Eat, Pray, Love

One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia
By Elizabeth Gilbert
@2006, 12 hours, 49 minutes.
Audible version read by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Back in 2008 a coworker said, “You really gotta read this book!” She described it to me fairly accurately, and I didn’t think it would be for me. I didn’t want to read about some blond lady’s spiritual journey. I didn’t want to read about her travels across Italy, India, and Indonesia. Eating? I was on a diet!

So it’s fair to say it took me a little time to get around to this book, but it kept showing up here and there. People kept trying to give it to me. And I don’t really know what my problem was. It seemed, well, so “girly.”

The first book by Elizabeth Gilbert I “read” was her Audible version of Big Magic, and I probably would not have listened to that if it hadn’t been for her 2009 TED Talk on Creativity (which hit me like a ton of bricks) and yet another coworker sending me her podcast on Magic Lessons.

OK already, I’ll read your damn book!

Which wasn’t too bad. You know, I liked it. I like Liz’s openness to well, everything. Liz is engaging and interesting and sweet and supportive. You get the feeling that she’s the kind of person people seek out—all the time. Like she never has a free Saturday night. And this puts me off a little. It’s my issue, not hers.

She begins her book talking about how many people she’s going to offend by discussing her search for spirituality and healing, and I get that. I can easily think of people in my own life who would be terribly offended by this book. Liz looks for God on her own terms. She isn’t too sure about marriage or having children. She wants to claim space for her creativity, her own writing. She puts the breaks on her life and focuses completely on herself.

My mother-in-law would hate this book. In fact, she hates all books except for the Bible. If you’re reading a book that isn’t the Bible, there’s something wrong with you. If you can relate to my mother-in-law on the topic of books, Eat, Pray, Love may not be for you—-and, of course, you should definitely read it.

I’m not so easily offended. People can believe things radically different from what I believe, and it doesn’t upset me at all. I just think, hmm, that’s interesting. Wonder how they came to that conclusion? Liz does talk about one thing that I think, gee, why Liz? Why did you want to talk about that. TMI. TMI!

That said, Liz has a great reading voice. I think this book was probably better listened to than read.

So, yes. This was an interesting book. Liz’s problems are not my problems, though, so I wasn’t saying, oh yes, I really get you. Rather I marvel at this woman’s life. I marvel at her success and her freedom. I marvel at her ability to travel and her ability to pursue her dream because my dream has always seemed so hard to pursue. The small issue of money has always presented a barrier to me. I am only just conquering it, and even as I say this I’m not terribly sure that’s true. I mean “future me” probably is going to hate “past” and “present” me.

But Eat, Pray, Love. Should you read it? Yes, I think so. I think it is an important book of our time. I think it taps into women’s issues and gives a picture of the female condition that is very accurate for a large number of people. I think it’s historically and culturally significant.

Plus, Liz’s contemplation of meditation and yoga is very interesting. Yoga and meditation are becoming more important to me lately. My husband got some really bad news back from a test the other day. His ability to concentrate was judged to be under the 20th percentile with his working verbal memory measured just above the 1 percentile. So yes, I’m talking a range from 1 to 100. Does this mean dementia? We still do not know. But it does confirm brain damage. Well, duh. The 40 plus lesions on his MRI told us that. I mean really, what do we pay these doctors for?

But—I digress.

The point is this. Meditation could help my husband improve his cognitive function as long as he doesn’t have dementia. It can help with focus and concentration. Meditation is simple the practice of focusing your attention, of paying attention to what’s happening, right now. The act of bringing your mind back once it starts wandering is like lifting a weight and your ability to control your mind becomes stronger just as weight training makes your muscles stronger.

And as Liz discusses, there are all kinds of ways to do it because meditation has been explored by ancient cultures like India for a very long time. And by a long time, I mean for more than five thousand years. These cultures have the information, in other words.

Liz’s accounts of her heartaches rang true, but her account of her love story in Bali, while I get her excitement, seemed like she was holding back. So I think Liz nailed the “Eat” part of her story as well as the “Pray” part. But the “Love” part, I think she didn’t quite do it. I felt empathy. I felt relaxation. I felt her peacefulness. But I didn’t feel love. Love being a very complicated topic indeed.

Liz laments constantly: was Eat, Pray, Love her greatest work? Is her best work behind her?

Here’s my advice to her. Explore the concept of “love” and I mean this exploration to go beyond the Western one-word “love.” Explore love in Greek terms. Explore love in Middle Eastern terms.

As if I should be giving advice to Liz Gilbert! I should be giving advice to myself! Where’s my advice? Where’s my journey?

But alas, I have a gift for seeing what others must do, and Liz, your best work is not behind you. Best work does not equal most recognized work. Is your most recognized work behind you? Well, that’s anyone’s guess.

Anger

In my review of Nonviolent Communication, I also neglected to cover anger. And since anger is a big part of my life right now, it’s worth it to me to dig into it.

Rosenberg encourages us to express our anger fully.

I would suggest that hitting, blaming, hurting others—whether physically or emotionally—are all superficial expressions of what is going on within us when we are angry. If we are truly angry, we would want a much more powerful way to fully express ourselves.

The first step in expressing our anger is to divorce the other person from any responsibility for our anger.

(Tell this to my husband!)

We are never angry because of what others say or do.

Say what?

Others can provide a stimulus for our feelings, but not the cause. And it is important to establish a clear separation between the stimulus and the cause.

This is like Greek to me. I like it!

Rosenberg says that it’s easy to equate the stimulus of anger with the cause in a culture that uses guilt as a means of controlling people.

In such cultures, it becomes important to trick people into thinking that we can make others feel a certain way.

“The cause of anger lies in our thinking—in thoughts of blame and judgment. Whenever we are angry, we are finding fault—we are judging the other person for being wrong or deserving punishment.”

This is the cause of anger.

Anger is a result of life-alienating thinking that is disconnected from needs. It indicates that we have moved up to our head to analyze and judge somebody rather than focus on which of our needs are not getting met.

When stimulated to anger, we turn off that feeling of anger by focusing on our own needs and feelings or the other person’s feelings and needs.

So isn’t anger sometimes justified?

To this Rosenberg says that rather than agreeing or disagreeing on the righteousness of anger in different situations, we serve life better by focusing attention on what we are needing.

When we judge others, we contribute to violence.

At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled. Anger can be valuable if we notice its presence as a need that isn’t being met and that we are thinking in a way that makes it unlikely for that need to be met. It’s time to connect empathically with your needs:

“I am angry because I am needing…”

And remember it’s important not to judge. If you put a label of “wrong” on anger, you are judging. It’s better to be inquisitive about anger. What are the thoughts that are fueling the anger?

Step back. What needs aren’t being met?

How do you feel? Scared?

Violence comes from the belief that other people cause our pain and therefore deserve punishment.

People trick themselves into believing that pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.

Hmm, I’m still struggling with this. I still think those neurologists who were so callous with my husband need to be punished. I guess somewhere I’m not following. I understand how my unmet needs made me angry and the neurologists didn’t meet my needs and I’m still angry—at the neurologists.

I suppose I could find out what the unmet needs of the neurologists were, but they weren’t seeking help. They weren’t in a vulnerable situation, as was my husband.

Nope. Still angry.

I can make all kinds of justifications for them and it still comes down to they had a sacred duty and they shirked it. I don’t really care why. I don’t care about their needs. They took our money and our insurance’s money and they didn’t render the service we needed them to render.

I want my money back and I’m still angry.

I guess though, the NVC process helps me from being blinded by anger. It has a calming effect. A slowing effect.

  • Steps to expressing anger:
  • Stop. Breathe.
  • Identify our judgmental thoughts.
  • Connect with our needs.
  • Express our feelings and unmet needs.

Ah, so maybe here is what I’m missing. I need to express the feelings and needs to the neurologist. I need to be heard. I need to know that they know. Ah, I need the other party to connect with what is going on in me.

But before those nasty neurologists will be able to hear me, I have to first empathize with what leads them to behave in the ways that are not meeting my needs, or the needs of their patients.

I need them to make it right.

But warning: as soon as people think that they have done something wrong, they will not be fully apprehending our pain.

People do not hear our pain when they believe they are at fault.

If we sense blame entering their mind, we may need to slow down, go back, and hear their pain for a while more.

 

 

 

Empathy

I reviewed Nonviolent Communication and didn’t touch on empathy.

What is empathy?

“Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing….Empathy with others occurs only when we have successfully shed all preconceived ideas and judgments about them….Instead of offering empathy, we tend to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feeling. Empathy, on the other hand, requires us to focus full attention on the other person’s message.”

I wanted to add this post because I believe the information on empathy that Rosenberg gives is so critically important. It can be impossible to communicate completely with someone when they don’t know how to be empathetic. Sometimes, you just need to vent. Sometimes, you just need to be heard.

Rosenberg lists common behaviors that prevent us from being sufficiently present to connect empathetically with others:

Advising: “How come you didn’t…?” or “I think you should…”

One-upping: “That’s nothing. Wait ’till you hear what happened to me…”

Educating: “This could turn out to be a very positive experience for you if you just…”

Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault; you did the best you could.”

Story-telling: “That reminds me of the time…” (I call this shifting focus to oneself.)

Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.”

Sympathizing: “Oh, you poor thing…”

Interrogating: “When did this begin?”

Explaining: “I would have called but…”

Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”

Oh man, I am guilty of doing so many of these when I really wanted to be there for someone, but didn’t know how. Now that my husband’s condition is so much on the forefront of my reality, I cringe at some of these when they are directed at me.

This communication language thing is very hard.

We know a speaker has received adequate empathy when we sense a release of tension or the flow of words has come to a halt.

When we can’t give empathy to others, it’s a sign that we need to give empathy to ourselves.

When we can speak our pain without blame, even people in distress can hear our need.

So why is empathy important?

Empathy allows us to reperceive our world in a new way and to go on.

And empathy gives us strength.

When we listen for feelings and needs, we no longer see people as monsters.

Empathy can help us mourn our past mistakes:

NVC mourning: connecting with the feelings and unmet needs stimulated by past actions we now regret.

There is incredible memoir fodder in the statement above.

Nonviolent Communication

By Marshall B. Rosenberg

What allows us to remain compassionate even under the most trying of circumstances? This is the question that Marshall Rosenberg seeks to answer in Nonviolent Communication. To answer this question, he examines the crucial role that language and and our use of words play in our thinking and communication.

Rosenberg points out that most of us grew up speaking a language that encourages us to “label, compare, demand, and pronounce judgments rather than to be aware of what we are feeling and needing.” He believes that “life-alienating communication has deep philosophical and political roots.”

It originates from and supports hierarchical or domination societies, where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals to those individuals’ own benefit.

Wow.

The language of wrongness, should, and have to is perfectly suited for this purpose: the more people are trained to think in terms of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness and badness, the more they are being trained to look outside themselves—to outside authorities—for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good, and bad.

Nonviolent communication is a “specific approach to communicating—both speaking an listening—that leads us to give from the heart, connecting us with ourselves and with each other in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish.” When practiced, this communication method can help you move beyond feeling attacked to really listening and extracting other people’s underlying feelings.

NVC asks us to focus on clarifying what is observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging. When we focus our attention on clarifying what we observe, feel and need, we are more likely to get what we are seeking.

Our cultural conditioning leads us to focus our attention on places where we are unlikely to get what we want. That’s one reason why it can be so difficult for us to get along, and once we know how this works, it’s relatively easy to address our differences by communicating differently, more accurately, and with more compassion.

Our language leads us astray. Instead of articulating our needs and values directly, we insinuate wrongness when they haven’t been met. We say: Violence is bad. If communicating through compassion, we would state our feelings or needs and then our values: I am afraid of violence, I value resolution of conflict through other means.

Notice how the version without the judgement is longer and less fluid. To me this points to the fact that humans have not evolved to be nonviolent and our language (at least English) is a reflection of that.

Our language also helps us deny that we are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. This easily observable in the phrase: I had to. As in: I washed the car because I had to. This implies that someone was making us and we didn’t have a choice. Denying our own responsibility is “life-alienating.”

The NVC translation of “I have to” is: I choose to do X, because I want Y.

Our language obscures awareness of personal responsibility.

We deny responsibility when we attribute our actions to factors outside ourselves:

  • Vague impersonal forces
  • Our condition, diagnosis, or personal psychological history
  • The actions of others
  • The dictates of authority
  • Group pressure
  • Institutional policies, rules, etc.
  • Gender, social, age roles
  • Uncontrollable impulses

Rosenberg believes that it is in everyone’s best interest that people change, not in order to avoid punishment, but because they see the change as benefiting themselves.

The concept that certain actions merit reward while others merit punishment is also associated with life-alienating communication.

Four components of NVC:

  1. Observations (articulate without judgement or evaluation/interpretation the concrete actions we observe that affect our well-being)
  2. Feelings (state how we feel in relation to this action)
  3. Needs (state what needs, desires, values of ours are connected to our feelings)
  4. Requests (something specific the other person could do to make our lives better)

The other part of NVC is receiving this information from others.

  1. Connect with them by sensing what they are observing, feeling, needing
  2. Discover what would enrich their lives; getting their request.

With my husband, because of his brain injury, I am often in the dark as to what he is feeling and needing. NVC has shown me that a lot can be gained by guessing. It is also helpful to have this kind of conversation with yourself.

Your guess doesn’t have to be correct. What matters is that your guess is a sincere attempt to connect with the other person’s feeling or need. If this makes you feel uncomfortable or vulnerable, you’re on the right track.

What’s tricky is that our language sets us up to confuse thinking with feeling. For me personally getting these two straight is pretty difficult.

The other critical aspect of this is not to judge. I think we are all wired to judge. It’s a survival mechanism. So if catch yourself judging, becoming aware of that as soon as possible is helpful. Try to move past your judgement and into a space of curiosity. Question your perceptions. Find out if you are correct. Judging alienates us from compassion. Rosenberg includes great examples that tease apart simple observation from judging. If your observation contains an element of rightness or wrongness, you are judging. Try thinking through your observation once again to get to the bare bones facts. And don’t forget, comparisons are a form of judgement.

Classifying and judging people promotes violence.

If we can stop thinking and communicating in terms of what’s wrong with others, we get closer to our NVC goal. Instead if we ponder what other people are needing and not getting, we can open up an area of compassion in ourselves. By questioning others to see if our guesses are correct, we can begin a dialog with them and open up a space of compassion in them.

One thing I really loved about this book was that if clarifies a misquote that I’ve often heard and always doubted as false. People will say that whatever you think others are doing that’s wrong, you are actually doing yourself. They say you are projecting. Rosenberg puts this concept a bit differently:

Analyses of others are actually expressions of our own needs and values.

Now that, I can get onboard with. I get that. If I say you are hateful, it doesn’t mean I’m hateful. It means I’m needing something from you. Maybe connection.

My interpretation of you as being hateful is a judgement I’m making about you. This judgement isn’t helpful for me to get what I want from you: connection. What I need to do to get what I want is to find out what you need and feel. Once I do that, we can start to progress into a space where we both get what we need, and hopefully feel better.

Of interest to me in my new goal as a caregiver was this:

We all pay dearly when people respond to our values and needs not out of a desire to give from the heart, but out of fear, guilt, or shame. Sooner or later, we will experience the consequences of diminished goodwill on the part of those who comply with our values out of a sense of either external or internal coercion. They, too, pay emotionally, for they are likely to feel resentment and decreased self-esteem when they respond to use out of fear, guilt, or shame.

He goes on to say that each time they respond to our needs out of fear, guilt or shame, their compassion for us decreases.

Bingo.

Beyond putting NVC into practice in difficult situations, it also appears to be a good method of self examination for the purposes of introspection or for writing memoir. How can you nonviolently communicate with yourself? A good question for those of us who are plagued with negative self-talk.

In difficult situations, it’s helpful to take charge of our feelings. But how?

When making sense of your feelings, try this linguistic construction:

I feel … because I need …

We have four options for receiving negative feedback:

  1. Blame ourselves
  2. Blame others
  3. Sense our own feelings and needs
  4. Sense others’ feelings and needs

Worldwide, NVC is used to mediate disputes and conflicts on a wide range of levels.

The more directly we can connect our feelings to our own needs, the easier it is for others to respond to us compassionately.

Read the book for exercises and to test yourself. Learn more about feelings and non-feelings and how expressing your own vulnerability can help resolve conflicts.

But because I can’t resist, here is one more example, of a  conversation between two people in a relationship:

Partner 1 (not having awareness and taking responsibility for their feelings): “You are so needy and dependent. It’s really stressing out our relationship.”

Partner 2 (enlightened by NVC): “So you find yourself in panic. It’s very hard for you to hold onto the deep caring and love we’ve had without turning it into a responsibility, duty, obligation…. You sense your freedom closing down because you think you constantly have to take care of me.”

Alternative a non-empathic response from Partner 2 where Partner 2 takes responsibility for Partner 1’s feelings could look like this: “Are you feeling tense because I’ve been making too many demands on you?”

This last version keeps both partners enmeshed in emotional slavery, a real bummer of a place to be.

You can use the components of NVC to tune into the feelings and needs of others in stead of blaming them or blaming yourself.

Notes from Memoir Class

Interesting writing is universal and personal at the same time.

When reading, pay attention to what is gained and what is lost.

The character’s job in a memoir is to reveal the narrator to the reader.

The narrator: where are we going and who’s going to take me there?

Have four major characters at most.

At the Heart of Personal Narrative

These lines were given to me (us) by a grad school professor. I don’t have any attribution to go with them. All I can say is I didn’t write them. They do such a good job of explaining what’s going on when people write memoirs that I’m recording them here.

In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension. Here, it is self-implication that is required. To see one’s own part in the situation—that is, one’s own frightened or cowardly or self-deceived part—is to create the dynamic.

 

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Haruki Murakami; Knopf, Random House; @ 2007; Translated by Philip Gabriel in 2008; 180 pages.

I recently went on a book binge. I was in the local used bookstore with my credit card and no supervision.

Murakami’s book was one of about seven or eight that called to me from the shelves: Hey, you, over here!

I read Murakami’s After Dark while I was in grad school, and though I loved his style, I didn’t really care for the story. Murakami’s best known work is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and I can’t wait to read it.

Before I go on, you should know that I do not run. Never have. Ever since I was a kid and was secondhand inhaling five packs of cigarettes a day, I have not been a runner.

But back to Murakami. I like this guy. He says most people don’t like him because he isn’t willing to compromise. That makes me like him even more. He’s in his late 50s as he writes this memoir. He says he started writing novels in his 30s. His secret? He runs every day, or at least every other day, and he runs a marathon once a year.

Murakami explains that solitude is a necessary part of his profession. That’s why he’s had to constantly keep his body in motion…”in order to heal the loneliness I feel inside and put it in perspective.”

Murakami doesn’t recommend that everyone run. It’s more important that people go at their own pace. If they are meant to run, they will. (If they are meant to write, they will.)

As he describes training for the New York City Marathon, he drops pearls of wisdom about writing. He says the most important qualities of a novelist are talent, focus, and endurance. A novelist has to focus for three or four hours every day for six months to two years. Running helps him maintain his endurance.

“Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest….with clear goals and fully alive….”

Murakami says that a lot of people in Japan seem to think that writing novels is an unhealthy activity—”that novelists are somewhat degenerate and have to live hazardous lives in order to write.” He says that it’s a widely held view that by living an unhealthy lifestyle, a writer can remove himself from the profane world and attain a kind of purity that has artistic value.”

Murakami says: “when we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not, a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it….”

I had a hard time understanding exactly what Murakami meant by that, but he goes on to say that it can be related to the fugu fish. The tastiest part is near the poison.

To create, a writer has to deal with the risks of becoming antisocial or decadent. The writer has to get the energy from somewhere to battle this. Murakami gets the energy from keeping his body strong. He says “an unhealthy soul requires a healthy body.”

He says that with older writers it’s harder to maintain the balance between imaginative power and the physical abilities that sustain it. When that happens, some writers commit suicide.

I’m not sure I agree with this entirely. I think that when writers open up their subconscious and remove those protective barriers to lost memories, feelings, etc., that what comes out can be so startling and overwhelming that they can fall into a clinical depression. The actual chemistry of their brains is affected to such an extent that they can’t handle it emotionally. Perhaps running provides a mechanism to cleanse the brain of the chemical toxins generated by introspection. Maybe vigorous exercise is needed to keep the brain healthy. Maybe, or maybe not.

Murakami says that some people think he’s obsessed. Hmm, marathons every year for 25 years and then completing a 62-mile race in one day? Maybe.

But there are worse things to be obsessed about. At least he balances his obsession for running with his obsession for writing. I felt sorry for him, not because he couldn’t reach the time he wanted to obtain, but because he seems to beat himself up about it. I think anyone capable of running a marathon in his late 50s and early 60s has nothing to be ashamed of, even if that little old lady did pass him up.