AUGUST 11, 2010 in the NEW YORK POST
A big article by Sara Stewart [bit.ly
Eat pray zilch
By SARA STEWART
Last Updated: 2:28 PM, August 10, 2010
Posted: 1:06 AM, August 10, 2010
“If you’re lucky enough, you will find a living Guru. This is what pilgrims have been coming to India to seek for ages.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, “Eat Pray Love”
“Eat. Pray. Fall in Love with [our] Inspirational India Tour. Starts at $19,795 per person, based on double occupancy.” — Micato Safaris
Marta Szabo’s spiritual journey started off a lot like Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling 2006 memoir, “Eat Pray Love.”
“I was at a point in my life,” recalls Szabo, now 53, “when I didn’t have a lot of options.”
Like Gilbert — who’s played by Julia Roberts in the movie, out Friday, based on the book — Szabo had endured a bad breakup. Like Gilbert, she was a writer in her 30s, unhappily living in New York City, unsure what she wanted to do with her life. She, too, needed to find herself. (Unfortunately, unlike Gilbert, she didn’t get a generous book advance with which to do the finding.)
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Both Gilbert and Szabo discovered an international organization called Siddha Yoga — specifically, its gorgeous, charismatic female leader, known as Gurumayi. “My heart skipped a beat and then flat-out tripped over itself and fell on its face,” Gilbert writes, in her book, of the first time she saw a photo of the guru. “Then my heart stood up, brushed itself off, took a deep breath and announced, ‘I want a spiritual teacher.’ ” Both women ended up at the group’s ashram, Gurudev Siddha Peeth, in Maharashtra, India.
Getting a guru: For Gilbert, this decision was a lifesaver. For Szabo, it derailed her life for more than a decade. And for thousands of women entranced with the “Eat Pray Love” phenomenon — the movie, predicted to be a major box-office contender, has spawned more than 400 retail tie-ins — it could fall somewhere between overpriced self-help and good old-fashioned fraud.
“If you see an organization that’s personality-driven, focused on this individual leader who members seem enthralled with, and who can do no wrong, you may be dealing with more of a cult than enlightenment,” warns cult expert Rick Ross, who’s spent more than two decades chronicling the dark side of so-called spiritual salvation.
New Yorker Daniel Shaw, another former Siddha staff member, explained the group’s near-instant appeal. “Initially, my experiences were very powerful, like Gilbert’s,” says Shaw, now 58. “I was at a turning point in my own life. I was pretty unhappy. And when I encountered Siddha it was like magic — the experience of stillness, the music, the incense. I found myself feeling peaceful for the first time in a very long time.”
Szabo, who moved from those regular meditation sessions to an eventual staff position in India as Gurumayi’s personal assistant, says ashram attendees often end up broke, and broken. Rather than using their inner-peace revelations to spur them on to happier lives, they become enlightenment junkies, spending all their time and money in pursuit of what they come to believe is the path to happiness: more and more meditation and guru worship.
“People would charge accommodations and bookstore items and courses up on their credit cards that they couldn’t afford,” says Szabo, who now resides in Woodstock, NY and chronicles her ashram years at the-guru-looked-good.blogspot.com. “There was always the sense in the ashram that money you spent in the ashram — even if it put you in debt — was money well spent. The guru would handle the consequences. She would be there for you since you’d put your faith in her.”
America’s reverence for gurus is a bit of a joke in India, says Gita Mehta, author of the scathing 1979 journalistic expose “Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East,” in which she chronicles the first big wave of naive Westerners seeking instant enlightenment.
“People who are coming to us, by and large, think the guru is the whole idea of India,” she says. “That’s where it gets dangerous. If your guru is a con man and you think of him as a father figure, then you’re certainly going to be in trouble.”
In 1994, the New Yorker published a major exposé of Siddha Yoga, headquartered in the Catskills town of South Fallsburg. Among other things, the story alleged that the group’s leaders had covered up sexual abuse of female disciples and used “disturbing . . . strong-arm tactics used to hush up ex-devotees or punish them for disloyalty.” The group did not respond to our request for comment.
Not all ashrams are hiding dark secrets, of course. Sometimes they’re just a big letdown.
One 29-year-old Manhattanite, who asked to remain anonymous, read “EPL” when it came out, and credits it with introducing her to meditation and yoga. Years later, she says, she went to an ashram after a breakup.
Lacking the funds to jet to India, she headed to one upstate instead — only to find herself bored, lonely and mired in that depressing time between fall and winter.
Ultimately, she says, “the people there were interesting, but it didn’t have that overwhelming sense of spirituality and enlightenment that I think people associate with an ashram.”
These cautionary tales are not nearly as catchy, though, as the “Eat Pray Love” lobby, buoyed by Oprah Winfrey’s stamp of approval. The talk-show host picked “EPL” as a must-read for her viewers, and Gilbert was a guest on her show twice.
Now that the movie’s coming out, “EPL” is poised for a second wind. The message many — including Winfrey — seem to take from the book says you should spend whatever you have to and travel as far as you need to, in order to achieve happiness.
“I was wondering how many bored women will see the movie and think that the answers to all of their problems will be solved by spending a weekend in an ashram,” says 37-year-old blogger Cindy Vaughn, who recently embarked on a meditation course herself (unrelated to “EPL,” she swears). At the end of the course, she did a one-day silent meditation retreat, which, unlike Gilbert’s, did not result in a profound spiritual awakening.
“I am not sure I could do anything longer than a day,” she says. “It was hard. It was draining and long, and it didn’t solve anything for me.”
Vaughn’s candor is unusual. As Szabo has observed, friends who spend tons of hard-earned money to pursue inner peace generally try to at least pretend they’ve found it.
“I ask them how it was, and they say, ‘I didn’t have the experiences that everybody seems to have, but it’s really great!’ ” she says. “It’s hard for them to go, ‘The emperor has no clothes.’ It’s hard to expose themselves to what really happened there.”
As the industry isn’t regulated, anyone can claim the title of guru. And it’s a potentially lucrative gig, especially in a culture where we're encouraged to pay any price to make ourselves feel better . . . about ourselves.
“It’s almost like it’s become a sport that is dependent on paying the most money to go to the best ashram, to write the most amazing experience,” says Texas journalist Joshunda Sanders, who coined the term “priv-lit” (for “privileged literature”) in a recent article for Bitch magazine about Gilbert’s book.
And it’s never been a better time to compete in the Enlightenment Olympics. To coincide with the release of the film, numerous travel agencies are offering “Eat Pray Love”-themed tours to Italy, India and Indonesia (the three countries Gilbert visits in the book). Even Lonely Planet, the handbook for cheapskate travelers, offers suggestions on its Web site for re-creating Gilbert’s trip at Roman gelaterias, Indian meditation courses and Indonesian surf beaches.
This, of course, negates the real point of Gilbert’s book: that one needs to carve out one’s own path to peace.
“It does go against the yogic principle of looking inside rather than outside of ourselves for happiness,” says 28-year-old Jennilyn Carson, creator of the blog YogaDork, who’s been chronicling “EPL” mania over the past year. “[But] people want to be happy, and if something can be purchased to facilitate that happiness, they’ll do it.”