Elizabeth Lesser is cofounder of Omega Institute, the leading educational center for holistic health, psychology, arts, and spirituality. Lesser has studied with renowned teachers like the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ram Dass, and many others who have come to Omega. In the 1970s, she lived in a spiritual community and worked as a midwife. The mother of three and author of two books (her first was "The Seeker's Guide"), Lesser teaches workshops on spiritual transformation. She recently spoke to Beliefnet about her new book "Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow."

We know what being broken means, but what does it mean to be "broken open"?

The phrase "broken" is a good one to start from. When the stresses of life build up to a certain point, whether it's the loss of someone you love or the loss of a job or a divorce, we all would understand when you say, "That really broke me down," meaning it was a change that ended in making us a little more cynical or scared or unable to cope. But there is this other possibility that after the breaking, we can open up more into who are supposed to be, in the way that a flower breaks out of the confines of a bud into its full blossoming.

It's kind of the end of life as we know it.of certain dreams or expectations. It's hard to think of something good growing out of something so bad.

Yes, the cracking of our shell feels like a pain we can't bear, so we shut down to that pain. But in doing so, we shut down to the next stage of our life. And over a lifetime we can accumulate these strong scars over the times we've felt broken, and the ability to hear the messages that come in our difficult times becomes less and less.

What happened in your personal life that made you want to put this all together and teach it to others?

Well, the first motivation was the times in my own life when a loss or a change overwhelmed me so much that it caused me to re-evaluate who I was, what I wanted, where my life was going. And the big one for me was my divorce. My self-image as a good mother, a good wife, a good person was really shattered when my marriage crumbled. I never thought it would happen to me, no one in my family had ever gone through it. It made me feel like there was something profoundly wrong about me, and it sent me spiraling down into a place in which I started to feel I was losing everything. Through the grace of having around me the tools that could help me, I used it as the swinging door between who I was before and who I was after. I was really a profoundly different person.

Since then, [as I teach] about growth and transformation, I have heard so many people say, "Before I had cancer I didn't know who I was. I didn't know what life was about. I was sleepwalking." Or "Before I got kicked out of my job I was just kind of going through the paces, or I thought I was X and now I know I'm Y." If you actually take the challenge and use the difficult times to grow, you find that part in yourself that is whole already-and that can survive any difficulty and actually survives death. You find your eternal soul. All the great spiritual masters reveal this in their lives, culminating in the story of Christ. We find ourselves through the dark night of the soul.

You've had the advantage at Omega of studying with many of the major spiritual figures of our time and with teachers of every faith. Who inspired you most in getting through the dark night of the soul?

My first teacher and my enduring teacher was the Sufi master Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, who died a few weeks ago. And the teaching of Sufism is the teaching of the broken heart. Actually the symbol of the Sufi path is a heart with wings.

Is that a visual symbol we can see, or is it spoken about in poetry?

No, you can see it everywhere. You can find the heart with wings if you wanted to look it up on the website of the Sufi order of North America. And there is a beautiful line from Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan who is my teacher's father--who brought the Sufi teachings to the West. He says, "Out of the shell of the broken heart arises the newborn soul." Rumi and all the great Sufi saints and masters teach that a broken heart is an open heart. If we could fit in the full feeling function of the heart and not close down the pain, then we can stay open also to the joy. That's really the Sufi teaching.

My other main teacher whom I've met and loved and gained wisdom through at Omega is the Jungian teacher Marion Woodman. To me, Jungian psychology is a holy path, it's a spiritual path. I actually think psychotherapy is a new spiritual tradition. I don't like to separate psychological work and spiritual work. I think they're the same thing. The Sufis talk about polishing the glass of the lantern so that your inner flame can shine through. And that spiritual work is not adding anything to you, it's polishing the lantern, the soot and the residue off the lantern glass so that the light that's already in you shines through. So spiritual work like breath and meditation and mantra, it's all polishing-but so is psychology. The residue left by the wounds of childhood, the influence of culture, everything that psychotherapy helps us's just another form of removing the dross so that the light can shine through.
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