A Conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert

Conscious Life Journal: How do you fit the body into your understanding of consciousness and how do you see consciousness working through the body?

Elizabeth Gilbert: I was talking to the great Martha Beck about the big changes happening in my life right now. Looking back over the last year my body knew the situation and understood what was going on before 
my mind was ready to accept it. I feel a little guilty that it comes to my body’s attention first, through constant pain, some discomfort in my stomach, tightness in my chest, and I just wish I was more emotionally astute so that I would be able to speak my truth before my body felt it. But sometimes the body knows things before the mind does. The great wise Martha said “only always.”

It was such a relief to hear that because when I look back on the history of the great changes in my life, my body was always aware of the situation before my mind was. For example, you’re in a work situation where you’re just so exhausted every day when you wake up imagining even going to that job. Or when you see your coworker you feel sick to your stomach. Or diseases—like tendonitis, lower back pain, digestive issues—that people are being treated for because they aren’t in the right situation in their lives. Or your marriage isn’t working and just the thought of going
 to bed makes you feel scared and nervous
 and upset. I remember a relationship years ago where my mind kept telling me I was so in love with this person and every night my body would say, “If you don’t get me out of this unsafe situation I’m going to jump out the window.” I would find myself trying to talk 
to my body to relax it but it wouldn’t. And it was right.

Every time in my creative life that I’ve had an idea that’s exciting and inspiring, I feel it. I feel the shiver go up my arm, I feel the hair on the back of my neck go up, I feel that flip of excitement in my stomach like I’m falling in love, and I’ve learned to be respectful of that. Because the body knows this is the right idea, this is the project you should be working on, these are the people you should be involved with. When a religious or spiritual idea that I’m mouthing doesn’t make sense to me, I’m not feeling it anywhere.

Sometimes the message it’s sending is going to cause us a great deal of trouble. Don’t tell me that I’m in love with the wrong person. Don’t tell me that I have chosen the wrong career. You know how much I’m going to have to undo to fix that. Don’t tell me that I made this mistake. Your body will not be negotiated against. It’ll fire up whatever it has to fire up to get your attention and it will win.

CLJ: What about acceptance? How does the body demonstrate acceptance?

EG: The body tries to communicate to us through joy and pleasure and excitement, but if we ignore that, if we ignore the things that bring us joy and pleasure and excitement, it will communicate through pain and suffering. We have to learn how to trust our joy and believe that if this feels really joyful it’s probably what we’re supposed to be doing most of the time.

CLJ: How do you feel about long-term suffering?

EG: Every woman in the history of my entire family modeled martyrdom. You sacrifice for everybody else. You get up first in the morning; you go to bed last at night. I’m the first woman in the history of my family who has total autonomy over her body, her spirit, her mind, her finances, and her political beliefs. I’m showing people a different way.

CLJ: You talk in Big Magic about fear. What part does fear play?

EG: I often do an exercise, especially when I’m working with women, where I ask them to take five minutes to write a letter to themselves from their fear. We’re so sick of our fear, and we’re so afraid of our fear, and we don’t want to deal with our fear, so the last thing we want to do is listen to it. We think that we’re listening to it all the time because it’s this screaming voice in the background. But most of us have not taken the time to listen to it and to respect it as though you’re in mediation. You say, “I am going to give you this period of time and I want you to tell me specifically and precisely what you are so afraid of” and listen with respect. What happens when you do that is you allow fear
 to speak. You find that you’re actually not afraid of everything. You think your fear is bottomless but it’s hard to fill up five minutes. Usually you’re afraid of something specific. These four things. If you really pay attention and let it speak it will tell you and you find out that it’s not as infinite as you thought. Now you’re able to engage in a conversation. You can’t engage in a conversation with a screaming hum. But you can engage in a conversation with a voice that says I’m afraid of these four things. Now we can talk. Now we have something to work with.

CLJ: Does this exercise dissipate a lot of those fears just by the very act of naming them?

EG: Totally. If you come from respect and you don’t say, “my stupid, dumb, idiot fears” but, “These are my very real fears, this is what I’m scared of,” you may find they’re not unreasonable. Maybe they sound crazy and insane but mostly they don’t. They might be based in reality. Then you can start to see what can change, how you can start working with this instead of just blocking your ears and screaming.

CLJ: It’s amazing to watch the confidence you seem to have toward everything that you do. Do you have a personal regime to keep yourself there?

EG: I can stay there once in a while but not all the time. When I was writing Eat Pray Love I cultivated a relationship with this voice. Potentially, your whole emotional life is nothing but an internal conversation. Shut up. You’re a baby. You shut up. I hate you. It’s like a family screaming at each other across the table, but it’s happening inside your head. I let each one of those people speak and I name them—this is the part of me that is always being abandoned, this is the part of me that longs for freedom, this is the part of me that beats herself up whenever she’s said the wrong thing. I let them be.

I always start the conversation the same way. I write the first line “Help me” or “What do you want me to know today?” And then 
I respond. Just try to find that, the wisest, kindest, and most generous friend that you could never have or never imagine. If she were speaking to you, what would she say, and answer in that voice. For over a decade and a half I’ve found her every day no matter how horribly the day is going. Sometimes the only thing she has to say is, “Kid, life is tricky. It’s not easy being a human being. Ask any other person. Not always easy. Today’s a hard day. You’re doing your very best. Come back tomorrow. We’ll work it out.” Other times she has a much more specific response. But it’s very loving, very compassionate.

Here are two things that we all should know about ourselves. We are all capable of offering loving, empathetic comfort because all of us have done that to someone. We have all held a crying child or adult in our arms 
at some point in our lives and said soothing words. So you know you can do it. You just haven’t done it to yourself. Also, we all know we can receive comfort because we’ve all been held and told reassuring words and received wisdom with grace or forgiveness or compassion. We wouldn’t be alive if we had never received or given comfort. So once you’ve established that you’re capable of giving and receiving comfort, you just focus that inward so that you give yourself comfort and receive comfort from yourself. It doesn’t mean that you never need comfort from
 other human beings. We will always need that. But they aren’t always there. And the fundamental relationship, the most important relationship you’re ever going to have, is that one—the internalized voice. So then I was able to convince myself and remind myself what a good friend I’ve been to people who are in pain.

CLJ: Writing your book and Oprah and all that, has it just been phenomenal? Has it been an awesome ride?

EG: Sure. Absolutely. But honestly, the wildest ride I’ve ever been on is just existence. It was a wild ride before anybody ever heard of me. It’s a wild ride when nobody’s thinking of me. It’s a really weird thing to be a person. It’s so hard most of the time and it’s never boring. It’s just fascinating to me. I think life itself is still my most interesting hobby.

Life gives me a lot of compassion for everyone because we’re all just doing the very best we can and loving in the best way we know how. It’s a lot easier to be compassionate when you believe that. Brené Brown speaks about that. People
 who tend to be very critical of themselves are the people who are least likely to agree that others are doing the best they can. They’re just so hard on themselves and on everybody else and they live in a kind of clenched misery. And the people who are really able to say everybody’s doing the best they can tend to have gentler hearts towards themselves and the whole world.

There are certain moments when I look 
at people and I get really righteous and I think that person’s not doing the best he can, that person’s doing the least he has to. That woman is not doing her best. She’s a chaos machine. But sometimes I’m a chaos machine and sometimes I do the least I have to, so a little mercy for everybody doesn’t hurt.

CLJ: There are a lot of people walking around totally and completely unconscious. How do we bring awareness to that?

EG: When I start to think how can I reach, change, fix, or alter this other human being, then I’ve already taken a wrong turn right out of the gate. Whenever I start asking how can I make this person feel a certain way, how can I change somebody’s mind about things or about me, how can I change somebody’s beliefs, how can I alter them so I’m more comfortable with them, I feel there’s an inherent oppression in that. What works better for me is to turn all those questions inward. How can I fix, change, remake, alter, improve myself? The best
 and only person I have any luck with for transformation is me, and when I do that then I’m more likely to have an influence. People will never remember what I said or feel what I made them feel if I’m not myself, smoking what I’m selling, taking risks, being brave, being searching, practicing forgiveness, being open-minded, being tolerant. My energetic duty is to just show what it looks like. This is what it looks like to choose your own path in life. This is what it looks like to be unafraid of change. This is what it looks like to be open, vulnerable. This is what it looks like to forgive. Then anyone who wants to come on that train with me is welcome.

CLJ: I was taught growing up that you help people by the life you live. Do you believe that’s how we make a difference in the world? By how you live your life?

EG: My friend Rob Bellow says don’t become the kind of fellow that you yourself would have hated. There’s the saying in AA, “just work your program.” Hopefully people will see a transformation there that will make them curious. When I see people who are all lit up I always want to know what they’re doing. Where is this joy coming from? Those are the people whom I follow.

Best-known for her 2006 runaway bestseller Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert is unquestionably one of her generation’s most beloved memoirists. Eat Pray Love, which has sold more than ten million copies worldwide, is Gilbert’s memoir of soul-searching and international exploration in the wake of her devastating divorce. Her latest bestseller, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, is a brilliant nonfiction treatise on creativity. Gilbert’s most recent novel, The Signature of All Things, has been optioned by PBS’s Masterpiece. A sweeping story of botany, exploration and desire, spanning much of the 19th century, The Signature of All Things was lauded by O Magazine as “the novel of a lifetime” and named as one of the “Best Books of 2013” by the New York Times, O Magazine, NPR, and Time Magazine. Prior to writing Eat Pray Love, Gilbert was a distinguished journalist who wrote regularly for Harper’s Bazaar, Spin, The New York Times Magazine, and GQ. Her book The Last American Man was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002.