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In India, Learning the Powers of Meditation


You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love, which chronicles a year she spent in Italy, India and Indonesia. She was trying to get over a bad divorce by engaging in pleasurable activities and intense meditation. Gilbert remembers a warm, summer evening during her stay in India when she tried something new to quiet her mind.

Ms. ELIZABETH GILBERT (Author, Eat, Pray, Love): Meditation does not come easily to me. My mind wanders relentlessly. I complained about this once to an Indian monk and he laughed and said, it's a pity you're the only human being on the planet who has that problem. But I find mental stillness really difficult. For instance, here's what I caught myself thinking about in meditation one morning in India. I was wondering where I should live once my year of traveling had ended. Was I finished with New York for good? Austin is supposed to be nice, or maybe I should move overseas. I'd heard good things about Sydney. If I lived somewhere cheaper, I thought, then maybe I could afford an extra room. A special meditation room. I could paint it gold or maybe a rich blue. No, gold. No, blue.

Finally noticing this train of thought, I was aghast. I thought, you sad, spastic fool. Here you are in India in a meditation cave in one of the holiest pilgrimage sites on earth, but instead of communing with the divine, you're trying to plan where you'll be meditating a year from now in a home that doesn't exist, in a city yet to be determined. Is this really the best you can do?

So that evening I tried something new. I'd recently been reading about Vipassana meditation, an ultra Orthodox, intensive Buddhist technique. Vipassana is the extreme sports version of transcendence. You just sit for hours and watch your thoughts without even the comfort of a mantra to repeat. If you feel emotional or physical discomfort, then you're suppose to meditate upon that discomfort, witnessing the effect. In our real lives we constantly flop about, trying to evade the reality of grief and nuisance. Vipassana meditation teaches that grief and nuisance are inevitable, but will eventually pass, so hold your peace in the moment.

So that evening I found a quiet bench in a garden and decided to just sit for an hour, Vipassana style. No movement, no agitation, just pure regarding of whatever comes up. Unfortunately I'd forgotten what comes up at dusk in India, mosquitoes. As soon as I sat down the mosquitoes started dive-bombing me. I thought, this is a bad time of day to practice Vipassana meditation.

On the other hand, when is it a good time to sit in detached stillness? When isn't something stinging and biting? Therefore I decided not to move. In a beginners attempt at self-mastery I just watched the mosquitoes eat me. The itch was maddening at first but eventually melted into a general heat of pure sensation, neither good nor bad, just intense. And that intensity lifted me out of myself and into perfect meditation where I sat in real stillness for the first time in my life.

Two hours later I stood up and assessed the damage.I counted 20 mosquito bites, but not much later all the bites had diminished because truly it all does pass away in the end, and truly there is peace to be learned from that.

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Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love. She lives in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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