In India, Learning the Powers of Meditation

Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love, which chronicles a year she spent in Italy, India and Indonesia. During the stay in India, her struggles to quiet her mind came to a head one warm summer evening.

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Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love, which chronicles a year she spent in Italy, India and Indonesia. She was trying to get over a bad divorce by engaging in pleasurable activities and intense meditation. Gilbert remembers a warm, summer evening during her stay in India when she tried something new to quiet her mind.

Ms. ELIZABETH GILBERT (Author, Eat, Pray, Love): Meditation does not come easily to me. My mind wanders relentlessly. I complained about this once to an Indian monk and he laughed and said, it's a pity you're the only human being on the planet who has that problem. But I find mental stillness really difficult. For instance, here's what I caught myself thinking about in meditation one morning in India. I was wondering where I should live once my year of traveling had ended. Was I finished with New York for good? Austin is supposed to be nice, or maybe I should move overseas. I'd heard good things about Sydney. If I lived somewhere cheaper, I thought, then maybe I could afford an extra room. A special meditation room. I could paint it gold or maybe a rich blue. No, gold. No, blue.

Finally noticing this train of thought, I was aghast. I thought, you sad, spastic fool. Here you are in India in a meditation cave in one of the holiest pilgrimage sites on earth, but instead of communing with the divine, you're trying to plan where you'll be meditating a year from now in a home that doesn't exist, in a city yet to be determined. Is this really the best you can do?

So 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.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love. She lives in Philadelphia.

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Excerpt from 'Eat, Pray, Love'

I wish Giovanni would kiss me.

Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea. To begin with, Giovanni is ten years younger than I am, and — like most Italian guys in their twenties — he still lives with his mother. These facts alone make him an unlikely romantic partner for me, given that I am a professional American woman in my mid-thirties, who has just come through a failed marriage and a devastating, interminable divorce, followed immediately by a passionate love affair that ended in sickening heartbreak. This loss upon loss has left me feeling sad and brittle and about seven thousand years old. Purely as a matter of principle I wouldn't inflict my sorry, busted-up old self on the lovely, unsullied Giovanni. Not to mention that I have finally arrived at that age where a woman starts to question whether the wisest way to get over the loss of one beautiful brown-eyed young man is indeed to promptly invite another one into her bed. This is why I have been alone for many months now. This is why, in fact, I have decided to spend this entire year in celibacy.

To which the savvy observer might inquire: "Then why did you come to Italy?"

To which I can only reply — especially when looking across the table at handsome Giovanni — "Excellent question."

Giovanni is my Tandem Exchange Partner. That sounds like an innuendo, but unfortunately it's not. All it really means is that we meet a few evenings a week here in Rome to practice each other's languages. We speak first in Italian, and he is patient with me; then we speak in English, and I am patient with him. I discovered Giovanni a few weeks after I'd arrived in Rome, thanks to that big Internet café at the Piazza Barbarini, across the street from that fountain with the sculpture of that sexy merman blowing into his conch shell. He (Giovanni, that is — not the merman) had posted a flier on the bulletin board explaining that a native Italian speaker was seeking a native English speaker for conversational language practice. Right beside his appeal was another flier with the same request, word-for-word identical in every way, right down to the typeface. The only difference was the contact information. One flier listed an e-mail address for somebody named Giovanni; the other introduced somebody named Dario. But even the home phone number was the same.

Using my keen intuitive powers, I e-mailed both men at the same time, asking in Italian, "Are you perhaps brothers?"

It was Giovanni who wrote back this very provocativo message: "Even better. Twins!"

Yes — much better. Tall, dark and handsome identical twenty-five-year-old twins, as it turned out, with those giant brown liquid-center Italian eyes that just unstitch me. After meeting the boys in person, I began to wonder if perhaps I should adjust my rule somewhat about remaining celibate this year. For instance, perhaps I could remain totally celibate except for keeping a pair of handsome twenty-five-year-old Italian twin brothers as lovers. Which was slightly reminiscent of a friend of mine who is vegetarian except for bacon, but nonetheless . . . I was already composing my letter to Penthouse:

In the flickering, candlelit shadows of the Roman café, it was impossible to tell whose hands were caress —

But, no.

No and no.

I chopped the fantasy off in mid-word. This was not my moment to be seeking romance and (as day follows night) to further complicate my already knotty life. This was my moment to look for the kind of healing and peace that can only come from solitude.

Anyway, by now, by the middle of November, the shy, studious Giovanni and I have become dear buddies. As for Dario — the more razzle-dazzle swinger brother of the two — I have introduced him to my adorable little Swedish friend Sofie, and how they've been sharing their evenings in Rome is another kind of Tandem Exchange altogether. But Giovanni and I, we only talk. Well, we eat and we talk. We have been eating and talking for many pleasant weeks now, sharing pizzas and gentle grammatical corrections, and tonight has been no exception. A lovely evening of new idioms and fresh mozzarella.

Now it is midnight and foggy, and Giovanni is walking me home to my apartment through these back streets of Rome, which meander organically around the ancient buildings like bayou streams snaking around shadowy clumps of cypress groves. Now we are at my door. We face each other. He gives me a warm hug. This is an improvement; for the first few weeks, he would only shake my hand. I think if I were to stay in Italy for another three years, he might actually get up the juice to kiss me. On the other hand, he might just kiss me right now, tonight, right here by my door . . . there's still a chance . . . I mean we're pressed up against each other's bodies beneath this moonlight . . . and of course it would be a terrible mistake . . . but it's still such a wonderful possibility that he might actually do it right now . . . that he might just bend down . . . and . . . and . . .

Nope.

He separates himself from the embrace.

"Good night, my dear Liz," he says.

"Buona notte, caro mio," I reply.

I walk up the stairs to my fourth-floor apartment, all alone. I let myself into my tiny little studio, all alone. I shut the door behind me. Another solitary bedtime in Rome. Another long night's sleep ahead of me, with nobody and nothing in my bed except a pile of Italian phrasebooks and dictionaries.

I am alone, I am all alone, I am completely alone.

Grasping this reality, I let go of my bag, drop to my knees and press my forehead against the floor. There, I offer up to the universe a fervent prayer of thanks.

First in English.

Then in Italian.

And then — just to get the point across — in Sanskrit.

From Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert, published by Viking Books.

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