what is the inner voice that Gilbert speaks of in Eat, Pray, Love?
June 17, 2008 10:54 AM   Subscribe

what is the inner voice that Gilbert speaks of in Eat, Pray, Love?

I'm very intrigued by this rational inner voice that Elizabeth Gilbert speaks of when she had that breakdown on her bathroom floor in the middle of the night; the one that asked her to go back to bed.

my friend once had a very similar experience when she was at the traffic light and she lost all sense of who and where she was. her mind was gone and she was terrified. and as she stood there, staring at the green light, a voice in her told her to calm down and cross the road.

has anybody ever had similar experiences? what is it and how is it explained?
posted by mordecai to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total)
It's your ego.
posted by OmieWise at 11:17 AM on June 17, 2008

How about Admiral?
posted by parmanparman at 11:31 AM on June 17, 2008

Well, she thinks it's some manifestation of God, if I'm not mistaken. I think of that voice as "mom."
posted by lunasol at 11:51 AM on June 17, 2008

Gilbert says:

It was merely my own voice, speaking from within my own self. But this was my voice as I had never heard it before.

The way she describes it, coming after a lot of prayer and crying and in the midst of stillness, you could read the voice as a conscious manifestion of an altered version of her own mind.

She doesn't read it that way, though; she explicitly says she believes that it's the voice of God. Gilbert's also quick to ascribe "true wisdom" to what the voice tells her to do, claiming that it gave her "the only possible answer," but doesn't really say why going back to bed was obviously a better answer than, say, filing some divorce papers right then or making a cup of tea or devoting her life to the needy or driving right the fuck away from the house. Ultimately, she's basing her idea that the voice was God and the voice was Right and the voice was Omnipotent on her own faith.

Another reader might come up with a different interpretation, though; reading the passage, it struck me that if that voice was indeed a higher power, you could just as easily read its message to her as an annoyed "Please don't fucking bother me right now, Liz, it's like three in the morning and I've had a long day."

So the answer to your question: "What is that voice?" is: she thinks it's God, but others may disagree. The answer to "How is it explained?" depends on who you agree with about the first answer.

You'd have to ask your friend what she assumed the voice inside her own head was, since your friend is a different person than Gilbert with a different set of assumptions, and the voice she heard might have been a very different voice than the one Gilbert heard.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:01 PM on June 17, 2008

(The above answer, I should point out, is one that takes Gilbert entirely at her word; a more cynical person might say that what Gilbert "heard" was a Plot Device which allowed her to write an easily-digestible read-it-at-the-beach memoir that ultimately made her a lot of money.)
posted by Greg Nog at 12:15 PM on June 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

It's just your conscience. I've experienced it, too. Yeah sometimes I can hear my mom in there. Your wisest self, God, your parents, arguments could be made for all, or even some combination.
posted by Penelope at 1:35 PM on June 17, 2008

As noted by GregNog above, Gilbert says:

It was merely my own voice, speaking from within my own self. But this was my voice as I had never heard it before.

Here's more of that quote -- I googled it and found the piece in the book, linked here.

Then I heard a voice. Please don't be alarmed it was not an Old Testament Hollywood Charlton Heston voice, nor was it a voice telling me I must build a baseball field in my backyard. It was merely my own voice, speaking from within my own self. But this was my voice as I had never heard it before. This was my voice, but perfectly wise, calm and compassionate. This was what my voice would sound like if Id only ever experienced love and certainty in my life. How can I describe the warmth of affection in that voice, as it gave me the answer that would forever seal my faith in the divine?

And yeah, I've surely experienced hearing this voice from within. And I can't disagree more (kindly, of course; in an agreeable way) with OmiWise -- in my experience, it's the exact opposite of the ego. It's the grounded voice that can only be heard when ego is not on the scene, when, one way or another, I've found or stumbled upon a way to shut the son of a bitching thing up.

As I've come to understand it, years of prayer and meditation blah blah and blah, and lots of study blah blah and blah, lots of experience dealing with my own ego and helping others deal with theirs, I've come to the conclusion that Jill Bolte Taylor has about the best description of it that I've come across. Check out her TED talk and, if that blows your skirt up, Oprah has interviewed her at length, and, if you can deal with dOprah, you'll maybe get as much from the interview as I have. By which I mean -- one hell of a lot.

Taylor is brilliant. On top of that, she's been down the road, she's experienced the egos loud, clamoring voice being shut up, and she talks about it with the professional experience that few can match.

A long answer -- sorry. Put a keyboard in my hands and I'm a hazard.

Sum: It is, in my experience, absolutely real; you're friend hasn't lost her bearings, a case could be made that she's found them. It's a voice every human has access to, if they can find a way to calm and quiet the clatter and chatter of the ego running on, and on, and on some more.
posted by dancestoblue at 1:01 AM on June 18, 2008

Here is a link to a question -- with lots of great answers -- regards Jill Bolte Taylors work, and her experience, and her interpretation of 'what it all means'. And yeah, JBT's synopsis is simplistic, and I even know a woman who has had one side of her brain removed, due to horrific epilepsy, and she now is good to go, so I know it's not clear cut. So, her answer feels right but of course isn't dead on the money. That said, I hold to what she's experienced, and I do believe that she is on the right track.

This time I will set the keyboard down.

posted by dancestoblue at 1:13 AM on June 18, 2008

Answers like "it's the ego" or "it's your conscience" are sort of non-answers, because "ego" and "conscience" are, at worst, just labels (what exactly are they labeling?). At best, they are words or metaphors that vaguely point to mental processes. But what processes? Where, in the brain, is the ego located? What about conscience? Where is your conscience? What is it?

I can't do much better, and I doubt anyone else can, because you're talking about aspects of consciousness, and the science of consciousness is in its infancy.

But let me pull a theory out of my ass: most contemporary neuroscientists, psychologist, cognitive scientists and philosophers no longer believe in the Cartesian mind. That is, they don't believe that there's a centralized "me" inside us. (If there is, then that me must have some sort of "me" inside him, and so on to infinity.) Instead, they believe that there are tons of different processes going on simultaneously and that the feeling of consciousness arises from a collaboration (or a competition) between those processes.

Here's a vastly oversimplified model: someone hits you on the head. One process says "cry"; another says, "run!"; another says, "hit him back." Your "consciousness" is an an awareness of the process that wins (and sometimes a tiny bit of awareness of the struggle between the various processes -- sometimes not).

Now, we all have a process (or maybe it's multiple processes) that feels like a rational voice. We hear have it when we're trying to work out a math problem or when we're explaining something to a child. That's what I think you're talking about. Just the ordinary rational process that we all have, many times each day.

The difference here is that it becomes detached from the sense of "me." We're aware that there is a rational process, but it doesn't feel like OUR process. It feels like it's coming from someone else or something else. Barring supernatural explanations, it obviously isn't. It's a part of us.

So my theory is that we sometimes (in times of stress?) become aware of mental processes that aren't integrated into the "me" sense. This might be adaptive if the "me" gets overloaded by sensation and is unable to take action. The brain briefly forms a second "me" (or maybe a "you") who says, "Calm down. Think things through...."
posted by grumblebee at 7:24 AM on June 18, 2008

And I can't disagree more (kindly, of course; in an agreeable way) with OmiWise [sic] -- in my experience, it's the exact opposite of the ego.

You misunderstand the sense in which I'm using the term ego. I'm not using it in the sense that you might say someone "has a big ego" to describe an inflated sense of self, I'm using it to describe the organizing principle by which we interact with our conscious minds. When we talk to ourselves, we are using our ego. Our conscience is a different mechanism, has a different function, serves to police our actions (in a moral sense) in a way that the described voice does not. These are recognized terms in descriptive psychology.

Saying it's the ego is not a non-answer, it's the correct answer. The question itself seeks to make this more complicated than it is, highlighting the extraordinary circumstance rather than the ordinary interaction we have with our minds. Although it may be extraordinary to hear such clear instructions in a time of turmoil, the function itself isn't extraordinary. A simple answer is the best in this instance, even if the function seems a bit different (it isn't) from normal given the abnormal circumstances.
posted by OmieWise at 7:41 AM on June 18, 2008

Saying it's the ego is not a non-answer, it's the correct answer.

According to whom? Freud? Is there some science (as opposed to pseudo-science) behind your certainty?

I'm using it to describe the organizing principle by which we interact with our conscious minds.

I'm trying really hard to parse that sentence, but I'm failing. Who is the "we" that interacts with "our conscious minds"? Does that we have consciousness?
posted by grumblebee at 7:53 AM on June 18, 2008

According to whom?

According to me.

I understand that you seem to be constitutionally unable to accept simplicity, and I understand that you really dislike the kinds of generalizations represented by "we," but there is nothing here but opinion. We're dealing with a trite description from a trite book, there is no science to the definition of the phenomenon, there can be none to the answer. Further, the OP is asking about generalizing from specifics to human experience. That you tend to hate such generalizations, and favor a level of parsing not required by most folks in conversation, does not mean I'm wrong.
posted by OmieWise at 8:03 AM on June 18, 2008

I don't dislike simplicity or hate generalizations. I was just confused by your assertion that ego is "the correct answer."

A: What's the best kind of pie?
B: Apple pie.
C: I like cherry pie better.
B: No, the correct answer is apple pie!
posted by grumblebee at 8:10 AM on June 18, 2008

I'm not sure why my assertion is confusing when you made an identical (if negative) assertion:

A: What's the best kind of pie?
B: Apple pie.
C: Apple pie is a "non-answer" [in other words, incorrect].
posted by OmieWise at 8:32 AM on June 18, 2008

There's a HUGE difference between "non-answer" and incorrect. A non-answer isn't wrong. It's neither right nor wrong. But I don't want to clutter up this thread with any more of this (though I also don't want to "have the last word," so please feel free to respond), so I'll continue this over MeMail.
posted by grumblebee at 8:53 AM on June 18, 2008

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