By Eva Skaar
Julia Roberts at a meditation retreat? Does that seem incongruous? Julia Roberts, beautiful, successful, wants to find the meaning of life? In the process, will she be facing up to her own imperfections, confronting her low self-image and her own limitations?
First came the book, Eat, pray, love, by Elisabeth (Liz) Gilbert – an autobiography which became a bestseller in 2006. Then came the film, starring Julia Roberts. The story is about the newly divorced Liz, who spends a year travelling in Italy, India and Indonesia in search of change and meaning in her life. In India, she wants to meditate. A serious, seeking soul? Or a beautiful, wealthy, western narcissist flirting with spirituality? Will her book increase genuine interest in meditation or reinforce popular myths about it? Some people may not want to touch a book recommended by Oprah Winfrey. Others can’t wait to get a copy.
Eat, pray, love has become a phenomenon, loved and hated. Sales exceed 7 million. For many women, it is the number one self-help book. Elisabeth Gilbert writes in an intelligent style and with a sense of humour. Her early experiences of meditation will be recognizable to many practitioners of Acem Meditation. This is not a review of the book or the movie, but a discussion of how meditation is represented in popular culture, based on the book.
Hitting the wall
This is how the story starts: Liz has recently been through a difficult divorce. She has hit the wall. We don’t get much background information, but it seems she has been involved in a life she wants to escape, and this is distressing her. She becomes deeply depressed and develops sleep problems.
Then she makes up her mind to travel for a year. An advance on a book about her travels provides the necessary finance. Part of her project is to spend 4 months in India, meditating. She wants to find out more about herself and her life, and become more grounded.
The meditation doesn’t go very well. Calmness continues to elude her, and when she tries to meditate, the following things rapidly happen:
1) She gets bored
2) She gets angry
3) She gets depressed
4) She gets anxious
5) Or all of this at the same time
Her thoughts and feelings keep switching from one place to another – from the distant past to the unknown future. She experiences this as uncomfortable and chaotic. This isn’t the way it should be. According to her understanding, one should be more present in the here and now. Instead of rooting around in her past or worrying about the future, she should be able to rest in the moment.
There are also specific problems with her meditation technique. The meditation sound (mantra) doesn’t feel right for her: she doesn’t seem able to make it fit the rhythm of her breathing. Should she breathe in on one syllable and out on the other? Or should she use one meditation sound on the in-breath and one on the out-breath? She isn’t sure, and when she asks, the answer is: “Just do it”.
Can’t make it
Liz increasingly feels that she isn’t going to make it. Her thoughts wander in all directions and she never gets very deep into her meditation. This is a failure – a catastrophe. She simply can’t do it, and it makes her feel inadequate and ashamed. When meditating with others, she sometimes glances around the room, only to find that everybody else is sitting quite calmly, in perfect postures, their faces radiant with peacefulness and the power of silence. She, meanwhile, is bored after 5 minutes, her thoughts scattered and not even interesting. Meditation doesn’t make her experience anything special at all. No wonder she feels sad and worthless. What can she do to get better at it?
In a discussion with another meditator, she becomes aware of the intensity of her self-critical feelings: she has a familiar tendency to blame herself and think of herself as stupid. She also sees how preoccupied she is about having control, which is why she becomes upset when stray thoughts disturb her meditation. The conversation helps her understand that there is a lot to be gained from ceasing to struggle and simply letting go.
If Liz had practiced Acem Meditation, she would have learnt that her critical and dissatisfied thoughts were metathoughts, and that everyone experiences them. We should not listen to these thoughts, but we tend to believe that they express the truth about our meditation. Metathoughts are channels for low self-esteem and resistance to change, and their power lies in their very familiarity: we are accustomed to finding fault with ourselves, even if we know we shouldn’t. Metathoughts go hand in hand with metamoods – general feelings of dissatisfaction and discontentment. By letting metathoughts and metamoods be present in our minds and pass freely to and fro, we can loosen their grip. It may not be easy. A vague dissatisfaction may quickly resurface, and we tend to think that it is justified, since there is “nothing to report” to others from the meditation: “I am not relaxing well, I don’t become immersed in a good meditation mood, and I have all these everyday thoughts that are present whether I meditate or not”.
We ask ourselves, “What is the point then? Unless I can do this properly, I might as well give up and do something else”. Then we either redouble our efforts with the meditation sound or slowly slide into irregular meditation practice. Giving up is a way of avoiding unpleasant encounters with sides of ourselves we do not like and experiences which make us feel unsuccessful and small. But giving up also defeats one of the objects of starting meditation in the first place: the wish to become a bit less self-critical after being focused on the negative for too long.
If Liz had learnt Acem Meditation, she would have been asked about her expectations and ideas about meditation. Someone would have talked to her about how she felt if her expectations were not met, and what she did with the meditation sound when she was experiencing dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. This is the key to Acem Meditation: introducing acceptance and a freer mental attitude into our narrow minds and uptight inner atmosphere of self-devaluation. The meditation sound is a tool, not a tactic.
But what does Liz do? She finds a new mantra which she thinks works better. She fights to control her mind, keeping up a running commentary on her thoughts during meditation and constantly telling herself not to think negatively. Time now passes quickly when she is meditating, and she reports that she is achieving new insight. Things get sorted out. She learns what to do in her life ahead – at least in the difficult relationship with her husband. She gets in touch with wisdom, love, the divine, higher consciousness… Not bad – and much better for her self-esteem than to sit ruminating over everyday thoughts.
Liz evinces self-centred ideas about self-realization. Being bored doesn’t fit into her picture of the process. She takes flight from anything mundane, difficult or provoking, seeking the quick fix of experiences which produce positive affirmations of the psychological self. We are left with the impression of someone who is still under the influence of 1960s phenomena: utopianism, disengagement from reality, and an excitement-seeking attitude towards life.
Liz’s story was potentially interesting: a woman who, through meditation, travelling and new experiences gradually develops a new and different perspective on her personal psychology. But it ends in popular culture’s dreams and idealizations, reinforcing the cliché that the goal of meditation is to reach a state of happiness. The experience of meditation through Acem is different: meditation is a developmental process that can gradually contribute to a change in perspective on what is really limiting us, and enable us to make progress towards full self-realization.
It is not easy to understand Liz’s crisis, and the movie contains very few clues about the human dimension. What seems to start with an attitude of genuine searching ends in a false epiphany, leaving no room for doubt, confusion, or a lack of clarity or finality. For most of us, meditation isn’t a miracle cure which solves everything. But some aspects of our lives may be sorted out, and parts of the image of who we are will become clearer. On top of that, meditation may help activate valuable reserves of personal energy. There isn’t much “Hollywood” about meditation in everyday life: we work towards becoming more of who we are and gaining more access to the capacities we haven’t utilized and the unlived sides of our lives. It’s a process which is painful and rewarding at the same time. We don’t become special, but perhaps more reflective and lastingly satisfied.