The following piece is adapted from Elizabeth
Lesser's book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow
Learn the alchemy
true human beings know.
The moment you accept
what troubles you've been given,
the door will open.
How do we begin that journey from Once-Born innocence to Twice-Born wisdom? Where do we find the courage to make a big change? How do we use the forces of a difficult time to help us grow? There are many ways, but the first way, the gateway, is to know that we are not alone in these endeavors. One of the greatest enigmas of human behavior is the way we isolate ourselves from each other. In our misguided perception of separation we assume that others are not sharing a similar experience of life. We imagine that we are unique in our eccentricities or failures or longings. And so we try to appear as happy and consistent as we think others are, and we feel shame when we stumble and fall. When difficulties come our way, we don't readily seek out help and compassion because we think others might not understand, or they would judge us harshly, or take advantage of our weakness. And so we hide out, and we miss out.
We read novels and go to movies and follow the lives of celebrities in order to imbibe a kind of full-out living we believe is out of our reach, or too risky, or just an illusion. We become voyeurs of the kind of experiences that our own souls are longing to have. Here's the oddest thing about living life as a spectator sport: While the tales in books and movies and People magazine may be created with smoke and mirrors, our own lives don't have to be. We have the real opportunity to live fully, with passion and meaning and profound satisfaction. Within us-burning brighter than any movie star-is our own star, our North Star, our soul. It is our birthright to uncover the soul-to remove the layers of fear or shame or apathy or cynicism that conceal it. A good place to start, and a place we come back to over and over again, is what Rumi calls the Open Secret.
Jelalluddin Rumi wrote poems so alive and clear that even today-eight centuries later-they shimmer with freshness. Their wisdom and humor are timeless; whenever I have an a-ha moment with one of Rumi's poems, I feel connected to the people throughout the ages who have climbed out of their confusion on the rungs of Rumi's words.
In several of his poems and commentaries, Rumi speaks of the Open Secret. He says that each one of us is trying to hide a secret-not a big, bad secret, but a more subtle and pervasive one. It's the kind of secret that people in the streets of Istanbul kept from each other in the 13th century, when Rumi was writing his poetry. It's what I imagine Einstein tried to hide from his neighbors in Princeton, and they from him. And it's the same kind of secret that you and I keep from each other every day. You meet an old acquaintance, and she asks, "How are you?" You say, "Fine!" She asks, "How are the kids?" You say, "Oh, they're great." "The job?" "Just fine. I've been there five years now."
Then, you ask that person, "How are you?" She says, "Fine!" You ask, "Your new house?" "I love it." "The new town?" "We're all settling in."
It's a perfectly innocent exchange of ordinary banter; each one of us has a similar kind every day. But it is probably not an accurate representation of our actual lives. We don't want to say that one of the kids is failing in school, or that our work often feels meaningless, or that the move to the new town may have been a colossal mistake. It's almost as if we are embarrassed by our most human traits. We tell ourselves that we don't have time to go into the gory details with everyone we meet; we don't know each other well enough; we don't want to appear sad, or confused, or weak, or self-absorbed. Better to keep under wraps our neurotic and nutty sides (not to mention our darker urges and shameful desires.) Why wallow publicly in the underbelly of our day-to-day stuff? Why wave the dirty laundry about, when all she asked was, "How are you?"
Rumi says that when we hide the secret underbelly from each other, then both people go away wondering, "How come she has it all together? How come her marriage/job/town/family works so well? What's wrong with me?" We feel vaguely diminished from this ordinary interaction, and from hundreds of similar interactions we have from month to month and year to year. When we don't share the secret ache in our hearts-the normal bewilderment of being human-it turns into something else. Our pain, and fear, and longing, in the absence of company, become alienation, and envy, and competition.
The irony of hiding the dark side of our humanness is that our secret is not really a secret at all. How can it be when we're all safeguarding the very same story? That's why Rumi calls it an Open Secret. It's almost a joke-a laughable admission that each one of us has a shadow self-a bumbling, bad-tempered twin. Big surprise! Just like you, I can be a jerk sometimes. I do unkind, cowardly things, harbor unmerciful thoughts, and mope around when I should be doing something constructive. Just like you, I wonder if life has meaning; I worry and fret over things I can't control; and I often feel overcome with a longing for something that I cannot even name. For all of my strengths and gifts, I am also a vulnerable and insecure person, in need of connection and reassurance. This is the secret I try to keep from you, and you from me, and in doing so, we do each other a grave disservice.
Rumi tells us that moment we accept what troubles we've been given, the door will open. Sounds easy, sounds attractive, but it is difficult, and most of us pound on the door to freedom and happiness with every manipulative ploy save the one that actually works. If you're interested in the door to the heavens opening, start with the door to your own secret self. See what happens when you offer to another a glimpse of who you really are. Start slowly. Without getting dramatic, share the simple dignity of yourself in each moment-your triumphs and your failures, your satisfaction and your sorrow. Face your embarrassment at being human, and you'll uncover a deep well of passion and compassion. It's a great power, your Open Secret. When your heart is undefended you make it safe for whomever you meet to put down his burden of hiding, and then you both can walk through the open door.
Excerpted from Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser
to The Spiritual Adventure
ELIZABETH LESSER is the co-founder of Omega
Institute, the United States’ largest adult education center
focusing on health, wellness, spirituality, and creativity. She
is the New York Times best-selling author of Broken
Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and The
Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure (both
from Random House). For more than 30 years Elizabeth has worked
with leading figures in the fields of healing, spiritual development,
and cultural change. Her work at Omega has included leading the
organization, developing its curricula, teaching, and writing
the yearly Omega catalog, a reference book that describes the
work of some of the most eminent thinkers and practitioners of
For many years, Elizabeth spearheaded Omega’s popular Women and
Power conferences, renowned gatherings featuring women leaders,
authors, activists, and artists from around the world. In 2008
she worked closely with Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle in the
creation of a ten-week online seminar based on Tolle’s book, A
New Earth. The “webinar” was viewed by millions of people worldwide.
Since then, she has appeared several times on The Oprah Show and
Oprah.com webcasts, and is an ongoing host on Oprah Radio, a weekly
show on Sirius/XM.
A student of the Sufi master, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan since 1971,
Elizabeth has also studied with spiritual teachers and religious
scholars from other traditions, as well as psychological practitioners
and healers. Her first book, The Seeker’s Guide, chronicles the
uprising of a new spirituality that she participated in and researched
through her work at Omega. Her second book, Broken Open, is a guide
for anyone going through a difficult time. Its real life stories
inspire the reader to use adversity for inner growth. Broken Open
has been translated into 16 languages.
Ms. Lesser attended Barnard College and San Francisco State University.
Previous to her work at Omega, she was a midwife and birth educator.
She has been active in environmental issues for many years in New
York State's Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains, where she lives
with her husband. She is the mother of three grown sons.
About Omega Institute for Holistic Studies
Founded in 1977, Omega
Institute for Holistic Studies is the nation’s most trusted
source for wellness and personal growth. As a nonprofit organization,
Omega offers diverse and innovative educational experiences that
inspire an integrated approach to personal and social change. Located
on 195 acres in the beautiful Hudson Valley, Omega welcomes more
than 23,000 people to its workshops, conferences, and retreats
in Rhinebeck, New York and at exceptional locations around the
Conversation with Elizabeth Lesser by Marianne Schnall
to The Spiritual Adventure