By Marcia Montenegro| In her book, Eat, Pray, Love (NY: Penguin Books, 2006), Elizabeth Gilbert narrates her journey through three countries, Italy, India, and Indonesia, which parallels the exploration of three stages of her post-divorce experience: pursuit of pleasure, pursuit of devotion, and pursuit of balance (between pleasure and devotion). This is such a neat package, one would think it was planned ahead of time. Well, it was.
On her site, Elizabeth Gilbert states that her journey was paid for with an advance from the publisher (http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/faq.htm). So this was a journey planned with writing and selling a book in mind. The promotion on Oprah did the rest, catapulting the book onto the bestseller list; additionally, the book has received many accolades from reviewers.
A note of interest: Christian columnist and author Anne Lamott endorsed this book, which thrilled Gilbert, and she appeared with Gilbert for an event on the UCLA campus.
Lamott’s words appear on the book’s cover: “A wonderful book, brilliant and personal, rich in spiritual insight.” Lamott is a Universalist, so maybe it should not be surprising that she has no problem cheering on New Age teachings. Incidentally, this was not the first New Age author Lamott has endorsed; she also endorsed a book by Marianne Williamson.
Yoga, Meditation, and Beyond
Gilbert writes that she is seeking God, but makes it clear it is not the Christian God. The god she claims is the one within and the one who accepts her as a divine being: “The Supreme Self is our true identity, universal and divine” (122). In fact, she writes that she has “always responded with breathless excitement to anyone who has ever said that God does not live in a dogmatic scripture or in a distant throne in the sky” (14), thus revealing her rejection of the Bible (the word “dogma” is increasingly used these days as a code word for the Bible or for orthodox Christianity).
She openly states that she does not accept Jesus as the only way to God, and so “Strictly speaking, then, I cannot call myself a Christian” (14). I have to give her points for honesty. Gilbert is a classic New Ager, even if she may reject that label (I do not know how she feels about such a label). But having followed New Age and Eastern beliefs for many years, I have no hesitation in saying this. I once had her god as my god as well.
Although Gilbert rejects the Christian Jesus, she has no problem accepting the teachings of Hinduism, and those of her medicine man teacher, Katuk, while in Bali. She readily and without question accepts the Balinese teaching, one that is quite alien to her, that everyone is born with four spirit brothers who “collect your soul and bring you to heaven” when you die (251).
She eagerly learns how to do the meditation with these “four brothers.” Indeed, she begins to speak to these spirit brothers the very day she hears about them (253). She imbibes these beliefs with no question and does not flinch at the elaborate rituals Katuk performs to appease demons.
Gilbert had been taking yoga classes in New York before her journey and already had a guru, so she began the sojourn with an Eastern worldview firmly in place, making this not as much of a voyage of discovery as some might think. At least she acknowledges that the Hatha yoga positions, so trendy now in the U.S., were not developed “for personal fitness” but “to loosen muscles and minds in order to prepare them for meditation” (121).
This is fairly accurate: Hatha Yoga is a preparation for deeper and more rigorous forms of yogic meditative states. She also is clear that yoga is to find union “between the individual and God” (121). Gilbert discusses the use of mantras (words or phrases repeated during meditation as an aid to keep thoughts away) and how the “monkey mind” (Hindu and Buddhist phrase) needs to be subdued and tamed.
This phrase is one I heard and read a lot from Hindu and Buddhist sources in my own pursuits of spirituality. It is typically Eastern: thoughts are barriers to the meditative state, which would impede enlightenment, so techniques such as mantras and a focus on breath are used to “still” the mind.
Gilbert discusses the Guru’s role, that one hopes that “the merits of your master will reveal to you your own hidden greatness” (124). Later while meditating in India, she has a vision of her Guru’s dead Guru, whom she calls by the title “Swamiji,” rather than reveal his name.
This powerful encounter drives her into spiritual breakthroughs, including the realization of his teaching that “To know God, you need only to renounce one thing ? your division from God” (192). Gilbert has a compelling experience before leaving India, in which she feels she was briefly united with God and understood the “workings of the universe completely” (199). The bottom line of these teachings is that no repentance is needed, only realization. And yoga and the meditation and chanting are all designed to bring this realization about.
The Contemplative Connection: God is in the Silence
Gilbert gives advice on her site to someone who asks how it is possible to make a journey when one has a family. Gilbert answers, “The first question you can begin to ask yourself, though, is: “Where can I find a small corner of stillness?’ Because that’s where it all begins and ends. God resides in these pockets of silence. So where in your day, where in your home, where in your mind, is there some opportunity for a moment of silence?”
In the book, mystics such as Theresa of Avila, Saint Ignatius, Saint Anthony, and others are Gilbert’s role models for meditating and having “visions” (143, 147); she loves all mystical experiences — mysticism is her path and the way she believes one has union with God. She discusses the kundalini energy of Hinduism, the energy that rises through the chakras (see CANA articles on yoga), and relates this to the Eastern ki or chi, to the Holy Spirit, and to Teresa of Avila’s “ascension of light through seven inner ?mansions’ of her being, after which she burst into God’s presence” (143).
Gilbert misunderstands the Holy Spirit: the Holy Spirit is not an energy but is the Third Person of the Trinitarian God. The Holy Spirit is God. One does not practice techniques to have an experience with the Holy Spirit. Rather, the Holy Spirit indwells believers in Christ, and while they certainly do have experiences of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power, it is not a result of techniques or meditative trance states (an altered state of consciousness which is also a mild hypnotic state).
The role of the Holy Spirit includes glorifying Jesus Christ and teaching and guiding the Christian through God’s word (John 15.26, 16.13; 1 Cor 2.12, 13) as well the process of sanctification (conforming believers to the image of Christ).
This going into silence to find God is quite dangerous, and God nowhere tells us to seek Him this way. Many cite the “still small voice” or “sound of sheer silence” (some translations have “the sound of gentle blowing”) in 1 Kings 19 when Elijah is despairing near the cave on the mountain, fleeing the wrath of the murderous Jezebel.
But this sound was not God’s voice, just God’s way of getting Elijah’s attention. Nor was Elijah practicing a form of silent meditation or contemplation at the time. After God has Elijah’s attention, God speaks to Elijah in words (verse 13). God’s message was not through the “small still voice,” or the silence, or the blowing. Moreover, Elijah was there in the first place because God had previously told him to go there, using words (verse 11).
Furthermore, narratives about prophets are not instructions on how to hear God. Prophets were chosen by God to receive direct revelation from God; they were the exception, not the rule. Elijah had been receiving these revelations already. It is not normative practice today to sit and wait to hear God’s voice. God has already spoken in the canon of Scripture. Nor are we instructed to descend into self and silence to hear God; instead, we are instructed to read and meditate (meaning think about and ponder) on God’s word.
Going within to find or hear God is the stuff of mysticism in all religions, including New Age beliefs. In mysticism, there is no need for a mediator and no need for a written revelation (which are often absent or spurned as inferior), because the object of this is a direct experience with God (or what is believed to be God). I can vouch for the fact that if you seek a spiritual experience, especially by going within, no matter who you are, you will get one. But this does not mean it is coming from the true God.
Gilbert refers to stilling the “monkey mind,” a phrase used especially in Hindu and Buddhist teachings as well as the New Age. But God did not make us with “monkey minds.” Only monkeys have “monkey minds.” The fact that our thoughts wander or jump around if we try not to think indicates that our minds are made for thinking.
It also could be a protection against self-induced hypnosis and the altered state. Thoughts are natural to the mind, and the only way to shut them down is to go into the hypnotic trance or altered state of Eastern/New Age meditation, which also suspends judgment and critical thinking.
For all the hype about being “natural” in the New Age, Eastern and New Age meditation are very anti-natural in their teachings about turning off the mind. Yet even some Christians who are urging the Eastern-styled contemplative spirituality are now using the popular New Age phrases, “monkey minds” or “mind chatter.”
In contrast, biblical meditation on God’s word is pondering and thinking about what one is reading. It is not a matter of techniques or of getting into a mystical state. The power is in God’s word itself, not in us.
To accept these teachings puts one in bondage to a need to transcend this “monkey mind,” and in bondage to a belief that we cannot know God unless we practice Eastern style meditation and have breakthroughs into a pure consciousness, an awareness that all is God. It is the opposite of the simplicity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: to have childlike faith in Him and what He did for us.
Is God Bigger than Doctrine?
Gilbert downgrades doctrine, deciding that, “God might be bigger than our limited religious doctrines” (208). This is a common statement among many who do not accept the authority of the Bible and prefer reliance on experience, visions, or extra-biblical revelation as superior (“doctrine” being another code word for the Bible). This argument is a red herring, a false dilemma, and a straw man.
First of all, it is not man’s doctrines at issue, but God’s. If the Bible is God’s word, then it is not a question of whether God is “bigger” than doctrines. Doctrine is simply a word for “teaching,” and what is the point of comparing God to His teachings? If “bigger” means tolerant of different views, which it seems to in this case, then God would be tolerating views that He condemns in His word. It would make Jesus a liar for saying he is the only way to God.
This statement about God being bigger than doctrine pits God against the Bible, which only makes sense if one does not believe the Bible is God’s word in the first place.
Secondly, Gilbert easily accepts the doctrines (teachings) of her Guru, the Balinese medicine man, and others, including written Hindu scripture like the Upanishads. The only doctrine Gilbert has any problems with is that which denies that there are many ways to God or teaches that there is only one way to God. This is what she is talking about.
Let us consider where you end up if you think doctrine doesn’t matter. It can take you to a place where there are no distinctions between anything because there are no authoritative boundaries between what is good or evil, or what is true or false. Everything is determined subjectively. This is exemplified in the medicine man in Bali, Ketut, who thinks all religions are “same-same” (241), and heaven and hell are ultimately the same, as well (262). In fact, he says that hell is love (263).
This is even startling for Gilbert, although she believes everyone is divine. So if that is true, and if there is a hell, then it would be full of divine beings as well. No distinction between good and evil means that good and evil don’t ultimately matter.
Gilbert also seems to think the Dalai Lama is tolerant of other views because of his famous statements that those in other religions do not need to become Tibetan Buddhists to be his students (208). But apparently Gilbert has not investigated why he believes this.
The reason the Dalai Lama can say this is because he believes everyone will eventually become Buddhist, and Tibetan Buddhism is the only way to liberation in his view. He believes in spreading Buddhist teachings because one day, all sentient beings (this includes animals as well as gods, demi-gods, humans, and ghosts) will be reborn either in a Buddhist country where they will become Buddhists, or they will eventually encounter Buddhist teachings.
This is why the Dalai Lama talks constantly of having “compassion for all sentient beings.” By compassion, he means spreading Buddhist teachings so that sentient beings will eventually become Buddhists, even if it is many lives away (see The Essential Dalai Lama, a compendium of speeches by the Dalai Lama in written form, and other sources of his teachings). So, of course he is okay with other religions, because eventually (he believes), everyone will be Buddhist.
Bondage and Freedom
Gilbert has a breezy, easy-to-read style and takes honest looks at herself. She is very likeable and appealing in the pages of her book. Through a combination of Eastern meditation, Yoga, Western self-help psychology, mystical states and visions, and her beliefs about her divine nature, Gilbert is able to heal from her divorce and other deep wounds.
Her writing is enticing and her success is persuasive — it gives validity to her practices and claims. She seems free now to enjoy life and love. This kind of freedom is very tantalizing, but it comes with questions. What standard is there for being free enough? Doesn’t the past always dodge us? Do we attain perfection or just a consciousness of perfection? How many more lives must one live to be free enough?
Before the journey recorded in this book, Gilbert had visited an Indonesian island and spent several days alone and in silence, wrestling with her past and with her issues. After nine days of silence, she recounts how she sees her own “goodness” after forgiving herself and how this leads her to an understanding of God’s forgiveness (327-28).
She seems to believe that this forgiveness comes with no cost except the task of forgiving herself. But this is a presumption of forgiveness – a view that forgiveness from God is a right. Or that we get it if we work hard enough, especially by forgiving ourselves.
Gilbert writes, “I was the administrator of my own rescue” (329). But the message from Jesus is that we cannot rescue ourselves: “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins,”(John 8.24). We cannot magically erase our sins by forgiving ourselves; the sins remain, because we have a sinful nature (“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3.23). God tells us that the wages of sin are death (Romans 3.63), death meaning separation from God. How do we escape this penalty?
Jesus was the only one who was without sin and was pleasing to God on his own merits: “And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him” (John 8.29). Because of his sinlessness, Jesus the God-man was able to pay the penalty for sins as the Lamb of God without blemish. This is what the atonement was about: paying the penalty for sin.
Gilbert writes that her heart tells her mind, “I love you, I will never leave, I will always take care of you” (328). She is getting a pass to reassurance from her own self, her own thinking, not from God, though she may believe it is from God. But it was Jesus who said to those who believe in Him, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28.20).
No one, if interacting honestly with what the Bible teaches, can remake Jesus into another Guru or another Buddha. Jesus claimed to be the unique Messiah, the Son of God (which means he has God’s nature), the Redeemer, the First and the Last.
It is not about a transformation of consciousness, or a realization of man’s supposed divine nature, or a process of self-forgiveness, but rather that we understand that we are helpless in our cocoon of sin and selfishness in the presence of a holy God, and desperately need the redemption of the one and only Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Redemption through Christ is the true freedom.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die-ever. Do you believe this?” John 11.25,26
This article was originally featured on Christian Answers for the New Age, and was republished with permission from the author.