Conversation with Elizabeth Lesser
Elizabeth Lesser is the co-founder of Omega Institute, this country's largest adult education center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality, social change, and creativity www.eomega.org. She is the author of The Seeker’s Guide and Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow (both from Random House). For more than 30 years she has studied and worked with leading figures in the field of healing—healing self and healing society. Her recent work includes helping Oprah Winfrey to produce the 10-week “webinar” for Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth; acting as a senior advisor for Omega Institute at the board and staff level; and creating Omega’s successful Women and Power conferences, which offer a dialogue between women in leadership positions in a variety of areas—government, religion, media, the arts, and more. Ms. Lesser attended Barnard College and San Francisco State University. Previous to her work at Omega, she was a midwife and birth educator. The mother of three grown sons, she lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband.
INTERVIEW WITH MARIANNE SCHNALL
Marianne Schnall: It must have been very exciting to be a part of working with Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle for the A New Earth webinar. How did you become involved with that? What was that experience like?
Elizabeth Lesser: It was a fantastic experience. It was one of the more gratifying, fulfilling experiences of my professional life. Because it felt like all the 30 years of working at Omega Institute, and all my writing, was really put to great use in this very compressed and potent experience that reached millions of people. It was an unusual experience that doesn’t happen that often—where your life’s work gets distilled in a moment in time and is used to help so many people around the world. I just felt very blessed by it.
I had never known Oprah – of course I knew who she was, and I actually was a fan of her television show – I am able to TiVo it and so I often will watch it after the fact – especially if it’s somebody I think we should be aware of for Omega. So I was always a great admirer of her, but I didn’t know her at all. And someone gave her one of my books – my first book, The Seeker’s Guide - and she liked the book a lot. And her people got in touch with me to see if she could interview me for her radio show. She has a radio show called Soul Series on XM radio. And I was interviewed by her – I was in a studio in New York, she was in Chicago, so I didn’t actually meet her, but I was interviewed by her. And we really had a great connection. It was very easy and we had so much to talk about that she invited me to come to Chicago and do another one. And in between then, she chose Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth for her book club – it was the first non-fiction book she had ever chosen. Of all the 61 books that she had chosen before, they were all novels or memoirs. And so her first choice was a pretty sophisticated spiritual text, A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle’s book. It is not a type of dumbed-down self help book, at all. It’s a serious book for people who want to understand how their behavior creates the mess that the state of the world is in. And then how can we get out of our ego-driven consciousness so that we can walk the talk – be the change we want to see in the world.
And it’s not easy going – especially for people who’ve never read a spiritual book like that before, so Oprah asked me if I would help her create an online curriculum, and I didn’t exactly know what she meant, but she didn’t know what she meant either – she’d never done it. And I went out to Chicago, and I started working with her team, and very quickly it became evident that it would be really good if I was very involved. So between the end of January and just a few weeks ago in May, I commuted to Chicago every Sunday through Tuesday, helping pull this thing off. And Eckhart Tolle came from Canada ten Mondays in a row and was interviewed by her live online for an hour and a half. I spent a lot of time working with both Eckhart and Oprah. We were a team, figuring out which parts of each chapter to discuss, how to make the concepts real in everyday life, what to include in the online workbook. And then I would take all that and create the curriculum for each chapter. Every week 1.5 million people would tune in, live, to share this experience. And they were skyping from all over the world, and calling in, and e-mailing in questions and helping each other on the web site – doing the workbook, talking on chat boards. It just became this amazing world-wide classroom – we started calling it the “largest classroom on Earth”. So that’s my story! [laughs]
MS: When you appeared on the “Oprah” television show to talk about it, you made a comment about how the principles covered in “A New Earth” don’t infringe on people’s individual religious beliefs, that it was sort of just like “honey in your tea.” Can you talk a little bit more about that? That seems so important, the concept that there are universal principles, since there is so much divisiveness among religions right now.
EL: Well, that’s originally why Oprah asked me to help her because that is what my book The Seeker’s Guide is all about – it’s about what I call “The New American Spirituality” which is spirituality affected deeply by democracy and diversity, which is what everything in America is all about, whether it’s our music, or our food – all of these diverse cultures coming together and influencing a people who have what I call, a democratic psyche. We are able to choose what we want – you don’t have to accept one thing from one tradition. It’s a melting pot. Look at our cuisine: On every street corner you can eat Thai food or Italian or Ethiopean. And look at American music, jazz, which is the ability to riff on any kind of music. And the next human endeavor that has been touched by that, I feel, is religion and spirituality. Now that is very upsetting to some people. More upsetting than let’s say a classical musician who thinks jazz is profane. Some people, who are deeply involved in an organized, traditional religion, find it very difficult to accept that their way isn’t the only way. And that their sacred text isn’t the only text and it must be taken literally. This is hard for a lot of people, but it’s obviously the direction that the world is going in, and you see it in something like the Eckhart Tolle experience – people want a more universal spirituality.
Now, you can say, yeah, well, what about what’s rising up in the fundamentalist Muslim world and in the Christian right? Whenever there’s about to be a big change in society , fundamentalism arises to thwart the change. It seems to be almost a law of physics, that the winds of change awaken fear and fundamentalism. And I see the recent upswing of fundamentalism as a reaction against the inevitable change. So it was really fascinating how, along with the great joy and excitement about this worldwide classroom, you can go to the chatboards on Oprah.com and read a lot of very angry and threatened fundamentalist Christians who were deeply disturbed by what was going on. But they needn’t be. One can be a full-fledged Christian and at the same time, enjoy the reality of a universal spiritual truth—just as I said on television—as honey in the tea. They do not have to be mutually exclusive—you can faithfully follow a religion and you can also be open to the perennial wisdom streams that have come through many cultures.
MS: Some people may not be familiar with Eckhart Tolle’s books The Power and Now and A New Earth. What do you feel is the essence of the universal truths represented in his books and the webinar?
EL: Well, it’s really the same in both “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth.” What I loved about “A New Earth” is that he took the information from “The Power of Now” to the next level: if human beings do evolve, in the way he talks about – and I’ll explain that in a bit – then we’ll have “a new earth,” which is a line from the Bible, “and I saw a new heaven and a new Earth” from Jesus’ words. If humanity does not evolve spiritually—each one of us and collectively—our species won’t make it. He says that we must “evolve or die.” He doesn’t put a value judgment on our species making it or not making it—he’s only saying that if human beings remain trapped in a limited sense of self—in our small, grasping ego state, where we are afraid of change, afraid of letting go, afraid of each other—our natural will reaction to daily life will always be to push away and to fight back. And that inexorably leads to war and greed and devastation. And we’re seeing it on our planet today – it’s always happened, but the stakes are a lot higher today.
So following that back to each individual – every day you are faced with choices. When you meet up with another person, you can either reject that person, or you can soften the boundaries of who you are, and know that you are connected to that person, and therefore welcome that person’s reality even if it is counter to yours at the moment, and truly be with that person, see that person, not push away, not react. Every day we have the opportunity to make our relationships be on the outside what they really are on a spiritual level. Eckhart talks a lot about how if you could perceive a deeper reality, if you walked around with a microscope, and you could see how your atoms are actually at play with the atoms of the other person, you would know—really know—that all form is not as solid as you think it is. And by form I also mean our egos, our sense of self—any construct that keeps us disconnected from each other. So the work of the book is softening this idea of yourself as so solid, so “me,” so story-bound, and really dwelling in each moment, fully alive, and aware of our connectivity, our interconnectivity. And then making all of your decisions and actions from that place of interconnection.
MS: I have been following Oprah, and between her television show and her magazine I have been slowly seeing spiritual awareness seeping into her message. And it was significant that out of all the books in her book club she did the webinar on this one – what is your sense of where this is coming from in Oprah? I realize it is hard for you to speak for her – but is this a new important place that she is seeing she can use her power and influence?
EL: Yes, she does, and she said it many times on the webinar so I am not speaking for her. She said many times that of all the things she’s done – and she has done a formidable amount of good, good things for our global community – this is the most important she has ever done. And in getting to know her, I really can say without a doubt, she is deeply and genuinely committed to her spiritual path – that’s who she is. She is committed to being the best human being she can be. And she is committed to helping every other person who comes into her influence be the best human being he or she can be. That’s really what she’s about. I found her to be, inside and out, a very, very good and sincere and genuine human being. And somebody who really plays big – she plays huge – but she is coming from a profound inner place. And her understanding of the book was very deep.
MS: It seemed so fitting that this type of event took place on the Internet, allowing such widespread participation, interaction and dialogue, and also to be permanently archived at her web site.
EL: I thought it was just fantastic. And you know recently there has been this stuff in the newspapers and online about how Oprah’s television show is losing its ratings – I don’t know if you’ve seen that – and that confirmed what I feel about the media these days. There is an addiction to reporting negativity, and ignoring positive creativity. Oprah knows more about what is happening in the world of television—both educational and entertainment driven—than anyone else. That’s why she took a huge risk and offered—for free, by the way—an amazing experiment that nobody reported on. She knows that television has to grow and change, and so once again, she got in front of the wave of an emerging media—the web, skype, online learning/entertainment—and pulled off something totally new and wildly popular, and all anyone wants to report on is that her TV ratings are down some. All TV ratings are down! The real story here is that she is once again forging new pathways, just like she did 20 years ago.
MS: It is amazing to think that the organization you founded, Omega Institute, has been around since 1977. How would you describe the overall mission of Omega?
EL: Very much the way when I just summarized when you asked me what did I think Oprah’s overall mission was in the world. Our mission is to help people “awaken the best in the human spirit”, which is our stated purpose. We help people uncover their inner power, grace, joy, goodness, in a whole variety of ways. We’re holistic – which means we understand that there are many dimensions to a human life. There’s our physical body—our health, our strength, our vibrancy. There’s our mind—our mental intelligence, our capacity for clarity and wisdom. There’s our heart—our emotional intelligence and ability for empathy and happiness. There’s our creativity. There’s our desire to give back—our social intelligence. And so we educate all the intelligences of a person, and people can interact with our programming at any level they feel they’re at . That’s why in one week we’ll have ten different workshops, and one might be a basketball clinic and one might be a meditation retreat, and one might be a retreat for cancer survivors. Because at different times in our life we need different forms of education.
MS: It’s almost like Omega was ahead of its time. Right now even the mainstream media is reporting on the benefits of practices like yoga and meditation on reducing stress and fostering overall health and wellbeing. What spiritual trends have you noticed through your years working with Omega? And how would you diagnose where humanity is right now in its evolution from a spiritual perspective?
EL: Ooh! If I’d ever dare to do that [laughs]. Only God can say that. I can say that in thirty years of having been part of this “movement,” let’s call it, you know, I was just a kid when I started doing this—in my early 20s—and back then what we were talking about was seen as so on the fringe. Yoga, meditation, natural foods, acupuncture – things like were seen as practically voodoo. And now you can go into any hospital and they’ll have massage, and Chinese medicine, and therapy, and a prayer room. And you can go into any little street in any-town, USA, and there will be a yoga center and things like that. So it certainly has infiltrated the culture, and I think that’s a good sign. Because I think diversity of thinking and healing traditions from around the world are good for us. The movement itself has evolved enormously and it’s been a thrill to be part of it.
MS: What was behind the formation of Omega’s Women’s Institute two years ago and what does the Women’s Institute set out to accomplish?
EL: The idea of it came because we did, for five years, these highly successful large conferences about women and power. And they just hit a tremendous nerve in the culture. They were so well received. And so fascinating, that several people who had been coming to them and a funder who’d been coming to them, thought it was a subject matter worth researching and looking into more deeply. The question being, put very simply: OK, we’ve had centuries of power and leadership where men have been at the helm. There’s some real serious gaps of representation in the world. And also the world’s in trouble. What would happen if women became empowered and could lead from their core basic values? Not just let’s put women into a structure that is about up-down power, like I have power over you. But what if women could actually influence the way power was wielded in the world, from a core feminine place.
Now that’s a word that is fraught with problems. One of the first things we want to do in the Women’s Institute is to research language around this. Because it’s really hard to talk about. Many women hear the word “feminine” and feel like it’s a noose around their neck. “Don’t hold me to a mode of behavior because I’m a woman and you think this is how a woman should act,” kind of thing. That’s not what I’m talking about when I use the word feminine. I like the way Jungian psychology talks about femininity and masculinity—that those forces are at play in humanity. Each human has both feminine and masculine values and drives within them. Men have the feminine, and women have the masculine – we all have those forces within us. But women certainly have more of the feminine than men do, and the feminine is more about taking care of our planet, each other, and using our limited resources for “care of” instead of “domination over.”
And so this is what the Women’s Institute aims to research and study and hold think-tanks about, and especially in our post-Hillary America now, our nation is so up for this conversation. This election cycle has been a huge learning experience for all of us, especially feminists. The conversation we need to have now is no longer about women assuming positions of leadership within the existing power structure, it’s about the power structures themselves, it’s about how to go about assuming power, how to change the structures. So I would say the Women’s Institute now is more about questions – what do we even mean when we talk about women’s empowerment? That is what the Women’s Institute is devoted to.
MS: Talking about the election – I keep thinking back to last year’s Women, Power & Peace conference, where many of the speakers warned that if Hillary wanted to win, she would have to “run as a woman first” and embody feminine values, rather than as Betty Williams said as, “one of the boys.” Do you think that was a factor in why she didn’t win the nomination?
EL: One hundred percent yes. Absolutely. And I heard some pundit on television the other night saying that Hillary’s concession speech reminded her of Al Gore’s concession speech, when he conceded the 2000 election – he was so impassioned and bold! And this correspondant said, why didn’t Gore sound like this during the election? He would have won if he had. And then when Hillary conceded, she finally started talking about women! She said that because of her campaign there were now millions of cracks in the glass ceiling. I totally agreed with that TV pundit. I wanted to ask Hillary, “Why didn’t you speak about women like that during the campaign? I would have been so your girl! If you had only spoken honestly and passionately about the challenges and excitement of having a woman in the highest office in the world! And what you were going to bring to it because you were a woman. She was so afraid to say that! She was so reading the tea leaves every minute that she lost touch with her genuine passion, and you could feel it. And then here was this young man, really in touch with his core self. And he took every opportunity to educate us about difficult, complex topics. I wanted Hillary to do a feminist speech so desperately like Barack Obama gave his race speech. We were waiting for that weren’t we? I was. I was waiting and I would have gone to work for her, but she lost me.
MS: The irony was that a lot of people said that Obama seemed to embody more “feminine” qualities, whereas Hillary seemed to represent a more “masculine” approach. And it made me think about this kind of conundrum that women still face where they think in order to get ahead, they have to appear more masculine, in order to be perceived as a leader and be taken seriously….
EL: But we learned – and I hope this is the lesson we women really commit to memory – we learned that it doesn’t work to try be someone other than who you really are. And we watched Obama not try to be more and more a white guy when he saw people freaking out about the pastor, instead he educated us. Hillary’s gift to us, I think, was that once and for all we learned that women are not going to effect change in the world by acting like white dudes [laughs] – it’s like, over!
This is where spirituality meets up with activism. The part of me that is both a spiritual seeker and a social activist meet in this understanding of enlightened power coming from a deep, genuine well within each person. To be spiritual is to be genuine in everything you say and do, come what may. That’s the spiritual warrior – like I’m going to be in the truth of the moment. Without a spiritual connection, the social activist often tries to bend herself around the times, and the politics. And I think we really got a glimpse of how those two meet up in Barack Obama. I do not want to put him on a pedestal – I am sure we will find lots of problems with him. But his capacity to just be himself was what I found missing in Hillary. I so desperately wanted her to be a feminist leader. In an unafraid, unembarrassed way. Even if she had been for the Iraq war – I’m not saying to be a feminist you have to have a specific political agenda. But you have to not be afraid to be a woman, and speak from your heart.
MS: What do you think about the relevance of politics today? Part of Obama’s message that seems to be so compelling to people is: you can help envision this world and be a part of the change – the “Yes, we can.” Do you think that we’re experiencing a shift from a kind of hierarchal system run by a ruling elite to a world where the masses are rising and starting to exert more power?
EL: I don’t know if I would use the words “the masses are rising” – I think it’s more hopeful than that. “The masses rising”—that line makes me think of revolutions and especially failed revolutions, because if masses arise out of unconscious reactivity we eventually end up in the same place before the uprising. I hope we have learned throughout centuries of revolution and reaction that it’s really a shift in consciousness that we need. And I think there is a shift in consciousness among our human species. I think the human species is evolving, spiritually. I just happen to believe that – I think we always have been and always will. And consciousness itself evolves. Not just human consciousness – whatever is going on in the universe is an evolving story. And so I don’t only see it as human evolution – you know, there are other planets where there are other life forms right now evolving. This kind of bigger picture is important to contemplate when you talk about consciousness evolving. We are just one small part of it.
There are signs of hopeful evolution. One of those signs is how we are becoming more and more a one-world community, through technology and populations moving and merging. Another sign can be found in business as well as in politics. Read any of the top-selling business books, all of them talk about moving away from a top down manner of leading to a more inclusive one. It’s not happening over night, but if you read the winds of change in most of the democracies in the world – sadly, it has not been evident in this administration –we are moving toward shared levels of power. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t always going to be structures of hierarchy – having run a business myself, I know that the point isn’t to become a total consensus-driven organization. You would never get anything done. But empowering people across hierarchies. And really valuing every person. It’s changing – it definitely is changing.
MS: I know you have always been an advocate of environmental issues. Do you think people are also realizing how global warming and the overall degradation of our environment are also symbolic of humanity’s state of consciousness? Do you think there is a growing awareness of our interdependence with the planet and the self-destructiveness of our behavior?
EL: Yes, I do! And that’s why Eckhart Tolle said in his book, “evolve or die” - we really are reaching a point where our human ignorance is showing up in a radical way. And we humans tend to learn from what I call “The Phoenix Process” – we tend to make huge mistakes in our lives – and those are the wake-up calls. And as a group we’ve made a huge mistake, and it’s been building forever since the first cavemen sat around a fire [laughs] – we’ve been contributing to global warming. And we just have more humans now and stronger fires. And we will either awaken like the Phoenix did from the fire into a more conscious community – less greedy, more long term view – or we won’t. And then that will be the end of that story. And consciousness will find homes on other planets and other realms of being.
MS: Do you think that, in addition, to the shifting of consciousness you were talking about, there is also rising of the feminine occurring - in women primarily, but also in men – is that going to be an inevitable shift?
EL: Yes, I do. Well, two things are happening simultaneously. I think women are being called to lead us toward evolution – the evolution of consciousness. I think it is a natural role for women to assume now. And at the same time, I think as women and men become more conscious, the terms “woman/man” begin to lose meaning. So, yes, women have a special calling right now, and yes, inevitably if we make it through this era, I don’t think it will be as meaningful to be a woman or a man. I think the gender story will become less fraught with hard edges – and not that we’ll have androgyny, but that men and women will move more fluidly into each other’s domains.
MS: Running a site called Feminist.com, I am always interested in what people’s individual definitions of feminism are. What is a definition of feminism you can sign on to?
EL: I’d love to be able to answer that really quickly, because then we wouldn’t even have to have a Women’s Institute [laughs]. But I think that at our core, women, at this phase of human evolution, we have a set of values that we act from that are different from men’s. And whether it’s nature or nurture that makes it so, it doesn’t even matter. You know, the whole question of yeah, but if men and women were equal, everybody would have the same values – it doesn’t matter. Because at this point in time, many women feel compelled to care for the children, feel empathetically into another person’s reality, more so than many men who often are on more of a straight-shooting path towards achievement come what may.
Of course there are people who disprove this in their beings immediately, you know, men who are much more like what I just described as women, and vice versa. But I do think in general, women have a value system. And it’s that value system that I think is feminism. Not “men are bad, women are good, let’s get women empowered” – it’s let’s get this value system, which is about the capacity to feel and empathize with life, and therefore to protect it. And women being the carriers of that right now, in our evolution as a species, and we desperately need that right now. There’s no more lands to explore, there’s no more countries to dominate – war doesn’t even work anymore. Let’s get a value system in there that now takes care of what we’ve created.
MS: It seems like part of the work of feminism is about helping women know and be able to trust their instincts, value themselves, not be distracted by what society tries to impose on them, expectations of others, or how they look…It’s not as easy as it sounds, to awaken that sense of power in women, when oftentimes they don’t even know who they are or that they have that inner power.
EL: Exactly. And it is a catch 22 that we saw Hillary go through. This fear that if I come from that value system, I won’t get ahead, because that language isn’t spoken or understood or given validity in the halls of power. And so, the real work of feminism is to empower a woman and to give her language to express a new value system for the world. The new feminism must create both the process by which we generate influence and the influence itself– so that the process is the same as what the goal is. We just witnessed Hillary trying to achieve a goal using the old process, and it failed.
MS: It also seems like it is becoming increasingly important to nurture these qualities in men and boys – that is also such a big shift that needs to happen – as Jane Fonda said in my interview with her, helping connect boys and men with their hearts.
EL: Totally. And that is some of the most important work.
MS: This next conference that the Women’s Institute is doing in September is called Women & Courage. Why this conference theme now? What is it about cultivating women’s courage that feels so relevant given the times we live in?
(Note: The Women & Courage conference took place on September 12-14, 2008. Read Elizabeth Lesser's keynote speech from the conference: The Birth of a New Human Story)
EL: Well, I think it’s exactly what we need now. If it’s not as easy as we thought it was, for women to speak our truth, to even know our truth, then the missing ingredient is some sort of inner courage. To first of all, believe in the validity of who we are. And then to speak from it. It takes inner courage. As a leader in a large organization, I’ve often been the only woman working with powerful men, especially when I was younger. It really honed in me a courage – to go out on a limb and demand to be heard in the only way that I really knew how to speak—from my female voice, that “different voice” that Carol Gilligan so presciently described many years ago in her groundbreaking book. Because if we try to speak in a voice that isn’t ours, we lose our power. And we saw that happen with Hillary.
And sometimes to speak as a woman is to cry, and to speak from our emotional, intuitive knowing, as opposed to graphs and charts and vertical lines. And that’s scary – that’s scary to do. And the fallout from it can be brutal. And then it’s scary to go on. And I’m interested in helping women become courageous in being exactly who they are. Because the only way to change anything is to do it from your genuine self.
MS: People often associate courage with taking certain forms of action, but this seems to be more about inner courage.
EL: Cultivating an inner courage to speak your truth. And out of it action comes. And I’m interested in action—not just inner courage—but action without inner grounding doesn’t really get the kind of transformative change we are talking about.
MS: You used this term once in one of your speeches and now I really like this term. What is “mamisma”?
EL: I heard the term “mamisma” last year – now I am forgetting the woman who said it – Rubin - is that her name? [editor’s note: her name is Harriet Rubin] When describing Speaker of the House Pelosi, how she was speaking from that place which is kind of like a strong mother. Like when your mom says like, “put that down!” you know that is coming from a place of both love and strength. And at this critical stage in human history we need both action and caring. And that is what mothers do—they act with love, at least good mothers do! They have a spirit of strong, fierce, protective energy – the way a mother would put her life on the line for her children – we need to put our life on the line for each other now. But not in a violent manner. We need to act on behalf of this entire species on Earth. And women have that instinct. That’s mamisma.
MS: How would you describe what’s going to happen at the Women & Courage conference?
EL: There will be strong “Mamisma” type women speaking, and coming to listen. And we gain strength from each other – from each other’s stories. This is another beautiful quality that women have, which is we like to get together and gab. It’s time to elevate that aspect of being a woman. Our capacity to communicate has been denigrated! You know, like “oh, women gossip,” “women talk too much,” – well, we’re going to talk a lot at the conference, because when women hear each other’s stories, told from the heart, it gives us great inspiration to keep on going. So there will be a lot of talking and sharing, and relating of stories of both grief and hope.
MS: It looks like a really interesting mix of women, and as I’ve been looking at possibly interviewing some of them, such as Isabelle Allende and Loung Ung – it’s interesting to see the different ways that their stories embody courage.
EL: Yeah, it is inspiring to listen to someone like Loung Ung, who survived the killing fields in Cambodia and saw family members murdered – and she has the spirit of a survivor. She did not become bitter – she became devoted to helping people live. And that’s what courage, women and courage is about.
MS: There is also the type of courage one draws from when going through a personal crisis, as Isabelle Allende did when faced with her daughter’s illness and subsequent death which she detailed in her powerful memoir “Paula.” As I have mentioned to you before, your book Broken Open had a real impact on me, and I have bought that book for several friends when a crisis hit their lives. How would you describe the essence or message of your book Broken Open, in terms of one’s mindset or approach when a crisis strikes?
EL: Well, the title is “broken open” and I took that because I became aware in my own life when going through difficult times, and in particular a divorce years ago when my first marriage broke up, that you really had a choice in times of crisis, to break down, and be broken, or to break open, which means to let the shock and grief of a hard time open your heart. A door opens and you have a powerful moment in time to see how you helped create the situation you are in and to deeply learn from the experience instead of blaming, or feeling like a victim. Even if your difficult time comes at you out of the blue--like cancer—even those times, opens your heart to the magic and power of life, and gives you this inner commitment to live every moment. So the people I know who have been broken open through illness, even if they had a terminal illness and died from it, lived the years left to them with much more aliveness than most people get who stumble and kvetch through a long life. Because life actually is this mystery and gift. And every moment of it can be full of real radical joy and wakefulness. And for some reason in our most difficult times, we have the best chance to wake up. Many people will tell you that their divorce or illness or loss of job was the wake up call. But many people don’t wake up. They fight against a difficult time, shut the window and become more bitter. Fortunately or unfortunately, however you see it, we are served up those opportunities over and over in our life. So if you’ve shut the window, don’t worry, another hard time is going to come around the corner – to give you that chance all over again.
MS: I look at how so many people these days are on anti-depressants or anti-anxiety pills or taking sleeping pills to fall asleep – we seem to have lost touch with our natural coping skills. Sometimes those medications are certainly necessary, but a lot is also related to your thoughts and general mindset towards how you deal with stress and what happens in your life.
EL: Now, certainly there are people for whom anti-depression medication has allowed them to use difficulty to wake up, and I don’t deny that at all, but as usual with us human beings, we’ve overdone it. We are self-medicating ourselves away from the great awakening moments, and losing our coping skills, as you say, and losing wake-up calls.
I like to use the example of 9/11, how that was a huge “broken open” opportunity that we squandered. It was a chance for America to have a “Phoenix Process” which is the myth of the bird who felt the winds of change coming and deliberately welcomed them, built a fire, a pyre for himself, sat in it – burned to death, and through that burning, a new phoenix arose. We had that opportunity with 9/11. The plane crashed into our symbol of America – and there was a huge lesson in there – the world, the rest of the world was crashing into America’s capitalist emblem, the World Trade Center. And there was a big message there for us – are we going to change to meet the times? Are we going to heed the messages that came with those planes? Messages about who we are as a culture, changes we may need to make? But instead of really sitting in the fire of what happened on that day in September, and stewing in it, and having a soul-searching time as a culture, we cleaned it up really fast – look how fast we cleaned that up – way faster than Katrina. I mean we cleaned that thing right up! And we went on the attack. And we went to war. And that’s the opposite of what “broken open” means. You sit in those difficult times long enough for the messages to emerge from the ashes, and to say this is how we must change. Life’s always changing. We always are being called to adapt.
MS: It’s hard because we are oftentimes so entrenched in just the busyness of present day life – our lives are so busy. On the one hand we have all this increased awareness of spirituality and mindfulness, but at the same time we are inundated by so much outside stimulation - the e-mails, the cell phones, the texting, the Internet and all the varied forms media – where we sometimes don’t have any time to not have inputs. Is that a concern? Because I am aware of it even for myself – sometimes you have to really make a point of carving time out to have those reflective moments, otherwise they’re so easily missed.
EL: Absolutely. I think everyone today, if you asked them “what’s the biggest problem in your life?” They’d say, “I just don’t have time for anything!” And at our fingertips, if it isn’t e-mail, it’s our Blackberry, and it’s our Ipods and telephones – we never stop. We never take those moments to stop the stimulus to find out “what’s going on in there? What’s really happening?” And then things start to build up. And then we are almost afraid to slow down. Because, uh, oh – I have built up so much stuff in there, I am afraid I would cry forever, or have to go to sleep for weeks, or I would want to make some changes, and it is all just so overwhelming that we just keep going and going and going. It’s a problem. It creates all kinds of illnesses of the physical and mental kind.
MS: What kind of things do you do to stay centered and remain balanced in your own life?
EL: I’m very lucky that I live in nature. I feel really blessed that I get to be in the wildness of nature because it reminds me of the wild parts of my mind and heart, and I do take time to just be alone in nature. I am grateful that I learned to meditate and do other spiritual practices starting at the age of nineteen because I can at will calm the voices in my head. And that comes from having a practice and I highly recommend it. I recommend learning how to come into the presence of stillness and vastness. Learn any form of meditation. Spend twenty minutes every day if possible, in meditation, listening to the crazy monkey mind inside you, and learning how to still the thoughts and discover that big, deep soulful part of yourself. If you do that, it actually becomes something that you can call up at will in a hard meeting, on a crowded subway, in a difficult conversation – you can return to that still, wise voice within. Those are things I do, nature and practice.
MS: Women often have a hard relationship with aging. How do you feel about getting older?
EL: Well, mixed. [laughs] You know, I think the main problem people have getting older, whether they know it or not, is that you’re closer to dying. And we may fixate on not wanting to look a certain way, but it really is just the clock ticking, that it means, “Oh, I am not immortal!” Instead of fixating on the physical aspects of aging, it’s good to contemplate the deeper source of our anxiety. That can be liberating. That being said, I don’t enjoy the diminishing agility of the body! I’m 56, and I had knee surgery last year and I no longer can go do three yoga classes and run. You know, it’s not as much fun, physically. But emotionally, it’s way more fun. I am so much happier and contented and less agitated– I’m just calmer. So it’s like everything in this human existence, it’s a trade off – it’s like you trade the virility of the body for the agility of the spirit. That’s a good line. I have to remember that! [laughs]
MS: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything right now?
EL: I am writing a book - a novel - and I am working at Omega, both.
MS: How would you describe your life philosophy? What is the meaning of life to you?
EL: The meaning of life? [laughs] It’s like the Monty Python movie. “The meaning of life.” The meaning of life. The meaning of life is life! What does that even mean: “the meaning of life”? I’m not kidding - what do you mean when you ask that question – like how do we live a meaningful life?
MS: I think I mean, what do you think is the purpose to our existence here on planet Earth? How should we look at it? I think about your book The Seeker’s Guide – is it this journey of seeking, coming more and more into a sense of who we are and our understanding and place in the universe?
EL: I think that life is a friggin’ magic carpet ride – it’s amazing. Everything about is mysterious and beautiful and touching and tragic and lovely and mystical. And we waste so much time – almost every minute – on swimming against the river. Life is about change, it never stops, it’s moving and it’s moving this human body inexorably towards its demise. And we, as these temporary forms of human beingness, spend most of our time swimming as hard as we can against that river. If we would turn on our back and float on this river, and look up at the sky and around at the banks – it’s so beautiful! And we don’t have to fight it and fight each other. There’s enough for everybody, and yet we’re greedy and scared. So to me the purpose of life is to enjoy it! It’s to enjoy the gift, and to make sure that other people have an opportunity to enjoy the gift.
MS: Are you hopeful that humanity can make this evolutionary shift that we have been talking about in order to change the self-destructive course we have been going on?
EL: I don’t spend much time thinking about that. I don’t think it matters. If we do, we do, if we don’t, we don’t. And consciousness is eternal and ever-creative and forming new expressions in multitudes of universes and the human life on this planet is just one. I love this life, because I am a human being and it sure would be nice, I think, to preserve it. But I don’t even know if that’s true, because God’s mind is huge, and I don’t really know what he’s thinking. What she’s thinking. It’s thinking. I can only do what I do with a spirit of humor, and faith and give the controls over to something else.
MS: What is your own personal understanding or definition of God?
EL: I really don’t know. It’s a big, fat mystery. But it is. My understanding of God is an experience. God is. That's all I know. In the Biblical tradition, it would be expressed as, "Be still and know that I am God.” God is the “I am” energy. Something huge is at play here--cosmic creativity, consciousness, God, whatever you want to call it. I do believe that it’s a guided ride. We’re on a guided tour of the universe. [laughs] And God or Great Spirit or “I am” is guiding the tour. But I have no proof.
MS: What is your prayer or vision for the children of the future? What would you like to see in the world?
EL: That the abundant Earth would be allowed to give to all of its creatures. And it would be clean and provide peaceful abiding for all creatures.
Portions of this interview appeared at The Huffington Post and Body+Soul Magazine's Whole Living website . You can also read Body+Soul's write-up of Omega's Women & Courage conference: How I Found Courage in a Single Weekend.
The Spiritual Adventure: An Ongoing Series by Elizabeth Lesser
Read Elizabeth Lesser's keynote address at Omega Institute's 2011 Women & Power Retreat: Leading from the Inside Out
Read Elizabeth Lesser's keynote speech from the Women & Courage conference: The Birth of a New Human Story
Elizabeth Lesser's keynote speech from the 2009 Women & Power Conference: Putting the Words Women and Power Together
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Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.
Marianne's new book based on her
interviews, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women
Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice came out in November 2010. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes. For more information, visit www.marianneschnall.com and www.daringtobeourselves.com.