I remember when I first read Eat, Pray, Love. Months before, I was speaking about it to some friends who all seemed resigned in their conclusion that the book was fluff, vapid, the stuff of Nicholas Sparks novels.
Someone gave it to me. It sat on my shelf until I needed it. Until I broke up with the man I had been dating for 4 years and remembered some criticism of the book having to do with the target audience: 30-somethings who are newly single. Perfect.
I recall the book being entertaining and having some passages that struck a chord but only recently have I come to appreciate it’s true value. Perhaps it’s the relationship I just ended that is so similar to the relationships Elizabeth Gilbert struggles with. An experience that made me feel like she was writing specifically to me. This quote for example:
"We all want things to stay the same. Settle for living in misery because we're afraid of change, of things crumbling to ruins. Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation. Both of us deserve better than staying together because we're afraid we'll be destroyed if we don't."
Had she ended the paragraph with my name, I'm pretty sure it couldn't have spoken to me more clearly. Or this one:
"Listen to me. Some day you're gonna look back on this moment of your life as such a sweet time of grieving. You'll see that you were in mourning and your heart was broken, but your life was changing."
Immediately after it became real that we were breaking up, that it wasn’t an empty threat we spat at each other after our more-and-more-frequent fights, I watched Eat, Pray, Love. Then I purchased a ticket to a yoga retreat in The Bahamas and planned accordingly.
Perhaps the strangest thing about break ups that one is never really prepared for, is how totally and completely the world is turned on its head. All perspective is lost.
The beauty of The Bahamas trip was how remarkably it allowed me to check back into who I am, where I am and what I want. I cried during the flight there. Everything felt sad and lonely. And even after getting there and sitting with some remarkable people for dinner, I had to excuse myself.
The red-eye flight and the build up of tears led me back to my room at 7pm. I cried and felt so powerless. I felt that all I wanted in the world was for him to call me and promise he’d change, our relationship would change, he’d fight for me, he didn’t want to lose me. I yearned for this. I wanted it deep within my bones.
Despite being so on board with our break up weeks before, fighting for all the reasons to throw in the towel, here I was yearning to go back to the relationship that had shrunk me down to a person I barely recognized. This reaction makes sense on a psychological level.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher has done some really interesting studies on what happens to the brain when you are in love, and conversely when you are suffering through a break up. She collected data from several heartbroken souls who were put into an MRI machine and then shown a picture of the person that broke their heart.
She found that the same parts of the brain that are associated with physical pain are triggered as well as those parts of the brain that are associated with drug addiction. She believes the origin is in biology. “In a way, nature gave us this response as a protection,” she says. “It helps us keep relationships going under adverse circumstances, which is important for keeping our species going.”
In other words, it’s supposed to hurt. And you’re supposed to want to get back together with the person causing the hurt. For more on this check out this article from the Greater Good.
That said, I was in The Bahamas and was so wanting to let some of the pain go. It was weighing me down and I needed a break. I wanted inspiration and light.
So I spent my time there going to yoga classes and meditating, laying on the beach and soaking in as much warmth and sunlight as possible. During my first yoga class, while my brain was spinning out of control, reworking conversations I had had, wishing I had said X or Y, and anticipating every type of future interaction, I realized I had almost forgotten I was standing on a platform looking out at the ocean surrounded by swamis.
I was brought back when my yoga instructor stated, “Give yourself permission to let go of what is no longer serving you.” And I realized there was great power there. The endless ruminating, though biologically ingrained to propagate my species, was not serving me. At all. So slowly I began letting things go that were not serving me. And amazingly, that created space for some beautiful alternatives.
During my time there I had the pleasure of conversing with Jon, a lovely older gentleman from the UK who had the most amazing warmth. He managed to see right to the depth of my suffering.
During our first conversation, right as I had spent the previous night going back and forth about what I was willing to do to make the relationship work (I would learn to ski! I would climb! I would mountaineer! I would eat every 2 hours so that I was never hangry), Jon looked at me and said, “the minute you begin to believe that if you do X or have X you will be enough, is when you have become lost to who you are. Doing X or having X will never make you more loveable, worthy or whole.”
As the week went on, I began sleeping, stopped crying and felt my heart literally crack open. My chest was swollen with love.
The morning that I was leaving I had woken up at 6am to meditate and I could barely sit there. My mind was anxious with returning and what I would confront when I got home. Could I keep my heart open? Could I keep breathing and let go of what was no longer serving me?
During my last meal there, Jon sat next to me and commented on my struggling from earlier in the morning. He noticed. I told him about my fears. He looked as though he already knew. He said, “your relationship was perfect for getting you to where you need to be. So much of our suffering is ego and if we can just sit, feel and breathe, without attaching ourselves to the (often bipolar) thoughts, without thinking about how wronged we were, or how righteous we are, we can reduce the suffering.”
Finally, he said that when someone comes at you with their finger pointing in your face (either literally or figuratively) and hurls hurtful words at you, ignore them. What they’re saying is “you aren’t loving me in the way that I need and my heart is hurting.”
I packed up his insight, my sandy bathing suit and yoga clothes and boarded the little boat to take me over to the mainland and back home to Sacramento.