Likewise any thoughts that are filled with angry or starving exiles, with malcontent and pamphleteers, mutineers and violent assassins, desperate prostitutes, pimps and seditious stowaways – you may not come here anymore either. Cannibalistic thoughts, for obvious reasons, will no longer be received. Even missionaries will be carefully screened, for sincerity. This is a peaceful harbor, the entryway to a fine and proud island that is only now beginning to cultivate tranquility. If you can abide by these new laws, my dear thoughts, then you are welcome in my mind – otherwise I shall turn you back toward the sea from whence you came.
That is my mission, and it will never end.
And then, to my surprise, still in meditation, I did an odd thing. I invited my ex-husband to please join me up here on this rooftop in India. I asked him if he would be kind enough to meet me up here for this farewell event. Then I waited until I felt him arrive. And he did arrive. His presence was suddenly absolute and tangible. I could practically smell him.
I said, “Hi sweetie.”
I almost started crying right then, but quickly realized I didn’t need to. Tears are a part of this bodily life, and the place where these two souls were meeting that night in India had nothing to do with the body. The two people who needed to talk to each other up there on the roof were not even people anymore. They wouldn’t be talking. They weren’t even ex-spouses, not an obstinate Midwesterner and a high strung Yankee, not a guy in his forties and a woman in her thirties, not two limited people who had argued for years about sex and money and furniture – none of this was relevant. For the purposes of this meeting, at the level of this reunion, they were just two cool blue souls who already understood everything. Unbound by their bodies, unbound by the complex history of their past relationship, they came together above this roof in infinite wisdom. Still in meditation, I watched these cool blue souls circle each other, merge, divide again and regard each other’s perfection and similarity. They knew everything. They knew everything long ago and they will always know everything. They didn’t need to forgive each other; they were born forgiving each other.
The lesson they were teaching me in their beautiful turning was ”Stay out of this, Liz. Your part of this relationship is over. Let us work things out from now on. You go on with your life.”
By the way, I found my word.
I found it in the library, of course, bookworm that I am. I’d been wondering about my word ever since that afternoon back in Rome when my Italian friend Giulio had told me that Rome’s word is SEX, and had asked me what mine was. I didn’t know the answer then, but kind of figured my word would show up eventually, and that I’d recognize it when I saw it.
So I saw it during my last week at the Ashram. I was reading though an old text about Yoga, when I found a description of ancient spiritual seekers. A Sanskrit word appeared in the paragraph: ANTEVASIN. It means “one who lives at the border.” In ancient times this was a literal description. It indicated a person who had left the bustling center of worldly life to go live at the edge of the forest where the spiritual masters dwelled. The antevasin was not one of the villagers anymore – not a householder with a conventional life. But neither was he yet a transcendent – not one of those sages who live deep in the unexplored wood, fully realized. The antevasin was an in-betweener. He was a border –dweller. He lived in sight of both worlds, but he looked toward the unknown. And he was a scholar.
When I read this description of the antevasin, I got so excited I gave a little bark of recognition. That’s my word, baby! In the modern age, of course, that image of unexplored forest would have to be figurative, and of course the border would have to be figurative too. But you can still live there. You can live on that shimmering line between your old thinking and your new understanding, always in a state of learning. In the figurative sense, this is a border that is always moving – as you advance forward in your studies and realizations, that mysterious forest of the unknown always stays a few feet ahead of you, so you have to travel light in order to keep following it. You have to stay mobile, movable, supple. Slippery even.
I believe that all the world’s religions share, at their core, a desire to find a transporting metaphor. When you want to attain communion with God, what you’re really trying to do is move away from the worldly into the eternal and you need some kind of magnificent idea to convey you there. It has to be a big one, this metaphor – really big and magic and powerful, because it needs to carry you across a mighty distance. It has to be the biggest boat imaginable.
Religious rituals often develop out of mystical experimentation…Inevitably even the most original ideas will eventually harden into dogma or stop working for everybody.
The Indians around here tell as cautionary fable about a great saint who was always surrounded in his Ashram by loyal devotees.
For hours a day, the saint and his followers would meditate on God. The only problem was that the saint had a young cat, an annoying creature, who used to walk through the temple meowing and purring and bothering everyone during meditation. So the saint, in all his practical wisdom, commanded that the cat be tied to a pole outside for a few hours a day, only during meditation, so as not to disturb anyone. This became a habit – tying the cat to the pole and then meditating on God – but as years passed, the habit hardened into religious ritual. Nobody could meditate unless the cat was tied to the pole first. Then one day the cat died. the saint’s followers were panic stricken. It was a major religious crisis – how could they meditate now, without a cat to tie to a pole? How would they reach God? In their minds, the cat had become the means.
There are thirteen major ties of passage for every human being in Bali, each marked by a highly organized ceremony. Elaborate spiritual appeasing ceremonies are conducted all throughout life, in order to protect the soul from the 108 vices (108 – there’s that number again!), which include such spoilers as violence, stealing, laziness and lying. Every ablinese child passes through a momentous puberrt ceremony in which the canine teeth, or “fangs” are filed down to a flat level, for aesthetic improvement. The worse thing you can be in Bali is coarse and animalistic, and these fangs are considered to be reminders of our more brutal natures and therefore must go. It is dangerous in such a close-knit culture for people to be brutal. A village’s entire web of cooperation could be sliced through by one person’s murderous intent. Therefore the best thing to be in Bali is alus, which means “refined” or even “prettified”. Beauty is good in Bali, for men and women. Beauty is revered. Beauty is safety. Children are taught to approach all hardship and discomfort with a “shining face,” a giant smile.
The whole idea of Bali is a matrix and invisible grid of spirits, guides, paths and customs. Every Balinese knows exactly where he or she belongs, oriented within this great intangible map…Mario, my new Italian-Indonesian friend, told me that he is only happy when he can maintain himself – mentally and spiritually – at the intersection between a vertical line and a horizontal one, in a state of perfect balance. For this, he needs to know exactly where he is located at every moment, both in his relationship to the divine and to his family here on earth. If he loses that balance, he loses his power.
It’s not a ludicrous hypothesis, therefore, to say that the Balinese are the global masters of balance, the people for whom the maintenance of perfect equilibrium is an art, a science, and a religion….
Given all this, I’m not sure how much of the Balinese worldview I’m going to be able to incorporate into my own worldview, since at the moment I seem to be taking a more modern and Western definition of the word equilibrium. (I’m currently translating it as meaning “equal freedom,” or the equal possibility of falling in any direction at any given time, depending on…you know…how things go.) The Balinese don’t wait and see “how things go.” That would be terrifying. The organize how things go, in order to keep things from falling apart.
When Balinese patients come to Ketut with serious health or economic or relationship problems, he always asks on which day of the week they were born, in order to concoct the correct prayers and medicines to help them. Because sometimes, Ketut says, “people are sick in their birthday,” and they need a little astrological adjustment in order to set them in balance again…
“Why did you hold your hand on the boy’s forehead and stomach?” I asked. “Were you checking for fever?”
“I was check his brain,” Ketut said. “To see if he had evil spirits in his mind.”
“What kind of evil spirits?”
“Liss,” he said. “I am Balinese. I believe from black magic. I believe evil spirits come out rivers and hurt people.”
“Did the boy have evil spirits?”
“No. He is only sick in his birthday. His family will make sacrifice. This will be OK. And you, Liss? You are practice Balinese meditation every night? Keep mind and heart clean?”
“Every night,” I promised.
“You learn to smile even in your liver?”
“Even in my liver, Ketut. Big smile in my liver.”
“Good. This smile will make you beautiful woman. This will give you power of to be very pretty. You can use this power – pretty power – to get what you want in life.
“Pretty power!” I repeat the phrase, loving it. Like a meditating Barbie.
“I want pretty power!”
“You are still practicing Indian meditation, too?”
“Good. Don’t forget your yoga. Beneficial to you. Good for you to keep practice both ways of meditation – Indian and Balinese. Both different, but good in equal way. Same-same. I think about religion, most of it is same-same.”