But Are You Thriving? Episode 3 Recap: Creative Living Beyond Fear with Elizabeth Gilbert

Last Update: April 12, 2023

There’s no question that Elizabeth Gilbert is a creative force—she’s the author of numerous books, including the bestselling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” which was adapted into a movie in 2010, and the self-help tome “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.”  But in her view, there’s ample creativity in everyone.

“Creativity is a gift that was given to us by the mysteries of the universe,” she told Thrive Market Co-Founder and podcast host Gunnar Lovelace. “We’re the only species on the planet who seems to have it… It’s our birthright.” Gilbert joined Lovelace for an inspiring conversion about how to channel your own creativity toward overcoming trauma, finding joy, and ultimately, building a better world. 

Subscribe, download, and listen to “But Are You Thriving?” on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. 

Full transcription below. Listen to this and every episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

But Are You Thriving? | Episode 3: Elizabeth Gilbert: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Gunnar Lovelace: Hello everybody. I’m Gunnar Lovelace, co-founder of Thrive Market. And today on the show we have the bestselling author, Elizabeth Gilbert here today to have a discussion about applying the practices of big magic, in her own words, in today’s world. Elizabeth, so great to have you on the show. Thank you so much.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Hi Gunnar, it’s so nice to meet you at last.

Gunnar Lovelace: I’ve been a huge fan of your work. And we have many mutual friends in common, and obviously familiar with some of the things. But just for the sake and benefit of our audience, would love to ask some questions that are probably a little redundant for you. But just for a couple quick hits, I’m curious what you’re focused on these days.

Elizabeth Gilbert: And by the way, you can ask me any question. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve answered it. If there’s anybody in the audience who’s never heard it, then great.

Gunnar Lovelace: Beautiful.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Thank you. Yeah, don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about that. Play the hits, ask all the questions. What I’m focused on right now in my life is really my spiritual path. That’s been a big focus of my life for many years. But I, in the last four years have become physically and emotionally sober as much as I can, as a way of moving through Earth School, as some of our friends call it, without being altered. To see whether I can actually just handle being a human being, having a human experience, without having to take the edge off, or numb, or alter it in any way whatsoever. That’s been a really big deal and a really big part of my life. And I also just finished my, I think it’s my 10th book, which is a novel set in Siberia in the 1970s. And my friendships, and traveling. I guess that’s what I’m all about these days. Those are my things.

Gunnar Lovelace: That’s a great portfolio.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Thank you.

Gunnar Lovelace: I have many questions about just leaning into the discomfort of life, and not numbing yourself, and all the ways that we have coping mechanisms. I think that’s a great area for us to explore. Before we go into that, would just love to hear again for our audience, was there an inspiration or aha moment that really changed the trajectory of your life, your health, your wellness?

Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah. I think there are multiple ones, and I think the ahas continue to roll out for as long as we live. Because we’re constantly having ahas, and hopefully learning from them, and having truth revealed, changing our lives on account of that. And then here comes another one, and then here comes another one, and then here comes another one. And I think the humility that I experience a lot is I’m sort of like, well, how many more of these are there? How many more moments are there going to be where I’m like, I can’t believe I didn’t know that. I can’t believe I didn’t get that. I can’t believe I was still doing that unhealthy behavior.

But for me, the OG one for me, the primary one was when my first marriage fell apart at the age of 30. I had done everything I could to try to create a life that looked like what I thought I was supposed to do. I got married, I bought a house, we were about to settle down and have children. And instead of having children, I always say I had a nervous breakdown, and I really did. And I went into a three year spiral that anybody who’s got eight bucks to buy a paperback of Eat Pray Love, or has seen the movie, already knows all about. But that’s where it really began.

There’s a line in the Bhagavad Gita that I always quote, that I love, that says, “It is better to live your own life imperfectly than to live a perfect imitation of somebody else’s life.” And again, and again, and again, that is the lesson that keeps coming up for me. Every time I try to live my life according to the standards that were set to me by my culture and my family, I get really sick. And every time I live a life according to my own intuition, I do well. But it’s not easy to do that, because you have to push back against a lot of pressure that tells you that there’s a certain way you have to be.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah. And it’s really getting intimate with fear, that gives us the strength to move through those places. I love what Adyashanti says about courage, that it’s not the absence of fear, but the willingness to persist in the presence of fear. And I can so relate to just the sense of being humbled over and over again in the face of new lessons, and wondering just at how the journey continues to unfold. And then there’s this other side, which I’m sure you can relate to, is it’s just more fun to be a student, and just to learn all the time, and to just have that orientation towards life in general.

Elizabeth Gilbert: That’s what we are. I guess it’s a question of have we accepted that we’re students, or have we not accepted that we’re students? Because that’s where the suffering comes in. My friend Rob Bell, who I love very much, always guides people when they’re having a really hard time and they’re going through a shame spiral, because they feel like they failed or that there was something they should have known that they didn’t know. He always advises just getting a big sharpie and writing on your hand, “Student.” And underlining it, so that you can just remember you’re not meant to master this. As long as you’re alive, these lessons are going to continue to arise and you can perpetually be a student. But yeah, embracing that, I agree with you, is where the fun starts.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah, I’ve talked about this before, but I always find the times of greatest suffering in my life were immediately preceded by thinking I knew what was going on.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah. There’s a little signal that goes out across the galaxy that says, hubris alert, section seven.

Gunnar Lovelace: Slap them down.

Elizabeth Gilbert: I used to think it was, I’m joking, but I actually think it’s more that once you get to the point where you feel like what’s going on, I feel like you actually graduated from a certain level. And then they move you into the next level, which they, the guides, the mystery, the universe, usually happens through trauma. There’s a disaster and now it’s time to level up, and now it’s time to level up again. So when I start to feel like, I’ve got this, I’m usually like oh boy, oh boy.

Gunnar Lovelace: Strap on the seatbelt.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Can I just hang out here in fourth grade? Do I need to graduate to fifth grade? Because I know what graduation entails, it means we’re going to give you something now that we think you can handle. Which means it’s going to be rough for a while.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah, massive up leveling. Tell us a little bit about a day in your life. How do you start and finish your day? How do you create healthy routines for yourself? What habits have you stuck with, that have been really powerful for your own health, both physically and spiritually?

Elizabeth Gilbert: It’s funny, before I answer that, I almost feel the need to make a disclaimer. Because the way that I live, I don’t want it to sound like this is what anybody else has to be doing.

Gunnar Lovelace: Thank you. Thank you for calling that out.

Elizabeth Gilbert: And if there’s anything, really take what you want and leave the rest. And also, I haven’t lived this way my whole life. But it’s more that after a lifetime of trial and error, which is really what it’s all about, is I’m trying to figure out how to operate one of these things. This being, a Liz. I don’t really know, they dropped me into this Liz suit, and I’ve never had one of these before. And I don’t know how to drive it, I don’t know how to operate it. And I crashed into a lot of trees along the way, figuring it out. So that’s just the disclaimer. Because even 10 years ago, if I had heard somebody answer the question the way I’m about to I’d be like, what a jerk. But here’s what I do. I get up really, really early, and my day starts the night before when I decide to go to bed really early, which means I miss out on a lot of stuff that’s going on.

Gunnar Lovelace: What’s early for you?

Elizabeth Gilbert: My friends never stop making fun of me for this, but I try to start getting ready for bed around 8:30, and I try to be in bed around 9:30.

Gunnar Lovelace: That’s exactly my routine too.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah. I don’t do well otherwise. And also if I don’t do that, I’m also not that interested anymore if anything that happens after about five o’clock. But I don’t operate well without that. And the most sacred, magical, precious, creative, inventive hour of the day, hours of the day for me are a few hours before the sun rises. Because those are the moments where the portal’s open, and the deep silence is available, and the world hasn’t woken up yet. And I always want to be with myself, with my creativity, and with my higher power at that time. I like to have a full day before the phone starts ringing, and the phone starts ringing at nine o’clock.

So I get up around five, and I do two-way prayer. And then I meditate, I do yoga, I go on a very early 12 step meeting. I reach out to my sponsees and my sponsor in that program. That’s a normal day. If I’m writing, which is not every day because I write in seasons, it just came out of a season of writing. My schedule then is even earlier, I get up at 4:30 and try to be at my desk by 5:30 or six. I consider all those things to be my work. I usually have my work done by 10:00 AM, 10 or 11:00 AM.

And then I give the rest of myself to the day. I give the rest of myself to the world, to the phone calls, to the grocery shopping, cleaning my house, taking care of whatever the emergencies of the day are. But if I don’t get an early start, I don’t like the day to have me before I have had me. I don’t like to check in with anybody else before I’ve checked in with God. I always feel behind, unless I have a couple hours to be very quiet and to tune into what I love.

Gunnar Lovelace: I love that. I love that invitation. I go to bed early as well, and I love the way that you framed. I start my day by what time I choose to go to bed the night before. And I feel like we have such a sleep crisis in our culture. And when I’m not well slept, I’m just a subpar human being. And I’m curious, do you drink caffeine?

Elizabeth Gilbert: Not really. Sometimes I’ll have, I make chai every day for myself, and I use a decaf black tea for that. So it’s got a little caffeine in it. And sometimes when I’m out and about and traveling, I’ll have a cappuccino. But I usually, I like the taste of those things, but I usually get a decaf.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah, yeah.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Again, I sound like such a jerk.

Gunnar Lovelace: Let’s just lean into that for a second. Why do you think that sounds like such a jerk? Because it’s so perfect, it’s so disciplined.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah, I don’t know what it is. I think it’s a little bit, I think that maybe, where am I getting this? Some sort of an idea that I think I’m better than other people because I don’t drink alcohol or caffeine, or I get up early-

Gunnar Lovelace: But it’s not that you think that, you’re saying that as a disclaimer because you worry others might think that you think that. Right?

Elizabeth Gilbert: I think so. Yeah, and I’m also worried that perfectionism and… I just don’t want anybody to think they have to do this. And I also want people to know that I wrote seven books in my life before I lived this way. So this is also not necessary. I wrote books when I was being a subpar human, when I had hangovers, so you can actually create and live in other ways. It’s just that I don’t want to anymore. It’s hard enough for me to get through a day in Earth School. I’m super sensitive, I’m anxious and emotional, and I need a lot of stabilizing in order to be able to just even have a good day, even have a regular day. Taking care of my mental health is a really big deal for me. It’s not just my physical health. I can be dislodged from my center really easily if I don’t do this self-care. But yeah, thank you for pointing out my insecurity about it. But this is just what I have to do to be okay, and that’s what I’m trying to be.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah. I think it’s beautiful to know that about oneself. I’m such a sensitive creature, it just doesn’t take very much to disrupt me. And then I find myself spending hours just processing, and getting back to that place of maximum availability to life.

Elizabeth Gilbert: That’s a nice way to put it. Maximum availability to life. I love that.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah, I can relate to everything you just shared. So in 2015 you published “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” where you shared your wisdom and unique perspectives on creativity, and how to inspire readers to create the life that they’ve always imagined. The book now is almost eight years old. And before we dive in, again for our audience, would just love if you would share a rundown of Big Magic. What inspired you to write the book?

Elizabeth Gilbert: So, I always say Big Magic was the book I thought about for the longest before I wrote it, and then I wrote it the fastest. So, I thought about the ideas that are in that book for well over a decade. Well over a decade. I’ve kind of been thinking about it my whole life. Some of you may have seen my TED Talk. I gave a TED Talk about creativity and after I gave that talk, a lot of people were coming to me and wanting more on that. So in a way, the book is a little bit of an expansion of that conversation that I had. What I’m trying to dismantle in Big Magic is a cultural paradigm that is very modern. And by modern, I mean the last couple hundred years, very Western, by which I mean that it came out of a Germanic Calvinist culture and very male, which is that all these sorts of German romantics invented this idea of what a creative is that we have somehow decided in our culture is what it means.

And that story is suffering. Suffering, grandiosity, anguish, being at war against your art, maybe dying from it, living a life of separation, isolation, being the lonely artist in the Garret and drinking absent in the Garret in Paris. And with that no money to pay your bills. It’s a very romantic like capital R, romantic, like German romanticism, romantic. And I think it’s bullshit. I think it’s really unhealthy. I don’t think it’s how human beings have created for most of human history. I think it’s defiling of something that is very sacred, that is very… And it’s also based in lack. It’s based in war, lack, struggle, individualism, all the things that are actually currently destroying our world. And in fact, creativity is a gift that was given to us by the mysteries of the universe. We’re the only species on the planet who seems to have it.

It flows in great abundance. It’s our shared inheritance, it’s our birthright. You can tell this because first of all of your ancestors were creative. Everybody that you ever came from for hundreds of years was making things, building things, shaping things, cooking things, fixing, everybody was creating constantly, but certainly before the era of mass culture and children do it instinctively. And that’s the way that you can tell that it runs through our lifeblood. And there’s a way to engage with it, what I call the big magic, the big mystery that instead of being a war and instead of being about grandiosity and instead of being about brutal individualism is about belonging and connection and surrender and curiosity and pleasure and courage and delight. A word that you’ll never hear any German romantics say. So, Big Magic is really an argument, a case for delight and even to consider that creativity is a spiritual practice and that it’s something that was given to us for our joy, not for our suffering.

Gunnar Lovelace: I love that. And I’m curious, so I very much… I’m constantly having to excavate unexamined and unconscious assumptions that life has to be hard and difficult and painful. And I’m curious how you reconcile the kind of beauty of what you just shared around the essence of Big Magic with this concept that you shared at the beginning of the show where you said that as soon as we kind of start to understand a certain level, the universe hands us a new lesson to uplevel and typically in the form of trauma. And how do you see those things fitting together?

Elizabeth Gilbert: That’s a really, really good question. I want to think about it to make sure that I don’t just start talking before I have an idea, which is something that I do often. I reconcile it by saying there’s something very interesting going on here, that is beyond my capacity to understand that suffering and the awakening that comes through pain does seem to be an inherent feature of human consciousness and seems to be something that people have talked about and explored and examined and had to find ways to live through and understand for… Well, certainly since written literature, it seems to be universal across culture, it’s the first noble precept of Buddhism that life is suffering. I think that’s a little bit different than German romanticism, which says move in plant. Have that be your mailing address. You stay in that you are not a legitimate artist unless you are constantly suffering.

Certainly, don’t try to get out of it, certainly don’t try to make peace with it or friends with it or understand it or do anything that would alleviate it and go into a dysfunctional codependent relationship with suffering rather than going into a relationship with suffering that says, “Well, this is really interesting.” One of the things I talk about in Big Magic is how disaster can often be… For me, my levels of disaster and chaos and terror and panic can often be mitigated by just introducing the word interesting. Oh, that’s interesting. This is interesting. I didn’t see this coming. This is an interesting development rather than this is a disaster. Oh, this is interesting. My friend Martha Beck has been doing a lot of research recently on how creativity is actually on the mirror side of the part, the other side of the brain where fear comes from, and creativity is governed by curiosity and it’s actually impossible.

It’s been shown now in neuroscience, it’s impossible to be in both centers at the same time.

Gunnar Lovelace: Interesting.

Elizabeth Gilbert: You can’t be in fear at the same time as being curious. They can really… It’s a toggle switch. Only one of them can open. And so, looking at your struggles from a place of curiosity, stepping back at it from a distance, from a place of creativity, what is this want? What is this thing asking me to become? What is this disaster asking me to become now? Rather than becoming married to the pain, I think is how I would reconcile the difference in those things. Does that make sense?

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah. Yeah. I mean I think that this is probably one we’re going to talk about quite a bit when we see each other in person. Because I think the subtleties of that one are super interesting. And I think that the pieces that I pick up from the way you shared that distinction, talking about the Buddhist orientation around it, the human vessel, the instrument, the nature of life is that we’re going to have to say goodbye to everyone and everything we love. And that’s the nature of the human experience. Nobody gets out alive with physical bodies and their identities.

And so, that backdrop in of itself creates a very dramatic context of vulnerability and trauma. And then, what I think you’re speaking to though is this kind of state of consciousness that has permeated where we are, the language and conditioning that puts us into a state of really endless war with ourselves, each other and the planet. And I love what you share about how fear and creativity can’t exist at the same time. I mean I have so much fear in my own life, again from trauma and when it comes on, it’s just like all the hormones are rushing and flooding and all the flight or flight systems are in play. And it’s pretty amazing when it comes online. And I-

Elizabeth Gilbert: It’s powerful.

Gunnar Lovelace: It’s powerful.

Elizabeth Gilbert: It shuts everything down-

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah.

Elizabeth Gilbert: … except save yourself. Yeah.

Gunnar Lovelace: And then, there’s this also this subtle addiction to creating those kinds of very intense experiences because when we’re used to living that way, we think that that’s how we’re supposed to live. And then, we look for situations to unconsciously, we look for situations to reaffirm and recreate it. So, we’re now in 2023 and we’re living in a post-pandemic world where the state of play of the human experiment is pretty spectacular. And-

Elizabeth Gilbert: What a time to be alive.

Gunnar Lovelace: It’s like that Chinese curse. May you live in interesting times.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah, it’s interesting.

Gunnar Lovelace: We have front row seats to the most interesting, spectacular, theatrical play of the human experiment. And I think a lot of us are living with fear. We deal with a lot of different experiences of isolation. And I’m curious how you feel big magic can be a service to a world that seems to be really struggling with the relationship with fear.

Elizabeth Gilbert: I’m just going to bring it back to the very tiny, intimate personal scale. I was a really scared kid and I had reason to be, and I grew up in a very high-pressure household and I didn’t feel safe. And when I would color and draw, I mean would’ve never had the language as a seven-year-old to say this, but it was a sedative for me. And I mean I can actually embody it even when I remember it. I can remember the calmness of coloring, just using color and making shapes with it and drawing. When I was going through my partner Rey’s cancer and her death and a lot of drama that was around that situation in addition to just what you’d expect. I rediscovered that it still worked, that getting some crayons and some big paper notebooks a little kid would love and getting on my hands and knees and I would actually just hold the crayons in my fist like I did when I was even too little to hold a crayon properly. And making shapes with color had the same effect on my 48-year-old body as it did on my eight-year-old body.

Gunnar Lovelace: Beautiful.

Elizabeth Gilbert: And when I sing karaoke with my friends, which is my number one most favorite hobby, the first time I invited one of my friends over, we do Sunday karaoke brunch at my house and they bring their kids and we just sing, which is something human beings have done for most of time, is sing together in groups. It actually has been shown to stabilize the vagus nerve and when you sing, you breathe together. But of course, we’re singing journey and we’re not singing hymns, but we’re singing anthems. I remember my friend Johnny saying at the end of it, the first time he said that just released something in me that I didn’t even know needed releasing goof, like singing, even jokes singing, just released something.

These activities that are seem to be hardwired into us to draw, to tell stories, to sing, to move our bodies and dance and rhythm actually can save us. I don’t know. I’m not grandiose enough in my thinking to sit here and tell you that it will save the planet. I don’t know where we’re at with that. That’s a 100% beyond my pay grade. But while all of this is happening and we’re here, wouldn’t it be useful? This is something that I always think, wouldn’t it be useful to be somebody who’s not in a panic state? Wouldn’t it be helpful to the people who are around you, no matter how big the crisis is, whether it’s the crisis of climate change, whether it’s the crisis of addiction in your family, mental illness, in your family being fired from a job, whatever these dramas are going to arise. Wouldn’t you like to be one of the people in that play who’s not a wreck, an emotional and psychological wreck? Wouldn’t that maybe make you be able to be of greater service? Wouldn’t that make you be able to see possibilities that other people can’t see?

Well, if I know that in order to be at that place, I have to be relaxed, and if I know that these ancient arts actually relax me, then why would I not practice them in order to maybe be of better service, even if the world is dying, wouldn’t it be nice to have a hospice person on hand who’s calm while the world dies? If that’s what’s happening, how can I show up to be of service to whoever is around me, so that I’m one less person who needs to be in the emergency room. And if the arts can do that, then let’s do that.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah. I love the simplicity of that. So, just kind of distilling that a little bit, I think what you’re sharing is

Gunnar Lovelace: It’s just finding simple ways where we give ourselves permission to simplify our human experience and express in creative ways and creating the space for that and the ways that that really calms and regulates the nervous system.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah. If you go to a pre-industrial culture, everybody makes art. Everybody sings, everybody weaves, everybody paints, everybody carves, everybody dances. Like you go to Bali, I mean Bali’s now industrialized, but you go to Bali and they have these things called the Banjar, the Village Banjar, which every single day everybody in the village gathers under this pavilion and they have this orchestral gathering of music and singing and chanting. And they’ve done that every day for thousands of years. And nobody sits it out. Nobody says like, oh, I don’t sing. I don’t play an instrument. Everybody’s in that, like everyone’s in that together.

So I think it’s been given to us as a gift to help bring our nervous systems into beauty, which helps bring us into harmony, which will help us to actually be able to show up as a helper rather than somebody who needs to be helped all the time. Because I’m so neurotic, if I can’t figure out, my whole life’s purpose I believe, is to learn how to regulate my own nervous system so that I don’t need so many resources being poured into me to keep me alive. So that then maybe I can actually, as we say in the rooms, graduate from hurting to healing, to helping. And I can’t be a helper if I’m the one who constantly needs to be rescued because I’m such a wreck.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah, I love that. And the Balinese culture is still so intact at that level. I mean, I used to have a jewelry business with my mother and we had a lot of amazing craftspeople in Bali working with us. And yeah, I would go into a family compound in one of the carving villages, and it would be 25 generations of carvers in that family. And I’d be sitting there with the grandfather, and the father, and the son, and the daughter and the granddaughter, and they’d all be there listening to the project and all be working on the carvings. The depth of creativity and pervasiveness in that culture is absolutely amazing.

Elizabeth Gilbert: And you see it, right?

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah.

Elizabeth Gilbert: I mean, stress has now been exported because our culture is a very good exporter of stress because we’ve exported our cultural values to places like that. So my Balinese friends have now learned the word stressed.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah. Yeah.

Elizabeth Gilbert: And they’re like, I’m so stressed. I’m so… I’m like, oh man, I wish we’d never come here. Sorry. But they had a pretty good system for handling that.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah. I love what you said about the attunement to regulating your nervous system. And I can totally relate to that. Because I had so much very early on, survival trauma and sexual abuse and things like that that happen. And we all get our deck of cards. And so for me, my nervous system, I’m always looking for the next shoe to drop. Where’s the next crisis coming from? And even I tell people at work with me, please never send me a text message that says, can you talk? At least send me a message like can you talk about this thing so that I don’t make up a bunch of stories about the thing.

And so I struggle with this because, and I’m curious what your perspective is on it. There’s a part of me that, which I’m still cleaning up, these unconscious ideas that that level of attunement to my nervous system is extremely indulgent behavior. And who am I to do that in a world where so many people are just struggling to get by? And then the other aspect of that is the more I get attuned, the more sensitive I become. Which is almost like a, it’s a virtuous cycle and a vicious cycle because I’m simultaneously more available, but I’m also a little bit more vulnerable at the same time. And so I’m curious how you think about those things.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Oh man, I hear you. I hear you. Oh God. I don’t know if I have a universal answer for that other than that I know that I am of no use to anybody when I’m wrecked.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah.

Elizabeth Gilbert: I mean I’ve shown that. I’ve seen that. I can’t help anyone until I’m pretty stabilized and I’m thinking about there’s a, and so that’s what makes it be a public service. My guru’s guru in India where I studied, used to say that meditation is the only thing you can ever do that’s not selfish. It has no selfish end. The calmer you become, the more likely you are to be able to be of service, even if it’s to be of service, not losing your shit at someone. Or in my case, as a lifetime blackout codependent, one of the ways that I’ve stabilized my nervous system is finding somebody who will stabilize it for me. Right.

So I’m going to latch onto someone and I’m going to be like, it’s your job now. You are now in charge of my heart. You are now in charge of my wellbeing. You have to say all the right things to me to make me feel safe. You have to do everything to create an environment where I can actually not feel like I’m on a battlefield. If I’m insecure, you’ve got to fix it. Right. And that’s me making another person into a drug, making another person into a Xanax for me, right, which is something that I’ve tried to do in my relationships, which is essentially using someone. Right.

And part of the emotional and physical sobriety that I am aspiring to, my definition of sobriety is, I didn’t use anything today. I didn’t use anybody today. And using somebody can also be taking something out on someone because you’re so unstable. Like a road rager, driving around, honking at people and screaming at people is using those people to get their anger out. And so that’s why I think for me, if I’m going to be a safe person for other people to be around, I have to put a lot of hours a day into bringing my nervous system down to a level where I’m not going to put anybody else in harm’s way. Whether it’s by yeah, exploiting them or using them or blaming them or ignoring them.

Gunnar Lovelace: Or acting unconsciously in a way that causes unnecessary pain and trauma for them.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah. So if we want to be the place where suffering stops when it reaches us, which is what I really, really want. I don’t want to be a person who perpetuates suffering. I’d like to be a person where the suffering comes at me and it ends there. I don’t then take it on and then pass it along. I have to do a lot of work. And I think there’s a thousands and thousands and thousands of year history of people realizing that, that I’ve got to stabilize myself and then I can show up and maybe I won’t cause any harm.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah. And then from there, be of benefit to others in a joyful, embodied way.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah.

Elizabeth Gilbert: To be of service.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah. Yeah. I love that. I mean, I’m going to butcher the Dalai Lama quote, but he talks about this, it’s two kinds of selfish humans. There’s the selfish human that’s just, does everything for themselves. They live a lonely, desperate life. And then there’s the wise selfish human that recognizes they are in a relational field and the more they give, the more they receive. And yeah, I think it’s such an interesting, yeah just, like I really relate to that piece around just not wanting to participate in causing more suffering and just knowing, I don’t have a good answer to the question I just asked you. I was hoping you were going to give me a Xanax, but you didn’t. So.

Elizabeth Gilbert: That’s the best I got.

Gunnar Lovelace: I’m very, very disappointed. But I’ll take that out with you later when we see each other. But yeah, it’s really remarkable when I’m tired, when I don’t feel good in my body, when I’ve eaten too much sugar, when I’m not getting exercise, when I don’t give myself time and space to be creative or just enjoy life in of itself, I end up acting unconsciously and being hard and causing suffering around me. And I think that the invitation that you are offering is really beautiful. And look, we have no idea where we’re going in terms of the human experiment. And at the end of the day, all that we really get the privilege to affect is how we show up in the world. And I really love the way that you’re inviting that, the simplicity of that and the permission to really get tuned to that deeply.

Elizabeth Gilbert: I think we’re going to need some calm people because hard days are coming.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah. Yeah.

Elizabeth Gilbert: And even if at every level of our lives, you’ve probably met them there, I mean we know some of them mutually, but there’s a couple people in your life and all of our lives, I’m sure people listen to this have met a few, they walk in a room and you exhale because you’re like, oh, thank God this person’s here. And it’s not going to be as bad. It doesn’t mean that the crisis is over. Whatever the disaster is that’s happening is still happening. But there’s a calm person there and that’s a great, great service. And the fact that I spend four hours a morning getting myself calm means that I can do what I do, which is I kind of spend the rest of my day in service, but I would burn out very quickly unless I unless had that.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah. So interesting. I can so relate to that because I’ve fallen in the classic trap of martyring myself in the pursuit of kind of impact oriented projects. And even when we were in the early days of starting Thrive Market it was such a paradox and such a state of hypocrisy that I’m helping birth this thing with this amazing team of human beings. And we’re still very early in our journey. But the early days were extremely precarious and difficult. And I was probably the most unhealthy I’ve ever been in my life. Trying to birth a platform to help people be healthy and live a thriving life. And it was like wasn’t sleeping, acid reflux, my relationship was falling apart. Just all of the physical systems were shutting down. And I’m curious, just at a purely physical human body perspective, what are some of the things that you do to kind of cultivate your own health and wellness from diet and other types of practices?

Elizabeth Gilbert: You know how Byron Katie always says as she was awakening, things started to leave her? She didn’t give it up, they left. Remember she said cigarettes just left and alcohol left and overeating left. I think for me coming into sobriety four years ago, it’s been interesting for me to watch as things have left. And I think it’s because I’m now more attuned to generally trying to be well or not even just, there’s a feeling, I can’t feel well when this is around, whether it’s a person, a place, a thing, a substance. This is not conducive with me being okay, so I can’t have this anymore. So just in the last year, sugar has left, which is bananas because that was the one thing I always said I would never be able to put down. I was like, I can put down alcohol, I can put down drugs, I can put down acting out in all sorts of ways, but I can’t put down sugar.

I mean, sugar’s, sugar. And I think though for many of us, it was our first addiction. We’re obviously hardwired to become addicted to it. It’s a substance that’s incredibly rare in nature. And when our ancestors found it, they got as much of it as they could and now it’s abundant. And I just have realized that sugar is a toggle switch for me. I can have none and I don’t crave it, or I can have a little bit and then it’s all I want. It just sets off. It does something to my brain, it does what it’s supposed to do. It does exactly what it’s supposed to do to my brain. It tells me to go get more. And I used to satisfy those cravings.

But now I realize that like, oh, I can’t satisfy a sugar craving because it doesn’t get satisfied. It actually, like all my unhealthy cravings, when I go out and I get the thing that satisfies the craving, all it does is create a deeper hole where I need more of it. And so yeah, that one’s gone.

Gunnar Lovelace: So do you have…

Elizabeth Gilbert: It’s very rare that I have it at all anymore.

Gunnar Lovelace: So do you have fruit sugar?

Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah, I’ll eat fruit. It doesn’t do the same thing to me. I had blueberries and cranberries in my oatmeal this morning, and it didn’t make me start digging through my cabinets to find more blueberries and cranberries.

But you give me a piece of cake, I’m going to eat the entire… My serving size for a Fig Newton is the whole container. There’s no such thing as one Oreo for me. It’s like I’ve never understood. There are people who can do that. I actually just can’t do that. A serving size for me of Oreos is when the Oreos are all gone. And then I will want to go to the store and get more of them. So that’s gone, and that’s been a really big game changer.

And I’m eating less and less and less meat, and I feel like I’m getting the call. I’m just like, “Oh, I think meat is leaving. I think it’s leaving.” I think because I love what the Dalai Lama says, “A good reason not to kill animals is that they don’t seem to like it very much.” It’s such a sweet way to say it, but they really don’t seem to like it very much. And I like it, but they don’t seem to like it. So that’s going away pretty… I don’t have it in the house anymore or something. I don’t like to be rude when people feed me food they’ve made. I eat it, whatever it is, but I won’t order it. And-

Gunnar Lovelace: Do you eat eggs?

Elizabeth Gilbert: I do. I eat eggs. But I have friends who have chickens, so I eat their eggs. And I haven’t given up half and half yet because it’s a great pleasure of my life.

But yeah, those are all things that are changing. And it’s happening very gradually. It’s not like I woke up one day and I made a big resolution, because resolutions don’t seem to work for me. That they always come from my ego. They always come from my will. I think what works for me is getting in tune, getting quiet, getting still, and then I’m told what to do or it just becomes clearer.

That’s what happened with me in alcohol, where it was like I just started working on taking care of myself and meditating a lot and praying a lot. And then it was like, “Oh, this isn’t benefiting me. I think I don’t use alcohol anymore. Oh, I think it’s gone. I think this is not for me. It’s not helping me.” It’s not helping me with the mental clarity and the emotional clarity and the spiritual clarity that I want, and it makes me make impulsive decisions that can hurt me and other people. So yeah, those are the things.

And I do yoga, but I’ve had a transformation with yoga also recently, which is turning from using it as a way to try to make my body look a certain way to trying to do yoga as a way to feel and to actually feel yoga rather than do yoga, to actually try to be present to it and use it as a spiritual practice rather than as a, “I want to have Michelle Obama’s arms.” Of course I do, but that isn’t maybe the best use of my life.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah. I also was a power yoga, vinyasa, Ashtanga yogi addict for many years. And now, I mostly do either very active stretching where it’s just working with the muscles or very yin, where it’s just like… I’ve really backed off of the intense yoga practice. And…

Elizabeth Gilbert: Don’t you feel, Gunnar, there’s nothing Americans can’t take and turn into something that’s bad for you?

Gunnar Lovelace: It’s also just the bigger-

Elizabeth Gilbert: Even yoga, they’re like-

Gunnar Lovelace: … the bigger-

Elizabeth Gilbert: “We’re going to overdo it.”

Gunnar Lovelace: … bigger is better.

Elizabeth Gilbert: There’s nothing we can’t overdo. Yeah

Gunnar Lovelace: Just the bigger is better, the pervasiveness of that kind of orientation to everything. And I just feel now less is more in every aspect of my life.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah.

Gunnar Lovelace: And just how do I slow everything down? How can I be more attuned? How can I make better decisions from that place of being calm and being healthy and relaxed? And I feel very imperfect in that intention. And like we said at the top of the show, I’m constantly humbled by the ways I engineer unconscious behavior.

But yeah, it’s really, I think, the pervasiveness in our culture. And look, there’s a lot of economic incentive to have a system that says, “Bigger is better,” right?

Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah.

Gunnar Lovelace: You sell more products, make more money. It’s just permeated every aspect. And then the vanity culture that comes along with that in terms of the bling bling and being a billionaire and whatever, just all of that. It’s so pervasive.

And what I hear and love about your work and your transmission is this profound invitation to really get to know our authentic selves in a state of calm, to create conditions where we give ourself tremendous permission to explore those ways of regulating our nervous system through creativity and how that just really leads very naturally to a better life and a better world. And it’s just such a beautiful message. I’m really, really grateful for your work and all of the lessons that you’ve had to overcome, that you’ve had to breathe love into to find yourself in this place where you get to share from such a refined experience.

And I know we’re running out of time here, so I just want to quickly ask you a couple closing questions. What does thriving mean to you at this point in your life?

Elizabeth Gilbert: Oh, wow. It means living free from fear. That’s the simplest thing. I’ve been so governed by fear and so limited by fear. And I don’t mean being fearless in some sort of macho Navy SEAL, “Kick this day in the ass. Show it who’s boss,” kind of way. I just mean I’ve been terrified my whole life of what people are thinking of me. Am I loved enough? Am I approved of? Am I doing it right? Am I in trouble? Is somebody mad at me? Am I going to lose this? Have I made a huge mistake? Is everything about my life wrong? Those fears, those fears which can’t really be conquered by doing macho things. Jumping out of an airplane isn’t going to take away my fear of what people think of me. These are deep, deep fundamental fears that crush my ability to see life as anything other than a battlefield, where at any moment I can make one false move and be completely ruined. That’s the emotional state that I lived in for most of my life.

And so thriving to me means finding a way to set that down and to move into a space where I might actually enjoy the day, where I might actually be able to see beauty in myself and others, where I might actually be satisfied by less and rather than needing more, and where my nourishment comes from within rather than needing to make people pour into me in order to feel like I’m all right.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah. Beautiful. And as a follow up to that, what areas do you feel like you would want to change in your life to thrive more at this point?

Elizabeth Gilbert: I think, honestly, it’s the belly of the beast. I would love to be free from any anxiety surrounding my family of origin, worrying for them, worrying about them, trying to please them, trying to make it all work, trying to live my life in some sort of a way that everything is fine with all of the…

All of the work and the struggle that I’ve done my whole life to try to make everybody be okay, I would love to be very, very, very free from that and to really be able to believe that everybody gets to have their own journey. Nobody has to understand anybody else’s. Nothing is owed. You’re allowed to have a private life. You’re allowed to choose a chosen family, all of those sorts of things.

So to me, that’s the hardest because there’s a lot of pressure that comes from cultural and familial expectations around family. And so I would just love to be free from the constant anxiety that I need to be doing something different involving all of them for everything to be better.

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah. Yeah.

Elizabeth Gilbert: And to just find almost a separate piece, to find an independent, a true emotional autonomy, to be okay no matter what anybody else is doing… Because as they always say in the rooms, “The reason your family can push your buttons is because they installed them. They know where they are.” And as Ram Dass said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go home for Thanksgiving. See how that goes.”

Gunnar Lovelace: Yeah.

Elizabeth Gilbert: So yeah, if I could find freedom, real, real, real emotional autonomy in that realm, I don’t think there’s much less for me to be too scared of, honestly.

Gunnar Lovelace: Beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your work with us and just really, really deeply appreciate that we share the planet together and that you get to share your creativity and your journey with all of us. I really, really deeply appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Elizabeth Gilbert: My great, great pleasure. Thank you so much. And I’m looking forward to meeting you in person soon.

This article is related to:

Healthy Habits, Healthy Living

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Kirby Stirland

Kirby Stirland is a writer, editor, and New York transplant living in Los Angeles.

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