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Elizabeth Gilbert Discusses Spirituality in America

Question: Are Americans suffering from an over-abundance of spiritual practices?

Gilbert:    There is a danger, I think.  Look, we’re a young country, you know.  And the more you travel out of America, the more you see that, right?  There’re so much that’s great about youth.  There’re so much that’s great about the youngness of America.  There’s a certain energy here.  There’s a certain willingness to try stuff.  There’s a certain ambition, an eagerness, and excitement.  I mean, I had friends during the Obama campaign who called me from Europe and said, I cannot even imagine what it would feel like to actually believe in things like hope, to believe in… to believe that a politician can change things, to actually have… They were envious, you know, of this huge enthusiasm that was sweeping across America.  That was really real, you know, and really passionate and really fresh in a way, you know.  That doesn’t exist everywhere, you know.  The downside of that youth and that enthusiasm and that freshness is a certain shallowness, a certain inability to stick to, you know, one path, a certain longing to drink out of every well.  You know, certainly the new age movement has a lot of that in there where you’re kind of like cherry picking… like, I want a dream catcher and I want a crystal and I want something tantric and I want, you know, the chakras and I also want to go to mass and I also… And… I’m not necessarily against that because I think there’s… You know, I think, certainly the willingness to experiment… There’s something very beautiful about that.  And there’s something wonderful about a culture that permits you to do that.  That doesn’t say there is one church, there is one belief, there is, you know, one dogma and everybody must march and lock step.  But, you know, it does get… it does get a little goofy.  I’ve been guilty of it myself so I have to say it with a measure of compassion and affection because, you know, I could easily have been accused of every single piece of flakiness that I sometimes judge, you know, when I see that out there.  But its part of who we are.  And consumerism and a profit margin is also a part of who we are, you know.  So you get things in America like competitive yoga, which, you know, I still can never hear without laughing.  Maybe the idea of going to a yoga competition does seem like… Maybe the point is being somewhat missed.  But… I don’t know, you know.  I don’t know what experiences the people in the yoga competition are having.  I don’t know what they’re… You know, I don’t know enough about what their internal world is.  It could be just a big breakthrough for them, winning first place in the meditation price.  I don’t know but it’s… it’s… I don’t know.  To me, I still feel like the benefits of that kind of freedom, the benefits of the excitement that people in this country are willing to feel about things outweigh the goofiness that, sometimes, a little too easy to be snide about.    

Question: What does spirituality mean to you?

Gilbert:    Well… Look, something happened to me but even saying that, kind of puts it in a little bit too passive of a voice, you know.  I set out to… I set out looking for something very specific.  And through a pretty rigorous search and a pretty rigorous set of practices, I got that thing that I wanted, which to put it really simply and perhaps oversimply is a certain calmness, you know.  It’s… Life is an extremely agitating event, you know.  And I vibrate at a slightly higher frequency than is necessarily healthy, you know, than I always have.  I’ve always been kind of anxious.  I’ve always been super motive.  I feel things harder than is good for me.  Indecision has been part of my life, you know.  And I could see, after a certain age, how that was destructive not only to myself but to people around me.  And… You know, I just think you get to a point where you don’t want to be in other people’s way.  You know, you don’t want to be taking up… You don’t want to be taking up other people’s space and energy to sort of take care of you.  And I longed to be a different kind of person.  You know, I longed to be just a little more at ease, a little more relaxed, and a little more wise, you know, because it seems to me that wisdom is the beginning of serenity, you know.  And, you know, aside from people who are very heavily medicated, the calmest people that I know tend to, also, be the wisest, who are quickest, you know, or most instinctively, able to put things into perspective, that takes away the urgency of the moment.  And there’re practices that you can do to get there, you know.  And those practices, you know, as my friend Richard from Texas always says, the shit works, you know, those practices work.  And people do it in different ways and they do it… they do it in different places.  But I think that the end result and desire was always the same, you want peace, you know, if not in the world, then, at least, within your own mind.  This is not to say that I glide to the world now on a sort of cushion of serenity at all times because I am, you know, exactly as capable of anybody else at experiencing road rage and sidewalk rage and customer service representative, putting you on hold rage, and all the other sorts of rages and jealousies and frustrations and self-pity.  I mean, all these things are not foreign to me, you know, but I’ve just… I don’t know.  It’s like there’s an engine that works within me, now, that much, much, much more efficiently processes all of that.  And I… You know, I’m believing now that that’s a direct result of the work that I did for a whole bunch of years, you know, trying to get to that place.  And when I find myself kind of spinning out of orbit, you know, there’s like a tether, you know, that I braided, you know, myself from my own beliefs and my own studies and this work, you know.  And that tether sort of pulls me back and reminds me, do you really want to go, you really want to make a big production out of this, or would it be better for you and everybody around you if you just found a way to accept what’s going on.  And that’s just made life very much more pleasant.  And I feel like my… You know, if I can define my spiritual practice today, it is the maintenance of that.  It is doing whatever is necessary to keep that healthy and to keep that system working.  And you have to be a little bit nimble and a little flexible to kind of figure out what each day requires in order to keep that going. 

Question: What practices help you maintain spirituality?

Gilber: I find, to be perfectly honest, a lot of it has to do with napping, you know.  I just think… You know, I’m alarmed by reports of how little sleep Americans are getting anymore.  You know, even in the last 10 years, people are getting, on average, you know, an hour to 2 hours less sleep a day.  It’s making people really frazzled and really fragile and I just… I kind of feel like, you know, if there’s a new religion that needs to be founded, it’s a religion about, like, naps.  You know, something happens when you take a nap.  You go into another state.  You know, your pulse goes down.  Your blood pressure goes down.  It’s a kind of meditation… kind of lose meditation.  And I do a lot of it.  It seems to help, seems to make me more pleasant for people around me.  I would prescribe it to anybody.  I think every nation that has any civility incorporates napping into their day in a kind of official way.  So… You know, rest, rest.  I say no to a lot of things that’s become a kind of active spiritual practice for me.  I turned down a lot of things, not just professional invitations but personal invitations and social invitations.  I think saying no is something we’re really bad at in this culture.  I spent years not saying no to anything because I was afraid that if I said no to people, they wouldn’t like me as much and they will be disappointed.  And I’ve learned in my old age that when you say no to people, they don’t like you as much and they’re disappointed.  Nonetheless, you know, there are times that it has to be done in order to protect whatever small sanctity of serenity you have build up in your life. It’s inhumane, the pace at which people live in this society.  And when I came back from traveling for “Eat, Pray, Love”, I was truly sort of jaw droppingly shocked to see it a new… from fresh eyes and to see the amount of stress and the amount of work that we have, somehow, decided is normal.  And it is so warped.  And, you know, fear is that we’ve exported that, you know, and we’re sort of exporting that idea all over the world all the time and sort of spreading it like a virus.  And it’s just… There is no… There is absolutely no way you can defend it as healthy, normal, safe, or wise.  And yet, it’s really hard to resist.  And you have to push really hard against it, you know.  And I don’t always succeed.  You know, I find myself at the end of my rope all the time, I’m like, how did I end up… how did I end up with a 14-hour day today, like… you know, how did I let that happen.  And so, there’s a sort of vigilance against that that I would really strongly argue as part of, like, the main spiritual practice in my life right now.

Elizabeth Gilbert says there is a danger in America of having too many choices.

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    An odd find

    Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

    Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

    "Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

    Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

    The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

    Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

    "We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

    Why understanding memory matters

    person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

    Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

    "Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

    If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

    Party chat

    Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

    Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

    Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

    spinning 3D model of a brain

    Temporal lobes

    Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

    At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

    Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

    In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

    Seek, find

    Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

    He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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